This is my review of India Rising: Tales from a Changing Nation by Oliver Balch.
Themed under the headings of Enterprise, Aspiration and Change, the ten chapters of interviews with a wide range of Indians can be picked and mixed in any order. With the stated “overarching goal..to gain a flavour of the place… the approach is unapologetically subjective” and anecdotal. In this, the author succeeds, but is it enough? I admire Balch’s enthusiasm and confidence, but found myself crying out for more context and analysis, as I searched for nuggets of information in the often banal padding and attempts to showcase Balch’s budding skills as a journalist.
Some of the least likely chapters are the best, as in “Actor Prepares” where the author tracks down Naval, the wannabee Bollywood director who has broken with tradition by giving up the course financed by his father, without telling him. In the process, Balch describes the urban tragedy of the hideous, jerry-built concrete housing blocks in unfinished suburbs where recent migrants to Mumbai are crammed without the money or knowhow to equip themselves adequately.
After visiting the artificial bubble of a western style shopping mall, which girls can only attend chaperoned or with friends, Bauch interviews the retail millionaire who feels that aspiration levels, even amongst the poor of India, are now too high to halt the growing tide of consumption: “material things are rewards for performance”. Can Gandhi’s opposing philosophy of the importance of inner peace and harmony survive against this? It is interesting to read how the ingenious poor of India are beginning to set about achieving their ends. There is the “microfinance” (controversial in view of the interest rates levied) which enables groups of women in the slums to borrow money for small-scale activities, guaranteeing repayments for each other as necessary. Similarly, in remote villages off the beaten track, it is again women who operate like “Avon ladies” selling small packets and jars of cleaning agents. When asked if she is happy with her purchases, an old lady gives the telling response, “Before, we washed our dishes with ash”.
On page 250, a rare piece of analysis asserts, “India is travelling at multiple speeds as in multiple directions. New India is a story of fits and starts, not linear progression.” And in the conclusion: “India is too diverse, too full of paradoxes, too confident ever to be homogenised” or swallowed up by global capitalism. But is this too simplistic? India is clearly in transition, with the poverty of the majority highlighted in the process: state-funded space research versus stagnant villages and mushrooming slums in filthy, lung-searing, gridlocked cities. Will the sheer scale of the economy create such pressures of pollution and instability that India plays a major part in the destruction of our global civilisation as we know it? “India Rising” never probes as deeply as this.