In Spite of the Gods – The Rise of Modern India, By Edward Luce

One line review: Conveniently Clueless. Sadly Shallow.

Long review: Written by an editor with the Financial Times (Edward Luce was the newspaper’s South Asia bureau chief between 2001 and 2006, based out of New Delhi), the book starts off earnestly enough, but falls rapidly into a morass of political biases, cheap shots, shallow-to-nonexistent analysis, ending as another example of those books that people aspire to write, have the connections to do so, yet should not have.

The book starts out well, and offers a smattering of statistics that intrigue, as well as some background into India’s history and its founding fathers so to say, including Nehru, Ambedkar, and Gandhi.

Notably absent is any mention of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel for almost 200 pages and that too in passing: “… forced Vallabhbhai Patel, Nehru’s right-wing Home Minister…” (Page 195)- The mention more to damn the man by association with the ‘right-wing’ pejoration. Ed Luce makes liberal use of such sly put-downs in the book without batting an eye lid or taking the time to define them as he understands these words.

Not that the book is completely without merit. Where the book is most interesting is when he lists statistics to support his argument that India needs to modernize its cities and get beyond its romantic fixation with villages. To that point he quotes Ambedkar (architect of India’s constitution and a champion of Dalits):

“The love of the intellectual Indian for the village community is pathetic. What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness, and communalism?”

The chapter (“The Burra Sahibs”) on the Indian babudom (bureaucracy) begins with this tellingly relevant quote from Kautilya’s Arthashastra (a 2000 year old masterpiece on economics and administration):

Just as it is impossible to know when a fish swimming in water is drinking water, so it is impossible to find out when a government servant is stealing money.

He recounts an incident that activist Nikhil Dey shared on the hoops that the govt servants will go through to hide their venality:

The government officials took us to a check dam that we knew had been registered as four different dams on their spending accounts. Then they took us to the same check dam three more times by three different routes hoping we wouldn’t notice it was the same one.

The destructive hand of the government can be seen in the way India’s citizenry has abdicated local civic tasks to the government, which in turn was never interested in either growth of development.

The ancient habit of harvesting rainwater as it falls and feeding it through hundreds of channels into tanks has also disappeared. The tanks and their feeder channels were maintained by a family in the village, whose specific task was hereditary. But after independence the government said it would take charge of all irrigation to bring development to the people.

So far so good. The book is on its way to deserving 4 or 5 stars. But like books written with this template, the beginning is only meant to lure the reader – the sting is in the tail. In this case, the poison in the book starts fairly early enough.

The book quickly degenerates into biased bloviating for the next several chapters. It is a compilation of random interviews interspersed with condescending commentary. Spicy and vacuous sartorial details about Laloo Prasad Yadav, Amar Singh, Narendra Modi, Chandrababu Naidu, and Arun Gawli are meant to entertain, titillate, but these never inform, and are presented more as trophies of the author’s ability to land these interviews.

With these introductory volleys, the author lets go any pretence of integrity or intellect, and wades into the slime that was meant to be the book to begin with. The chapters on the caste system and the BJP are where Luce reveals his true agenda. The repeated use of the word ‘pogrom’ to describe the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat is not only meant to be deliberately provocative, apart from being grotesquely incorrect, but also, ultimately, are an unforgivable insult to the real victims of actual pogroms like the Holocaust in Germany or the one in Bangladesh in 1970 and 1971. Yet the loose use of invective is par for the course in this book. Facts or figures can’t stand against the might of a bilious pen. Logic is to be loathed.

India’s nuclear tests in 1998 are airily dismissed as an ultra-nationalistic exercise by an ultra-right-wing BJP, and the reaction of the average Indian as the ill-informed reaction of the unwashed masses.

When writing about Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Luce displays his talent of trivializing things he does not like or agree with: “It looked as if Jesus were shooting a shampoo commercial.” Yes, very droll. We are sure it is the kind of prose that wins third prize at high-school essay competitions. As an aside, why is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar deserving of this withering attention from Luce? Evidently because of Sri Sri’s association with the RSS and because of his views that a temple should be built at the Ayodhya site (let’s not even get into that mess). Along the same lines, Romila Thapar – renowned marxist historiographer and sarcastically referred to as an “eminent historian” by many – is venerated as one of India’s “most respected historians“. And Fox News is fair and balanced.

This biting wit, this withering satire, this forked tongue magically disappears – almost like the author stood in front of Dumbledore and remembered the right divination charm – when it is time to talk about Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born wife of the late Rajiv Gandhi, and President of the Congress Party. For Mrs. Sonia Gandhi are reserved words that a star-struck teenager would use for her rock star idol. Think screaming girls at a Justin Beiber concert.

I humbly present this sampling of the author’s cute adoration for Mrs. Sonia Gandhi:

 “After 1991 she always looked glum and funereal.” (page 185) – err, not really. She had always been described as “grumpy” by most people who knew her. No change there really after 1991. This is not to belittle the terrible tragedies that have visited Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, but her ex-ante and post-fact demeanor never changed.

It would be hard to doubt her sincerity.” (Page 206) – how so? And sincerity for what? Note that Mrs. Sonia Gandhi ascended the leadership of the Congress Party in 1998 only after its then president, Sitaram Kesri, was locked up in a loo by her supporters, and that Mrs. Sonia Gandhi has never uttered a word condemning that incident. At the very least, Mr. Luce needed to be more specific as to the subtleties of how and where Mrs. Sonia Gandhi exercises her sincerity.

Her eyes were brimming with tears. She was not sobbing, but there was intense sadness in her eyes.” (page 209) This is surreal. No, no – not because of the tears, imagined or real. Congress politician Salman Khurshid would use the almost exact words (“cried bitterly”, “became emotional”) several years later to describe Mrs. Sonia Gandhi’s reaction to the killing of terrorists in an encounter known as the Batla House Encounter in September 2008. Fawns of India’s political dynasty seem to speak the same dialect.

I for one would have accepted the author’s lurid prose had it been in a book titled, “Fifty Shades of Bias”. Coming from an international journalist in a work of non-fiction makes this paean doesn’t sound sweet, at all.

Ultimately, what brims over in this book is a form of colonial wistfulness trapped in a time-warp. The author stepped out of the 1940s straight into the twenty-first century – panic-stricken at the unseemly sight of a right-wing rustic party governing, and what used to be crown’s finest jewel, to be reassured only by the sight of a European running the Congress party.

In a closing analysis, Edward Luce’s ‘In Spite of the Gods’ ends up being what can only be described as an unsurprisingly superficial work hashed together by someone looking to cash in on the current obsession of the West about the rise of India.

A book best avoided in its entirety.

Book details:

ISBN-10: 1400079772

ISBN-13: 978-1400079773

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Abhinav Agarwal

Abhinav Agarwal

Son. Husband. Father. IIM-B gold medalist. Analytics product manager. Reading and photography hobbies.