Friday, March 13, 2009

India Express by Daniel Lak

Here's my review of Daniel Lak's India Express published at The Kathmandu Post:

In India Express: The Future of a New Superpower, Canadian journalist Daniel Lak blends history and reportage to present a close up portrait of contemporary India. Lak’s is basically an outsider’s view of India, which in recent decades is undergoing unprecedented transformation. Anecdotal and lucid, India Express takes the reader on a journey of India at a time of flux.

Like Mark Tully, BBC’s legendary India correspondent who has made India his home, Lak who has covered South Asia for BBC, has been tirelessly documenting India’s many facets. He sets the tone of the book very early in introduction where a glimpse of the rising India is given through Ram, a presswalla in South Indian city of Chennai. Ram with the tenacity and hard work, has climbed the economic ladder. For Lak, Ram is an epitome of contemporary India that is shedding the old hierarchies, caste system and backwardness and reinventing itself as agent of change.

While discussing India, an axiom probably uttered by former Indian foreign minister K Natwar Singh comes to mind: “Everything you have heard about India is true and so is its opposite.” India is a paradox—poverty and affluence rub shoulders; centuries-old custom and latest fad jostle for space. At one point, he writes, “India’s vastness, its complexity, its sheer chaotic momentum can overwhelm efforts at understanding.”

Lak is quick in attributing India’s status as superpower-in-making to its knowledge economy, diversity, democracy, problem solving skills, family values, among others. “Daily life is a constant process of negotiation, reassessment and acceptance of hardship that makes people tough, resilient and focused,” he remarks in the introduction. He is equally at ease whether talking to experts, entrepreneurs or villagers. Having reported from the subcontinent for nearly two decades, he’s developed a solid understanding of the region.

When the author first visited India in 1989, he discovered an India devoid of multinationals. But thanks to the then finance minister Man Mohan Singh, whom the writer credits with spearheading India’s economic reform, the county opened up its vast resources that led to the present day prosperity. “How did India manage to transform itself in less than a generation from a stodgy, disaster prone repository of the world’s images of poverty to a thrusting economic giant in making?” he wonders. In turn, he offers several explanations. The very first chapter among the book’s eleven chapters is one such where he talks about the millennium bug notoriously known as Y2K. India’s IT sector immensely benefited from so-called Y2K phenomenon that never happened.

In the chapter, he even draws an analogy between IT and Hindu ritual while trying to demystify the sudden rise of South Indian Hindu Brahmins in the Silicon Valley, IT hub in the US. “Like Hindu rituals, IT involves coded language and veritable priesthood of initiates to resolve problems and reconcile the mysterious and mundane.” He rather implausibly quotes Gurucharan Das, who sees similarities between immense complexity of Hinduism and ability to network and get to know what works and what doesn’t. “That’s perfect IT world behavior and that’s why we’re best at it.”

In the chapter titled “Democracy, Dynasty and Devolution”, he writes about his visit to a polling station in Bihar where he finds “gunmen—five or six men with rifles held on their shoulders, pointing them straight at the voters as they emerged from a building in hamlet.” These were the Maoist guerillas fighting security forces in India’s hinterland. Despite witnessing this incident of armed men disrupting the polls, Lak places high hopes in Indian democracy.

Lak is also an interpreter of India’s myriads of maladies. He cites Rig Veda to prove “that caste was intended as a discriminatory system from the very beginning.”In modern India, he says, discrimination because of caste is illegal but widespread. Even though he dwells upon India’s various problems, what Lak really likes to do through India Express is to paint a rosy picture of a nation with more than one billion people. It’s also clear from the book’s subtitle: The Future of a New Superpower.

The last chapter titled “Becoming Asia’s Superpower” deals not with the India of today but an India of tomorrow. He takes us to the year 2040 when our southern neighbour will be “the most powerful country in the world.”

In his much acclaimed book, Post-American World, Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria predicts that in coming years, America will no longer be the superpower. In his second nonfiction book on India, Lak foresees ascent of India in the coveted position. We will be around to see how things unfold.

1 comment:

Tilak said...

Good review.