This is my review of India Express: The Future of the New Superpower by Daniel Lak.
Before a recent trip, the few books available apart from tour guides were disappointing. Published in 2008 so still reasonably up-to date, Daniel Lak's "India Express" came closest to fitting the bill (although I have just found a couple of promising alternatives to be reviewed).
Although not a native of India which he first visited in 1989, Lak has the journalist's ability to observe with an open mind, to present information in an interesting and accessible way, taking time to analyse what lies beneath the surface. As each chapter is self-contained and clearly themed, you can pick and mix them.
Not primarily interested in India's unexpected expertise for sorting out the "millennium bug" which I remembered to have been an illusion, and thinking I knew enough about Indian call centres, the country's demographic problems, the fight for independence and tragedy of partition, I made first for some of the later chapters.
"Hinduism and its discontents" clarified a subject too often made obscure and dull. "According to its constitution, India is a secular country, but religion is omnipresent." The description of the holy city of Varanasi (Benares) proved very accurate: teeming bazaars, near-naked holy men in trances, sacred cows munching at vegetables stalls but not too revered to be shooed away with a shove or obscenity. Lak found a priest who bathes daily in the sacred water of the Ganges, knowing it to be poisoned by pollution, to explain the twenty-five branches of Hinduism ranging from belief in billions of gods, through monotheism to atheism. Hindus see the "essence of divinity in humans themselves" with deities serving largely as metaphors for people to grasp. "What passes for modern Hinduism can be traced to British and European scholars" who "applied their own familiar models……in the process of interpreting ancient writing….intended..for a different purpose". That says it all.
Lak covers the contradictions of India: intense cheating in the education system alongside the incorruptible Indian Institutes of Technology producing graduates to hold key positions in major companies worldwide. Then, despite its flaws, there is the survival of a vibrant democracy against the odds, prompting Lak to describe India as "Asia's America", although possibly too large and complex for this.
The gulf between rich and poor is illustrated by the fleets of hired taxis and vans used to transport programmers to and from work at HP India, to avoid a repetition of the rape and murder of a female staff member by a bogus driver. Another example is the attitude of higher castes that "if we throw our garbage over the wall of our compound, it no longer exists" because the low caste sweeper can be relied upon to take it away.
Regarding the international shock of nuclear tests in 1998, Lak suggests the prime motivation may have been to earn the respect on the world stage that India craves, by insisting on the right to self-defence. "Were India and Pakistan to reach some sort of settlement on Kashmir….other points of contention would easily be dealt with" through negotiation.
If revised, the book might include a chapter on the media – TV adverts for developing lighter skins and purchasing cleaning products, a far cry from the bustling life of the filthy streets. Another topic could be the space race in which a minister recently announced India's intention to lead the world and reject foreign aid. So what about investment in the public services so lacking in the grid-locked Delhi which I witnessed?
Lak is hard to fault, apart from a possible overoptimism over India's future in such an overpopulated world of booming demands and limited resources.