Book Review: In Spite Of The Gods




It is sad if an author does not understand India; it is worse if the author has a partial understanding.... and it is ugly if an author thinks he understands India. But if the author has both a partial understanding combined with a liking for the country - the book gets elevated to the category of highly dangerous, because the combination of the 2 makes for convincing prose; there are several contradictions and inaccuracies that get hidden by the warmth of the tone; the arguments are sufficiently lucid to draw in most people. This book is in this latter category… one of the most diabolical write-ups on our country. 

THE CONS
Diabolical because it identifies most of the problems accurately; it does a superb politico-economic analysis. Any student of India will accept that; the problem lies in the historical analysis of the stated concern areas, and in cultural pronouncements that have no place in a tome on Economics or Politics. It looks at Indian Culture with an ill-disguised colonial or western mindset, presents inaccurate facts or dangerously partisan interpretations of normal events and cultural habits. The author could have wound up the book in less than half the 391 pages he took by cutting out the bullshit. It seems to me that he has tried to play to established western ideas and misconceptions. And coming from a man married to an Indian lady, a man widely travelled in India – the combination of the above lends authority to the tome in western eyes. That is what makes this book so diabolically dangerous. Not to put too fine a point to it – it is one of the most dangerous books I have read on India! Sample this: a full 50% of the reference sources listed in the notes section are western books!  

It is chock full of cultural and political misrepresentations. For example, you have a reference to the "Erotic" activities of Shri Krishna!!!! Another example: The Bhagwat Gita preaches speech not practice!!!! A third example: an examination of the sexual habits of teenagers!!!! A fourth example: Indian housewives serve food  to the males and eat the leftovers afterwards. Fifth: the sacred cow is a BJP invention, as per the author!  May I ask what the heck does any of the above have to do with the Indian Economy, or poverty alleviation? Nothing! Absolutely nothing! The book is full of statements which have nothing to do with the subject at hand. Furthermore, the sweeping generalizations stated make it sound as if all of India is like this. First off, who gave the author the right to refer to Shri Krishna as Erotic? Doesn’t he understand he is talking about a God? Second, The Bhagwat Gita: if you do not understand the Gita, please don’t make idiotic comments! The Gita preaches action and duty! Third, does the author have any idea why? Most wives prefer to serve food so as to give their family hot rotis; afterwards they eat fresh food with equally warm rotis, not leftovers! The cow: did the respectable author either try to understand Hinduism, or ask common people their opinion about cow slaughter? Yet again, the western mindset manifests itself! What comes through is a highly opinionated author who has only a partial exposure to Indian Culture, and utter disdain for our religion. The book is full of similar misrepresentations -  and besides, how is this related to the topic? 

Then on foreign policy, the book is holier than thou - advising India to stop supporting rogue regimes. Excuse me, but hasn’t supporting and setting up rogue regimes been the exclusive preserve of the west? What about the Arms supplies to Pakistan? Do the governments in the west not know that the same arms are being used to kill Indians? Who set up Pakistan with free weapons, and started the Arms race in the subcontinent? We started our heavy militarization only after 1962, and especially 65!  Or what about Iraq? Afghanistan? Libya? Panama? I could go on and on. In each case, a people who were at least living reasonably well have been reduced to penury and despicable conditions, because the oh-so-honourable west thought that they were in bad government! Frankly, reading this book is like attending a moral science class... lectures on our sexual habits, foreign relations, culture... Which rogue regime do we support? Iran? Fine; kindly supply us with Oil. Then we’ll talk about this! And how have we – aah – “supported” Iran? Are giving them weapons, or training them in genocide classes, or advising them how to become even more authoritarian etc etc... Talking about rogue states,  what about Iraq – where are all those WMDs that Iraq was supposed to have developed? Right – the west was soooooo right in ensuring the wholesale destruction of a nation. The west is the best, isn’t it? And Afghanistan?  Of course, they like to die. Afghanis have only one desire – they love it when foreigners come to kill them.  Gloryosky! Who in his right mind would want to live when you can have a westerner come to kill him, right? Pehelaa Patthar Woh Maare Jisne Paap Naa Kiyaa Ho...  (Only the person who has never sinned can blame others)

The book is also full of incorrect assumptions and misrepresentations, manipulations especially with regard to suppressed information - perhaps  unintentionally. Truth presented with only one side; the other most conveniently forgotten for whatever reason. BJP-baiting, for one. Did you Indians know that the BJP is the worst party in India? Don’t believe me? Read the book. A rank outsider has just opened my eyes! And yes, did you know that it was Nehru who airlifted troops to Kashmir in ’48, and that the UN brokered a ceasefire? Glory Be! And I thought it was Sardar Patel who engineered that; and the UN was called in by Nehru. Silly Me. After all – that splendid western invention, the UN (Savior of the world; witness the incredibly lucky Iraqis and Afghanis) saved us poor poor Indians. (Look hard enough, Mr  Author – you’ll find that the UN was instrumental in our independence as well. Who’s Gandhi? ) And on Kashmir, I am speechless… Another example: I want India and Pakistan to be one country. Don’t laugh: a majority of Indians want union. (Funny, I don’t recall thinking this? Wow, this guy is good –he can read my mind). Oh, by the way, who pushed us into Soviet arms? Does the author recall that the west refused to give us the technology for Steel Plants? No? Of course, right – you can make Nuclear Bombs with Steel Plants, right? It is ok for the west to v-e-r-y kindly send us wheat in our times of need (The author has generously reminded us of western food aid) ; but not on technology? Kind of forgot that steel plant bit, isn't it? Wasn’t it shortsighted of the great, great west to refuse technology to India? Is it ‘cause the west wants to be seen as the kindly helper? Or was it since Nehru was socialist? So tell me, how kindly and human is it to refuse technology to a nation in need on such a flimsy basis?  Russia gave it to us : so we still honour the Russian connection. Little wonder then that it took us so long to trust the west. Simple- but perhaps too simple for the west. 

THE PROS
As regards the rest, the book has identified the problems and challenges in front of the country; the problem is in the approach. I have been heavy in my criticism; I shall be profuse with my praise as well – credit where credit is due. The highlight of the good points are the analysis of our coalition politics, Our corruption problems, the analysis of the congress party, the movement of the casetes, US-China-India;

The Book is divided into independent chapters that look at each aspect outlined above; It looks at the unsustainable development model currently on evidence: with the rich-poor gap widening. The author quite rightly points out the Mahatma Gandhi’s call: India resides in its villages – and emphasis the need to ensure wider participation in progress. (Sorry to get back to brickbats, but the solution proffered won’t work in India – he is seeing through his western eyeglasses again). The problems of Indian agriculture have been highlighted, but the solution is hopelessly impractical: I don’t blame the author. He has simply no knowledge of the science of agriculture, so that is forgivable

The ugly scepter of caste has been superbly covered, with numerous interviews and insights. The chapter covers the ground and examines the related politics very well. Another chapter looks at the coalition politics and its role in modern India: in this, the author is in his element, making a forceful argument – entirely logical; party agenda have been examined, and explained. The north-south divide has been correctly pointed out, and examined. He looks at the how and why of better governance in the southern states vis-à-vis the northern states, and is truly worth a read, no doubts about that.

Indian Bureaucracy has been honestly and brutally taken apart in an entire chapter devoted to them. Both the good and the bad aspects of governance are pointed out fairly. The nepotism and corruption have been brutally stated, and will act as eye-openers in some cases. But the chapter that takes the cake is the systematic dissection of the Congress Party, with its dynastic tendencies and inherent sycophancy being ruthlessly picked apart in a very skillful chapter. As regards India-China-US, while the chapter is loaded with inaccuracies (but then, almost every chapter is) – the fact remains that the Chinese approach towards India over the years has been superbly analysed – the book is worth a read for this alone. The changing US stance over the years, its reasons and possible repercussions have also been well put, and make for interesting reading. The Indian energy scenario makes an appearance in this chapter, alongwith a very insightful and correct analysis of the urgency of the situation facing India

Should you buy this book? It has several good points that make it worth a read; the problem is the glaring inconsistencies and misrepresentations that go alongwith it. From start to finish the author holds the Hindus squarely responsible for all rioting, with everyone else being blameless despite evidence to the contrary . Hindus destroyed Nalanda (which is historically unacceptable); caused riots etc. Everyone else has been shown to be the victim.  Our Gods have been shown no respect whatsoever, with unsubstantiated statements like the majority of Hindus today regard Ram to be fictional (Really? How many Hindus has he spoken to?), There are some passages that are so glaringly blasphemous that I dare not state them here, so inflammatory is the content and so totally inaccurate. On reading the book, you get a hopelessly inaccurate overall picture of India as it is today. Buy it if you can ignore the inconsistencies…  

I do not deny the problems; indeed most educated Indians realise them, and a good many are beginning to address them, The problem is when someone from outside indulges in pontification without realising the true extent of the problems and the precise reasons for their genesis. This stands true for nearly 80% of the book. For example,agriculture. It is not possible to implement cooperative farming in the Indian scenario. Further, mechanisation will not yield the desired results in the ground situation as it is in India. Mechanisation can have an impact when other factors are present, which they are not in India.  The core problem in agriculture is irrigation, scientific agronomical practices, seed issues, pest management and nutrient supplies. The problem has various shades of complication: for example, subsidy structure has ensured greater use of Nitrogen, to the detriment of other nutrients. Then there are other related problems - market access, storage etc. Point is, mere mechanisation will not have a favourable impact: in fact, it will only serve to exacerbate existing problems, with the large scale displacement of labour - who have no other skill to fall back on. 

Similar is the analysis on foreign policy: the motives behind why we behaved as we did have been ignored, one example of which has been given above. (Interested people can refer Pax Indica by Shashi Tharoor, a book that concentrates exclusively on our foreign policy - my next book) Child labour: yet another simplistic moralistic analysis. No parent would want their child to work... the entire depth of the issue has not been touched upon! Why does this happen? At the core of the issue is crippling poverty - which distorts perspective. You will have to look at the problem in its entirety. Remember: laws are not the solution. They can only be one cog of the solution. In some cases, children work simply to eat; in others to provide food on the table for their family; in other cases, they are forced to work... the problem is gargantuan, and cannot be legislated away. Remember: Alcohol is freely available despite it being prohibited in some areas. How much will you legislate? We are talking about 300 million people - impossible to effectively police without converting the state into an authoritarian police state. 

That is why I used the term pontification for the book: to quote the dictionary: "to speak or write and give your opinion about something as if you knew everything about it and as if only your opinion was correct

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  4. Your analysis is in depth, but being an indian, your insight & experience into what happens in so many parts of india seems to be limited. Women, do get lesser nutrition, even leftovers. Not all, maybe no one in your circle, but it does happen. Krishna has an erotic angle in a lot of Hindu art too, remember the paintings of naked gopis in the pool? And cows, when I see them eating out of dustbins, I want to know whose mother those cows are. Not mine...

    Fact is there is not enough of indian voice accumulated against these things, people are contented with trying to say their culture is great. Its easier than to protest against whats wrong and does not affect us directly! Yes the West has many sins and including responsibility for bloodshed & supporting undesirable regimes.

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    Replies
    1. "Krishna has an erotic angle in Hindu art" - this is entirely different from referring to Him or His Activities as erotic. There is no reference of eroticism in any literature on this topic. This also hurts religious sensibilities, and lessens the quality of the book. Further, where is the need to refer to this in a book on India?

      Cows: how your point this related to the worship of cows? Furthermore, how is the BJP related to the worship of cows? The reverence to cows far predates the modern times.

      Women: I am well aware of the problems related to female emancipation. The point is that not all of India is like this. This is a factor that is limited to certain classes, as well as certain geographical tracts. And women getting lesser nutrition and leftovers????? I have not seen this anywhere in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Chattisgarh - states where I have travelled and interacted with all classes of society including small villages!!!!!! While women in India do face some major issues - this is certainly not one of them.

      Culture: overall, IMHO, our culture is indeed praiseworthy, and awesome - several shortcomings notwithstanding; nearly all of which (the shortcomings) you have not mentioned. I gather from your comment that you are not Indian : "but being an Indian, your insight" - the use of the word 'your' confirms this. I have not commented on any other culture except Indian Culture, so kindly refrain from throwing brickbats needlessly.

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