Sunday, March 5, 2017

In Spite of the Gods

In Spite of the Gods: the Rise of Modern India
© 2007 Edward Luce
400 pages

In Spite of the Gods appraises India’s culture as its ancient civilization enters the 21st century as the world’s largest democracy and one of its largest economies.  Its author, Edward Luce, lived in New Delhi for years as the bureau chief for the Financial Times, and traveled throughout India for reports and interviews.   While This Brave New World  evaluated how quickly and thoroughly India was approaching the ‘standards’ of modernity (public health, political and economic participation, etc),  In Spite of the Gods  looks more broadly at how India’s deeply-rooted culture is digesting the momentous changes of the 21st century.  I say digesting because the author holds the view of many that India’s culture has the strength of the ages; it is ancient, diverse, and resilient. It does not collapse in the face of change; it incorporates aspects of change while preserving itself, rather like Buddhism was digested into Hinduism, changing it but not prevailing over it.

  This book is never far from the person and work of Jawaharlal Nehru, who jokingly referred to himself as the last Englishman to rule India.   Nehru was India’s first prime minister after independence, and because so many of the other founding generation died within a few years of achieving their goal, he played an outsized role in shaping the legacy of independence.   Nehru’s statement can be considered seriously not just because he was educated in England, but its modernity shaped his mind and character;  while Gandhi’s vision for India was framed within its own tradition, Nehru’s was more of an English intellectual, a westerner: his view of progress involved massive factories, a state-administered economy, secularism, and so on – not village anarchy and Hindu tradition.   Nehru lives in India not simply through his family, who are invariably involved in national-level politics, but because his legacy is continually tested.

 Nehru’s economic legacy is slowly but surely being discarded, for instance, plank by plank; the “license Raj” that he and his descendants established to ensure that India’s economy didn’t become another outpost of western capitalists has indeed done its work of preventing outside investment in India…but that is increasingly not something people want, and had the further effect of squelching growth within India.  Only when the Raj began being dismantled in the early 1990s did India join China as one of the “Asian Tigers”.     Nehru’s secular vision is likewise being tested by the healthy support of Hindu nationalist organizations.   The essential problem there, Luce maintains, is ethnic-religious nationalism set against India’s diversity will create nothing but partisan reaction and more trouble.  This book was published years before  the election which brought Prime Minister Modi  -- representing a nationalist party – to power.   While Luce presents the BJP as only an ethno-nationalist party, whom he likens to the fascists in their focus on  the tribe and their gods,   another author (Manuel, This Brave New World) attributed the BJP’s success to Indians’ desire for more economic freedom.

Luce covers much else;  the persistent influence of caste, for instance,  which Gandhi deplored and which the ‘untouchables’ continue attempting to escape from via politics and religion.  Likewise, he devotes a chapter to the mythic important of The Village in the Indian imagination, where it is not simply an artifact from the past but infused with the same spiritual importance the west used to place in families and the polis.  Luce notes that much of India’s economic growth has in fact been nurtured by cottage firms that don’t necessarily need metropolises and big factories, and that Nehru’s fixation on massive capital hobbled India with debt at a time when her people  didn’t have an economy to handle it. There is much else to say,  but in short – In Spite of the Gods is compelling for outside audiences who are trying to understand India’s role in the global community. It’s more personal and gossipy than Brave New World, but I would read the two books in tandem.


  1. India is a very strange - indeed bizarre - mix of the ancient and modern. Much more than Japan for instance. From what my friends have said who've been their several times it's a major culture shock being there for any length of time.

    1. Did they mention why? The movie "Lost in Translation" used that sense of culture shock to bring two characters (played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson) into an unlikely friendship, but it didn't articulate WHY Japan was "strange", just threw Murray into it.

  2. The noise, the sheer number of people, oh, and the occasional stepping over of dead bodies in the street which was apparently the worst thing!

    1. Oh, I misunderstood -- thought the subject had switched to Japan. Crowding is an issue in the book I'm reading now...the author says that the only time he wasn't brushing elbows with people in public was when he visited the Gobi interior...


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