A rollicking, ambitious journey through Indian history and mores from a keen English journalist and National Book Critics Circle Award winner.
French (The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul, 2008, etc.) takes a fondly critical step back to observe how the staggeringly diverse democracy of India actually works, how it elects officials and how it dug itself out of entrenched economic debilitation, the caste system and poverty. In three sections—Rashtra (“Nation”), Lakshmi (“Wealth”) and Samaj (“Society”)—the author takes apart the workings of a fascinating country and its people, from the founding of the nation in 1947, amid the violent integration of princely states and partition from the Muslim north, through the economic liberalization of the last ten years that has “unbound” the enterprising middle classes. French recounts the Indian legacy through personal stories, such as those of the incongruous makers of the Indian Constitution, who self-consciously modeled their endeavor on the historic American Constitutional Convention—e.g., wealthy, Anglicized Brahmin Jawaharlal Nehru, an intellectual whose nationalist secular vision of India was schooled by years in prison; and the untouchable-born lawyer Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, whose incredible personal success evolved into “the outcastes’ revenge.” Despite their differences, all aimed to hammer out a document that “balanced liberty and security, shared power and did not rely on the goodwill of any one leader.” French dwells on the perverse nepotism and tribal loyalties in regional elections, especially that of Indira Gandhi’s family, and the enduring, troubling Muslim Hindu animosity. He senses great gains in society, such as the growth of a true meritocracy allowing social mobility for the first time, and evidence of wealth everywhere. Yet still the country is plagued by a creaky infrastructure, stubborn tentacles of bribery and corruption, an indifference to horrific tales of exploitation right under the peoples’ noses and official inertia despite efficiency in everyday life.
A perfectly chaotic encapsulation of Indian government, economy and social life.