IN SPITE OF THE GODS The Strange Rise of Modern India.
By Edward Luce, Illustrated. 383 pp. Doubleday. $26.

Book Review By BEN MACINTYRE, New York Times ,  February 4, 2007

ImageFor five years, Edward Luce was the Financial Times correspondent in India. “In Spite of the Gods,” is a series of acutely observed vignettes, held together by a single theme, and an overriding question: India will soon become a great power; what kind of great power will it be?

Luce is the best sort of foreign correspondent: amiable, courteous, curious and gently self-mocking. His admiration for India’s economic miracle and its entrepreneurial elite is as genuine as his dismay at the poverty of its villages and the corruption of its politicians. He finds a country steeped in religiosity with a lingering distrust of modernity, but one that is also changing and modernizing at an astonishing rate, not because of its rich spiritual heritage, but “in spite of the gods.”

Luce’s sense of wonder runs through every word of his book. He marvels at the innovation and the chaos, the contradictions and the inequalities, the roaring but lopsided economy that has seen the number of cellphones in India leap from three million to 100 million in just five years, while “almost 300 million Indians can never be sure where their next meal will come from.” This is the India of gleaming billion-dollar information technology industries and wooden plows, where a million engineering graduates are trained every year but almost the same number of malnourished children die annually from contaminated water.

Luce, who is married to an Indian woman, treads carefully, most particularly when visiting the cow product research center at Nagpur. He is taken barefoot to inspect the holy cows in their stalls, past the bottles of cow urine promising to cure everything from cancer to obesity, and the cow-dung anti-dandruff shampoo. “All of these recipes are contained in the holy texts,” he is told. Luce’s amused discomfort — not only because he is standing up to his ankles in bovine effluent — is extreme, but he maintains a politeness that is exquisitely British. When invited to smell the leaves of fruit trees fertilized with the enriched biomass of the sacred cow, he declares: “This seemed very pleasant. And for all the science I know perhaps cow’s urine really can cure cancer.”

Other sacred cows are treated less leniently. India’s “romantic” reverence for the village, he notes, is not often shared by the people who actually live in Indian villages. India’s verbose and status-minded diplomats receive a thorough drubbing, for caring “more about etiquette than they do about substance.”

Luce has no patience for the more extreme Hindu nationalism, which seeks to write other identities out of India’s history and helps to foment the sort of horrific violence that erupted in Gujarat in 2002, when some 2,000 Muslims were slaughtered while the police looked on (or collaborated). For Luce, Hindu fundamentalism is the way backward, yet even his angriest condemnation makes a respectful offering to the gods: “A violent and vengeful philosophy … it also tarnishes by association all that is good and tolerant about Hinduism.”

Meandering across this vast country, Luce meets crooks, heroes, software billionaires and rural saints. One memorable encounter is with Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of the slain Rajiv Gandhi and the woman who led the Congress Party back to power in 2004 before standing aside. When Sonia Gandhi diffidently offers tea, Luce feels as though “Queen Elizabeth was offering to massage my feet.” The awkwardness of this woman, who had greatness thrust upon her (only to thrust it away) is oddly moving. “You know politics does not come easily to me,” she says.

Other, more informal encounters are just as telling. On an overnight train journey, Luce has his ear bent by a delightful 10-year-old Sikh boy with a million questions and no intention of sleeping. Anti-corruption agents he meets describe being taken to the same newly built dam by four different routes, because the builders have claimed the cash for four separate constructions and think the officials won’t notice. He is harangued by the most hard-line Islamist separatist in Kashmir, who has thoughtfully provided a single blanket for the Financial Times, New York Times and Economist correspondents to snuggle under together. “It was my most intimate collaboration to date with journalistic competitors.”

Varied and paradoxical, India resists generalizations, and Luce knows it. Balance is all; indeed, balance out of bedlam may be the key to India’s success. For every example of systemic graft, cruelty and want, there is another of imagination, candor and can-do, like the extraordinary effectiveness with which the state of Tamil Nadu tackled the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.

China looms in the background, and the “triangular dance” between the two rising Asian powers and the United States, Luce predicts, is sure to grow ever more intricate and intimate; in time, perhaps a very short time, “relations between the three big powers will outweigh all other ties.” In contrast to China, India has given greater weight to stability than efficiency, an investment that could pay huge dividends in the long run. China has built its infrastructure at a breathless pace, but India has painfully forged an independent judiciary, a free press and a vibrant pluralist society, institutional advantages that may mean “the Indian tortoise will eventually overtake the Chinese hare.”

Indian diplomats, academics, Hindu nationalists and makers of cow-dung anti-dandruff shampoo will not enjoy this book. Most others, I suspect, will relish even the more stinging appraisals it contains, for what comes through is a whole-souled enthusiasm for the place and its possibilities, an optimism that Indian democracy will always overcome.

India is entering its golden age, but Luce offers a warning: the expectation of success has infected India’s privileged classes with a “premature spirit of triumphalism” that could prove self-defeating, a case of counting chickens before they are eggs. “India is not on an autopilot to greatness,” he remarks, even though “it would take an incompetent pilot to crash the plane.”

Following the tradition of his British predecessors, Luce ends his book with some advice for India: Improve education, strengthen liberal democracy, develop a coherent energy strategy and radically revise the transportation system before the Indian car population swells from the 40 million today to an expected 200 million by 2030 and brings the entire country to a choking standstill.

Such policy prescriptions are well aimed, and certainly well intentioned, but after the subtle interweaving of reportage and commentary that precedes it, this finger-wagging conclusion seems out of place. Luce did a stint as a speech writer for Larry Summers when Summers was United States Treasury secretary, and here, for the only time, it shows. I much preferred Luce the observant journalist to Luce the policy wonk.

A new deity is rising in India, with the “visible cult of wealth” in which “brands are the new religion.” But the French hippie who tells Luce this new religion will be absorbed and adapted in India like all the others is probably right. India has a s
pecial gift for keeping its gods in balance, in spite of modernity.