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In Search of India

By Murali Kamma, Poornima Apte Email By Murali Kamma, Poornima Apte
December 2011
In Search of India

Is India rising or stalling? Racing or crawling? If you want to know where the hype ends and where the story begins, skip the media sound bites and turn to authors like Patrick French and Siddhartha Deb. The devil is in the details—and when it comes to understanding India, the real news is the nuance their books bring to an exploration of a country that’s, in many ways, changing fast. Both French and Deb spoke to Khabar.

By MURALI KAMMA

In recent years, a flood of books have focused on India’s dramatic changes over the last two decades. And the tide hasn’t ebbed even in this decidedly post-rah-rah period. Here’s a list, which doesn’t include slightly earlier works by writers like Mira Kamdar and Shashi Tharoor: India Calling by Anand Giridharadas, India: The Rise of an Asian Giant by Dietmar Rothermund, India Becoming by Akash Kapur, India: The Emerging Giant by Arvind Pangariya, Imagining India by Nandan Nilekani, and India: The Road Ahead by Mark Tully. Oh yes, we also have India: A Portrait by Patrick French, and The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India by Siddhartha Deb. Then there is the other thriving, related category—‘Chindia’—which takes on both the Asian giants.


All this outpouring begs the question: Are we learning anything different when each book rolls off the press, or is it too much of the same thing?

The two authors under consideration here provide an answer. Patrick French is an outsider looking in, although his solid engagement with the Indian subcontinent goes back many years. It resulted in Liberty or Death, a brisk narrative of “India’s journey to independence and division,” and Tibet Tibet. He is also the author of The World Is What It Is, a compelling authorized biography of Nobel laureateV. S. Naipaul. Moreover, since French’s wife is Indian, one could consider him a son-in-law of India.

Novelist Siddhartha Deb, on the other hand, is a seasoned India insider, who—despite his move to the U.S.—maintains strong links to his native land.

The subject may be the same for both writers, but they have different strengths, making their books complementary. A multitude of voices and views animate the accounts, giving them depth. So if you are seeking the complexity of grey rather than the simplicity of black-and-white, here’s the recommendation that applies to both books. Read on.


“Whether it is history or politics or society, [India] is—to me—ceaselessly fascinating; there are so many ways of looking at it.”
—Patrick French


When Patrick French first went to India in 1986, what he found was a “comparatively drab country.” As he adds, “There was this idea that this is the way it was always going to be.” But five years later, just as India was embarking on an ambitious reform program to dismantle its socialist system, we also saw the birth of the IT revolution and the rise of globalization. The nation surged ahead—and the transformation, in less than two decades, has been striking. There’s been breathless hype, it’s true, and bad stumbles, not to mention wildly unven development across India, raising expectations and exacerbating tensions. Nonetheless, one cannot deny that India is rising if not exactly shining. Its growth rate, even in the wake of the recent global slowdown, remains robust—and it is a far cry from the widely derided ‘Hindu’ growth rate of the preliberalization era.

What do we make of these dizzying changes? Enter authors like French (and Deb) to give us some much-needed perspective. Using a combination of academic research, analysis, and shoe-leather reporting, French tackles this new idea of India in three arenas—politics, economics, society. His sections are titled Rashtra, Lakshmi, Samaj. Cutting to the chase, what does French think of the ongoing anticorruption crusade in India?

He can understand the protests against politicians and the disgust middle-class Indians feel over brazen, unending corruption. “Most of the major political parties are controlled by politicians in their 60s and older,” he says. “So if those in their 20s, 30s, and 40s are very frustrated with the way things are going, and assuming they don’t want to join parties on the hard left and right, what do they do? The result is that there’s a lot of randomly expressed anger.”

Yet that doesn’t mean French is impressed with the proposed solution.

“Recently this has been displayed in the form of support for people like Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev,” he continues. “To me, the problem with that kind of protest politics is that it’s hard to see it having a happy ending—because if you have something like a Lokpal Bill, with a lot of power going to another elected representative, then people will be very angry at the Lokpal Committee, saying they didn’t do a good job. So you need a much more fundamental reform. I cannot see the introduction of the Lokpal Bill actually resolving any fundamental problem.”

A COMPOSITE PORTRAIT


Though published here in 2011, India: A Portrait (Knopf) was actually a decade in the making. “From 2000 onwards, India was changing really fast,” French notes. “I was in Tamil Nadu and Kerala and Karnataka. There was such a kind of business dynamism and also social transformation that people were able to do things in their lives in terms of the way they lived, whom they married, or the jobs they did—which was quite different from what their parents were doing. I wanted to see if I could capture that in a book.”

French does a masterly job of compressing huge chunks of material, often by choosing juicy bits and quotes, to give us an entertaining overview of India’s post-independence journey. That can make it a little scattershot, even idiosyncratic. But the best way to approach the book is to see it as a series of snapshots, from various angles, by a knowledgeable, courtly, and perceptive observer who is also a friend of India. “Unlike many other foreign authors in recent years, French does not so much try to explain India as to merely understand it,” writes critic Ashok Malik in India-based Biblio. “That’s a subtle difference, but it makes for a book with fewer affectations and much to recommend for itself.”

“And I call it a portrait,” points out French, “because I want to say, well, here’s somebody like [Chik shampoo entrepreneur] Ranganathan who has made an incredible success of his business—and yet, not far down the road you have people like [laborer] Venkatesh who was chained to his quarry. That’s the nature of India, where you’ll have those things happening simultaneously.” The profiles of these two men, based on in-depth reporting, show how India is flourishing in the 21st century even as it’s stuck in the 19th. So, is the much-touted progress restricted to certain pockets of the country?

“Well, it’s not happening evenly,” responds French. “If you look at the data on incomes or even food consumption in different parts of the country, it does vary quite a lot. And that factors into the birth rates. Essentially, the birth rates in the more prosperous areas are much lower.” And the lower birth rates, in turn, promote more prosperity. “If India contains 1.2 billion people, it contains one-sixth of humanity, then why would you expect it to be consistent?” French adds. “There are going to be all sorts of complications and contradictions, and it would be wrong to try to draw too many conclusions.”

To some observers, French’s enthusiasm for economic liberalization seems excessive, as if he is just a superficial cheerleader. But his book shows that he is conscious of India’s growing inequities. Now he also says that indifference to the plight of those left behind is nothing new. “That’s always been present in India society. If you go back hundreds of years, you always find that people are more interested in their own community or their own extended family than they are in the wider community. What you’re seeing now is simply a manifestation of that in a more extreme way. If you go back to the ’60s and ’70s, few people were very rich and the disparity didn’t seem to be so great.”

Yet it’s true that French sounds upbeat, almost like a booster, when compared to some Indian writers. It would be revealing, for instance, to read The Beautiful and the Damned after India: A Portrait. Deb paints a bleaker portrait. And in this context, it’s also worth mentioning another Indian, Pankaj Mishra, who took French to task in a scathing book review that appeared in Outlook magazine. But French, dismissing it as “an ideological cry of pain” rather than a review, wrote a vigorous rebuttal.

RESPONDING TO CRITICS


French remains unimpressed by criticisms of his work. “The reason why communists were kicked out after more than 30 years is because they weren’t doing their job, they weren’t delivering, they had lost control of the urban poor, etc.,” he says. “My feeling is that a lot of left and hard left ideas have been undercut by economic liberalization, because although economic liberalization has created a lot of economic disparities, it has fundamentally raised the living standards of hundreds of millions of people—and is therefore popular. It has left the traditional communist and left-wing parties a little unclear about how to deal with it. Are they going to embrace economic liberalization, or oppose it?”

It’s not just “leftists” who attract Patrick French’s withering gaze. He doesn’t shy away from taking on eminent “secularists” like Amartya Sen, who, in his opinion, downplay the importance of India’s religious—especially Hindu—identity. Their motives are good, French says, because “they want India to be a secular society and keep contact between communities.” But describing their stance as “a well-meaning inaccuracy,” he says, “People like Amartya Sen and others essentially pretend that Hinduism is not significant in explaining how Indian society works. In reality, it’s hugely significant in explaining how most people lead their lives.”

Isn’t stressing one’s religious identity in a secular society provocative? Many secular liberals are seen, in the Hindu right’s contemptuous definition, as “pseudosecularists.”

French doesn’t see it as a cause for concern. It’s important to separate ordinary believers from fanatics, he points out. “I find it quite hard to generalize about the Hindu way. People’s ideas are quite malleable over an extended period of time, and I think there’s been a significant shift in the nearly 70 years since independence. The idea of having a secular state, the idea that religion should not drive politics is something that’s already quite widely accepted, even by some people who would be accused of being representative of the Hindu right.”

What about Nehru’s point, which he made late in his life when the writer Andre Malraux asked him what his most difficult task had been as India’s first prime minister. As French quotes in his book, Nehru responded, “Creating a secular state in a religious country.”

“My feeling is that secularism is already deeply embedded in the fabric of Indian society,” French reiterates. “What Nehru was talking about was not only about secularism. It was also about how you bring in democracy, and democratic ways of thinking, in a country that has never had that. And what they were trying to do in the 1950s was incredibly ambitious. No large country had previously suddenly become democratic in that way. Many pessimists at the time were saying that it would be a disaster, that it should be abandoned, that it would result in a dictatorship. But essentially, with various problems along the way, [India] succeeded.”

INDIA FAMILY INC.

But it’s not as if Indian democracy is free of danger. Far from it. French found, to give an example, that nepotism was becoming deeply entrenched in Indian politics. Indian dynasties are not new, of course. There are several examples in business and films, not just politics. Talent may count, but pedigree often takes precedence. As French notes in his book, even a Bollywood film like Luck by Chance, in which young actors seek to succeed through meritocracy rather than family connections, is ironic. Zoya Akhtar, the movie’s director, and co-stars Konkona Sen Sharma and Farhan Akhtar, who is Zoya’s sister, have filmi parents who are well known in India.

Nowhere is this ‘India Family Inc.’ more prevalent than in politics. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is only the most prominent example. French decided to research the phenomenon with a little help from an Indian reporter and a quant analyst who crunched the numbers. He found that 28.6 percent of the 545 members in the 15th Lok Sabha (Lower House) had a hereditary connection. The Congress Party had the highest proportion of MPs (37.5 percent) through a family connection. If these numbers don’t seem too impressive, here’s another finding: When it came to younger MPs (under age 30), every member had in effect inherited a seat. This was so astonishing that French dubbed them HMPs (Hereditary Members of Parliament). Over 66 percent of the 66 MPs under age 40 were found to be HMPs. Moreover, being relatively young, many HMPs were expected to serve for a long time.

What accounts for this gradual transformation of the Lok Sabha into, as French puts it, the Vansh Sabha (House of Dynasty)?

“I think partly it comes from politics being a family business, and partly from the Congress Party in particular putting such an emphasis on the Nehru-Gandhi family,” he says. “And that goes down to the lower levels and younger generations of the party. It’s getting a lot worse than it was before. So it’s almost as if the mechanism for somebody to rise purely on talent or merit, which was there even 20 or 30 years ago, has been taken away. I think there is at the moment a very strong backlash against that—and probably the political parties will have to do something.”

Despite French’s long association with India, he is quite aware of his outsider status. He knows that some become skeptical when a firang writes about India. French is unfazed. His ancestors belonged to Ireland and they had no connection to the British Raj. Nostalgia has nothing to do with it. French was, in fact, the first from his family to visit India. He has a simple explanation for the attraction. “Perhaps the best answer, as [historian] Ramachandra Guha once said, is that India is the most interesting country in the world—and I think that’s true. Whether it’s history or politics or society, it is—to me—ceaselessly fascinating; there are so many ways of looking at it.” French keeps his engagement with India alive, even when he is not there, through a vibrant website (www.theindiasite.com). He launched it with the intention of “dishing up Indian news and nonaligned views.”

CASTE AND GENETICS

Of the many discoveries French made on his Indian journey, one of the most intriguing was his trip to the secretive IGIB. The work done at this Institute of Genomics & Integrative Biology is so sensitive that few people even know of its existence. French was able to get in and talk to some people. What did he find out about IGIB’s research on genetics?

“To summarize, it shows that caste has not been in Indian society long enough for it to be expressed genetically,” French responds. “And I think what that means is if you go back to earlier millennia, India [and the surrounding region] was a huge ethnic melting pot, and the practice of marriage or reproduction within a specific endogenous caste is comparatively recent.”

That caste has such shallow roots, historically speaking, may surprise a lot of people.

“If you do a multifunctional DNA test on a community, you’ll not be able to tell somebody’s caste from that test, whereas you’ll be able to tell things about their, say, language group,” continues French. “To put it another way, a Punjabi Brahmin will have much more in common genetically with a Punjabi Dalit than they will with a Maharashtrian Brahmin or a Tamil Brahmin. So essentially, the correlation between caste and community—which people often feel very strongly and very passionately—is not something that goes back very far in Indian history.”

India’s great demographic shift is no secret. In contrast to the ageing populations in several countries, what we are seeing there is the rise of Young India. The latest census figures show that over half of India’s population is below the age of 25, and when it comes to those under 35, that figure jumps to around 65 percent. “I did a lot of interviews with people who’re in their late teen to their twenties,” says French. “I think there is much greater confidence and ambition [among them], but with much higher expectations. I also think they tend to be more open-minded, more international in how they look at things. It’s quite widespread. And I’m not talking about people who left India.”

While Young India holds promise, what about present-day India Inc.? Lately its image has been bruised, in the wake of corruption scandals, dysfunctional governance, and the general slowdown. Then there are “inequalities and certain fiscal problems,” as French points out, not to mention factors like India’s poor infrastructure, low literacy rate, and environmental degradation. “Five or ten years ago, there were stories of India Shining,” French says. “That was India’s story. And what you’re seeing now, particularly in 2011, is a backlash where you have a lot of India Traipsing stories. And in the media it’s all about how bad things are.”

But French, whose affection and sympathy for India are obvious, has a historian’s perspective. “To me,” he declares, “one narrative is as ridiculous as the other. You have to take five steps back and take a much longer and larger picture. How is India looking now in 2011 as against how it looked 50 years ago, in 1961—or 30 years ago, in 1981? If you take that broader view, then there are lots of reasons to be optimistic.”



Sidebar

French Speaking
A dozen quotes from Patrick French’s India: A Portrait (Knopf, 2011)

INDIANS: A Delhi lawyer said to me while discussing the high ideals of Nehru and his fellows, “The problem with India is Indians.” He meant that the rules were all there, but nobody obeyed them. Indians do not go by the book.

SONIA GANDHI
: Had she been of blonde northern European or black African origin, she would never have been credible as an Indian leader. In a country where skin tone is noticed, this was part of her allure.

OLD INDIA: It could be a playground for foreign visitors, a place where backpackers might pretend to be hippies or sadhus for months at a time and survive on a few dollars a day in Pushkar or Goa, and still feel superior to the general dereliction.

MAOISM: When taken to an extreme, idealism is little more than a form of prejudice.

NEW INDIA
: The unshackling of talent extended far beyond the flamboyant new rich. An idea of Indian exceptionalism had developed, a conviction that the country could achieve something unique at this point in its history.

POVERTY: Did the ambition of raising government revenues through the generation of wealth by the private sector succeed in undermining poverty? The figures were complicated, with the argument swinging back and forth depending on who was telling the story.

IT: Without pirated software you would never, ever have had so many geeks from India.

CASTE: While many aspects of Indian caste prejudice have declined, an emphasis on group identity has strengthened, with caste being a way of uniting people socially and politically.

PAKISTAN: India’s policymakers feel particularly aggrieved when third parties hyphenate their country to Pakistan, believing it is unjust to link a large and vibrant democracy to an imploding state. They are happier with a more recent American dispensation, by which their neighbor is linked to Afghanistan, thereby creating a new, abbreviated problem couple: “Af-Pak.”

PERSONAL LAW
: Often, Muslim personal law was mysterious even to those who were dispensing it.

MUSLIMS: Despite communal feeling, rioting, and suspicion at times of trouble, most Muslims show exceptional loyalty to the idea of India.

RELIGION: As India became more prosperous, devotion to religion did not seem to be declining.

======================

“It has become a deep question—whether the superficial material affluence of the West is really the thing we should try to imitate.”
—Siddhartha Deb


By POORNIMA APTE

Even for a country that has seen more than its share of paradoxes, the cover photograph in Siddhartha Deb’s new book particularly stands out. The picture, taken inside a mall in the New India, shows a young man posing in front of a Santa display. The picture’s import is immediately apparent: India might have welcomed globalization with open arms but its attendant results are incongruous at best.

The picture also captures some of Deb’s misgivings about the quality of the change that has visited India. In a sit-down interview with Khabar, Deb worried that globalization in India has largely been the wrong kind of Westernization—a blind aping of the West especially when it comes to consumerism. “It has become a deep question—whether the superficial material affluence of the West is really the thing we should try to imitate,” Deb says. “I am not saying we should be ascetics or not affluent, but the larger question is ‘Do we really want a society—which is what India is today—where 40 percent of children under the age of five have malnutrition?’ Then we have these 66 billionaires in the last few years. This picture to me seems wrong.”

In the powerful The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India (Faber & Faber, 2011), Deb extends this argument—that the positive effects of the country’s economic reforms, if any, have largely bypassed big chunks of its population. Through probing profiles of five people across India’s economic spectrum, Deb affords us a glimpse of large swaths of India that most of us don’t get to see. As is evident from these stories, the sparkling vision of India Shining, espoused by large segments of the population eager to have the country considered a global player, is not one that is shared by hundreds of millions of Indians.

It is certainly not shared by people like Esther, one of the most stunning profiles in the book. With degrees in biochemistry and botany, this girl from faraway Manipur, along with her sisters, set up home in New Delhi working as a waitress at a fancy hotel called Shangri-La. Deb systematically shows how Esther, stuck in a job that offered no upward mobility, has practically no options. In a sense Esther, Deb argues, is no different from the thousands of call center workers all across the country lured by modernity to outwardly glamorous jobs but forever trapped in the here and now. “[These] middle-class youths [had] as much of a sense of vulnerability as of empowerment. They might have been the most visible face of India Shining, but their inner lives, invisible to the world, showed a more complex reality where uncertainty and stasis had as great an influence as the superficial mobility and modernity of their jobs,” Deb writes.

The situation, Deb says, is understandably complex. “You know, in some ways [Esther] has benefited from modernity, she has come all this way, she has this lovely job in a fancy restaurant, she is meeting all these people, she has a boyfriend, she is articulate—the world has opened up for her,” Deb points out. “Yet sometimes she says, ‘I wish I had my mother’s life,’—that’s very human,” he adds. There was a review in India that pointed out that Esther’s case was not all bad considering she was putting her sister through journalism school. But Deb encourages us to look at the costs; he is still in touch with Esther who has since quit her job. “They all walked out one day, they said it was too bad,” Deb says. “So there are good things that come for all of us but there are always costs,” he points out.

FLAMBOYANT MOGULS AND GATED COMMUNITIES


On the other end of the economic spectrum are people like the Ambanis and the Tatas of India. Deb has written a meticulously reported profile of one of India’s nouveau riche, Arindam Chaudhuri, a media mogul who owns publishing houses, has produced Bollywood movies, and is perhaps best known for a series of management institutes across the country—branches of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management. Chaudhuri’s meteoric rise to the top has not gone unnoticed and Deb found in him a man plagued with insecurities despite his luxurious station in life. Here is a man who lives in his own echo chamber, surrounds himself only with family members or yes-men devoted to the Chaudhuri message. The management institutes promise to deliver some of ‘India Shining’ to many of the country’s struggling masses—most of whom are desperately trying to move up one rung to the lower middle class section of society. “One of the things that has happened is that the market has opened up aspirations,” Deb says. “There are young people now whose parents have money but they don’t want to be shopkeepers in a small town and one can’t blame them. They see every day on TV, ‘go to Delhi, go to Bombay’—and they are the ones who land up doing degrees like this.”

Despite producing what many would label an evenhanded profile, Deb has been slapped with a lawsuit by Chaudhuri. The Indian version of the book does not have the first chapter—the profile. The case is slowly wending its way through the system. “They filed a lawsuit against everybody who has written about them,” Deb says. “It might be prickliness, it might be a warning to others not to pursue this further.” He remarks that an unexpected consequence of the lawsuit has been that many more people in India have read the book than would have otherwise. He wonders whether the book has struck a nerve. “Maybe it indicates that I have done something right,” he says.

One person in the book who is convinced he has done something right is software engineer Chakravarthy Prasad—Chak. He has returned to India after years of working in the high-tech industry in America. Chak, like many who have returned to India in the wake of the country’s economic boom, lives in a gated community in Bangalore. Deb visits these communities in Bangalore and Hyderabad and finds the entire phenomenon rather strange. “This obsession with gated communities is a new thing over the last 20 years. We have had rich people before, but in the older days you had some sense of connectedness which I think came from religion or a sense of social progressivism,” Deb says. “‘I’m on one end of the chain, you are the other end, we’re all connected,’ it was a very middle class idea. That has begun to vanish.” And the gated communities house not just expats but entire segments of people who have the same values, who have grown up entirely in India, Deb points out.

VAST DISPARITIES

Contrast these gated communities against large parts of the countryside—as Deb does—and it becomes obvious that India’s economic boom has largely missed the villages and the rural poor. “One of the problems is that the growth in India does not seem to have been based on manufacturing really. The knowledge economy, the outsourcing, it generated a great deal of wealth but it employed relatively few numbers of people,” Deb says. “While the software industry in India had produced, in 2006, $25 billion while employing just over a million people, the agricultural sector employing 400 million people had produced just $150 billion,” he writes in the book. “This contrast makes clear which sector is better at generating wealth, but there is always the question of what is to be done with the 400 million who cannot become software engineers.”

And among these 400 million are the desperate farmers who have been killing themselves in record numbers at precisely the times when one segment of the country was increasingly getting richer. From 1995 to 2006, in the very years that the urban economy was expanding, Deb points out in the book, nearly 200,000 farmers killed themselves in different parts of India. Such statistics are especially shocking when the future is going to depend on coming up with more sustainable solutions to farming and other pressing issues. “Agriculture and growing food plays a big role in it. I don’t understand how, when the people in urban areas say everybody will urbanize.” Deb says. “Are you going to have half a billion IT workers? That’s not possible. There aren’t that many IT jobs in the world.”

Deb has watched the Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement unfold with some interest. A pundit on an American news program likened the Anna Hazare followers to American tea partiers—citizens who mostly want government to just get out of the way. Deb can see that equivalence for the most part. “This is where it gets really tricky, I end up defending the government against the Indian tea-partiers,” he says. “Within the Anna Hazare movement there are a number of people who are well-intentioned. That doesn’t make what they are doing right. They are being backed by the big media and the business houses.”

“The fact is the government is very corrupt very often. Corruption is something we’re all complicit in anyway, if we’re middle class,” Deb says. “One of the things is that growth in India has slowed down. There has been less investment throughout these last 15 years in basic things like health, education, infrastructure. There are some nice airports, nice coffee shops. Now the world is slowing down and they have come up with this idea that it is the government that is preventing them from really taking off and becoming like Dubai or Singapore or some parts of America.”

“There is this deep discomfort within the majority of the people,” Deb says, “The word that’s constantly used is ‘corruption.’ Why not ‘inequality?’ They are connected, they are deeply connected.” Where Deb does criticize the government is for its assuming “openly undemocratic powers including in Kashmir and in the Northeast.”

“If these are our people then they need to have the same rights as the rest of us do,” Deb says, “These aren’t the questions that are coming up. It’s only corruption [linked to] government.”

Deb says reactions to his book have been overwhelmingly positive, although there is a small group of Indians—both resident and NRIs—who have had a very vehement reaction against the book. “They feel like I’m washing the dirty laundry. I think I understand the insecurities and am sympathetic to them to a certain point but I do not wish to live my life according to these insecurities,” he says.

In the end, The Beautiful and the Damned is not an easy book to digest but it is an important one. It is not without reason that the book includes many overt references to the author F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose memorable works were meant to showcase the gradual fraying of moral and social values as materialism and greed dominated America’s Gilded Age. In his own gentle voice, Deb reminds us that this could be true of India as well. “The single message [in the book] probably is that this kind of incredible inequality is very wrong. And that is not a very radical message,” Deb points out.

Though definitely not a radical message, it is an uncomfortable one for many. The lesson embedded in Deb’s book could just be India’s equivalent of ‘the inconvenient truth.’


LINK and ILLUSTRATIONS for PATRICK FRENCH:

http://www.theindiasite.com/
During the research for his book India: A Portrait, Patrick French (@PatrickFrench2 on Twitter) found there was no news site which consolidated top stories relating to India from across the many exceptional websites and journals that he was using. He started sharing the most interesting stories with friends on a closed site, who quickly suggested that he spread this information more widely. The India Site was launched in January 2011. 

NRIs support India’s anticorruption movement. While French can understand the anger that fuels the protests, he has reservations about the proposed Lokpal Bill.

French chats with author Pico Iyer at the Jaipur Literature Festival. According to one Indian reviewer, “French does not so much try to explain India as to merely understand it.”

When asked what his most difficult task had been as India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru responded, “Creating a secular state in a religious country.”

In the Hindi film Luck by Chance, which is the more compelling theme: meritocracy or nepotism?

India’s Lok Sabha (Lower House), French thinks, could be turning into a Vansh Sabha (House of Dynasty) as the number of HMPs (Hereditary Members of Parliament) keeps rising.

Researchers are making surprising genetic discoveries at India’s secretive IGIB, which French visited.

ILLUSTRATIONS for SIDDHARTHA DEB:

In telling the stories of five different people across the nation, Deb shows how India’s new-found prosperity has bypassed large sections of the population.

Deb’s affection for Northeast India, where he grew up, is apparent in his profile of Esther, who moved with her siblings to Delhi from distant Manipur. Like the woman shown here, Esther worked as a waitress.

Displeased with Deb’s profile, media and management mogul Arindam Chaudhuri sued him and his publisher. Chaudhuri and his wife Rajita are seen here with Shah Rukh Khan at a book launch.

Deb, who finds affluent gated communities in cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad rather strange, says, “We’ve had rich people before, but in the olds days you had some sense of connectedness which I think came from religion or a sense of social progressivism.”


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