The Making of Modern India, One Essay at a Time

I recently attended the launch of India Since 1947: Looking Back at a Modern Nation, and picked up a copy.

Anthology/Non-fiction; India since 1947: Looking Back at a Modern Nation by Atul Kumar Thakur (Edited); Niyogi Books, 340 pp; Rs.395 (Paperback)

It has very nearly been 66 years since we, as one nation, took the reins of our destiny in our own hands. And while that still places us as a relatively young democracy (the US, for example, signed the declaration of independence in 1776), that the first generation born after that fateful midnight has now started retiring is a noteworthy milestone. As a people who use the same word for tomorrow as for yesterday, keeping track of the passage of time and the changes it brings along is not something we are very adept at.

The vastness and the diversity of this nation make this task no easier. With a colourful and noisy population, India is perhaps the most perfect example of what anthropologist Edward Hall described as a “high-context” society. Such societies are marked by an environment of familiarity and universally-shared polite fiction, where a lot goes unsaid, or is said in a rather few words. As a result, much is left to be implicitly understood from context. This inevitably makes the modern historian’s job even tougher, especially given the vagueness and the flowery sense of political correctness of any recorded letter or conveyed opinion.
The challenge of taking stock of these two-thirds of a century has been accepted by “Indian Since 1947: Looking Back at a Modern Nation” head on!

India Since 1947 is a collection of essays on modern India carefully curated by its young editor, Atul Kumar Thakur. And just like India is best represented by a thali of scrumptious dishes in different bowls, the same holds true for the authors and the foci of their respective pieces. Each tasting different, not mixing with the next, but belonging together on the same plate, complementing each other, making for a satisfactory meal.

The authors encompass public intellectuals and veteran thought leaders including but not limited to Ramachandra Guha, Prem Shankar Jha, K Natwar Singh, Shashi Tharoor, Jagmohan, B.G.Verghese, Bimal Jalan, Jean Drèze, Amartya Sen, Bibek Debroy, and Pran Nevile, as well as younger and more niche domain-experts and literary talent. The intricate diversity of voices and vantage points represented can most likely be put down as the raison d’être of the anthology, in a manner of speaking.

The opening essay by Guha, “The Rise and Fall of the Bilingual Intellectual,” takes the shape of a meta-analysis of Indian scholarship and the changing contours of the linguistic territories that it is comprised of. The struggle between the foreign English, and the–to use a much maligned term–vernacular tongues fighting it out in the motherland, is by far the most visible (or perhaps, audible) symbol of India’s transition to a new era. By commenting on the shifting nature of intellectual discourse itself, from the departure of colonialism to the usher of globalisation, Guha’s essay underlines the focal theme of the book, and sets the tone for the pieces that follow.

Some of the essays that follow are beautiful in the way they neatly thread India’s journey from independence to about as recent as it gets, giving a crystal clear timeline of the transition. These include solution-oriented and policy-driven pieces such as ‘Where Indian Democracy has Gone Wrong’ by Prem Shankar Jha, which goes from the Nehruvian model of governance to the institutionalisation of kickbacks and finally to team Anna, and suggests structural reforms regarding regulation and transparency of corporate influence in politics. Bimal Jalan’s essay similarly takes an objective look at the poor state of decision-making and governance, and suggests concrete measures to curb the rot. The former RBI governor stresses on administrative reform as a more urgent need compared to economic reform, which is also needed.

India’s complete lack of strategy and initiative in the foreign policy and security realms is reflected upon by K. Natwar Singh and Bibek Debroy respectively. The Kashmir issue and the general state of non-cooperation in the sub-continent are tackled in-depth by Jagmohan, while the editor himself takes on the Naxal problem.

Shashi Tharoor has written a particularly engaging piece on the Indian middle class and its disavowal of the polluted pit that is Indian Politics. The diplomat-turned-politician describes this relationship in a semi-autobiographical tone as a mixture of ennui and evasion, and issues a call to young middle-class Indians, those not otherwise favoured by the feudal system, to at least consider getting involved in politics. He wishes to see many such young, ambitious, middle class “professionals” fulfil that dream by 2020, and doing a better job than he has managed so far. ‘Hope’ is indeed the thing with feathers.

Drèze and Sen discuss India’s shameful record on inclusive development and make a persuasive case against fetishizing “high growth.” Bibek Debroy similarly looks at the ease of doing business in India and chalks out a recipe for the sweet taste of Demographic Dividend. Sunita Narain and Anupam Mishra explore the state of environmentalism in India and the political muck surrounding it. Other essays also explore gender, from a policy-driven point of view as well from a social and human angle.

One of the essays that stood out was Sumana Roy’s “In the Chicken’s neck,” a poignant description of life in the narrow stretch connecting the north-eastern states with the rest of the nation. This land has been a back page where history has played tic-tac-toe over centuries, criss-crossed by numerous wars, partitions, liberations, insurgencies, and ultimately, borders. A place where distinct ethnicities, communities, languages, religions, and nationalities, meet, or perhaps separate. Hidden between quaint references to White Rabbits and fish bones, is a calm, childlike narrative of the Indian identity despite the fleeting sense of belongingness expected of a 20 or 40 km wide strip with China (Tibet?), Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal lying on either sides of its cardinal axes.

Essays dealing with the journey of literature, music, art, cinema, sports, cities, and even comics (and growing up with them), paint a picture of recreation, lifestyle, and identity in modern India. These are the essays that represent the different facets of what it means to be an Indian. As much as an outsider’s opinion is invaluable and unique, the focus on an Indian outlook is what makes this collection uniquely introspective.

Surely, the work is not flawless by any means. While several important topics were touched upon, a lack of deeper investigation and learning from some issues was felt. The emergency, the state of education, the social enterprise sector, energy, science & technology etc. were some of the fields that could perhaps have seen more intense enquiry. To be fair, that may not have been possible without the book reaching a rather painful breadth, and it may then have been unfeasible to maintain an easy-on-the-pocket paperback edition. I also felt a lack of forward-looking essays, but perhaps that could be the focus of a sequel to this work.

I must note that each and every word in the book seems to have been meticulously researched and verified. Most importantly, the unbiased view from this window into modern India had hitherto been unexplored by journalists rushing for “breaking news” segments, or by pundits giving jargon-laden short-cut answers. And the wide spectrum of topics and issues covered is a treat for the discerning reader.

The transition the book covers is not over, but is still going. There is much happening in modern India, and much remains to be seen. It makes one wonder how such a work compiled in 2047 would look like, what it would say. As B.G.Verghese says in his foreword to the book, “Transitions are always difficult. But we shall overcome.”

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