Archive for October 2010

Background Reading on Contemporary India

7 October 2010

The purely economic pluses and minuses of staging the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi will become apparent long after the Games are finished, as is the case with many of these ambitious international sporting events. Much more immediate will be the effect on overseas opinion of the publicity generated by the intense media coverage of the Games over these 13 days. A more personal form of publicity which will be spread around many countries is that of the thousands of visiting athletes and spectators. It is therefore to be hoped that a wider interest in travel to India, with her varied exotic offerings, will be a positive result of the 2010 Games, eclipsing the effects of the unfortunate (but unavoidable) negative publicity and nervousness which preceded the Opening Night.

Those eager to acquire a balanced picture of contemporary India may enjoy the following selection of recent books by travellers who have provided us with very detailed accounts and analyses (warts and all), based on lengthy periods of residence and observation.

Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods (The Strange Rise of Modern India), London, Little, Brown, 2006. (Also: New York, Doubleday, 2006.)
Interviews and observations of India by the Financial Times’s correspondent from 2001 to 2005, during which time he learned Hindi and married an Indian wife. Highly recommended by Mark Tully, Professor Amartya Sen, and William Dalrymple, among other cognoscenti, Luce offers a wealth of insight and information, and includes analyses of the changing caste system, the status of India’s Muslims and the rise of Hindu nationalism.
See William Grimes’s Review: ‘The Power and the Potential of India’s Economic Change’.
Sample: “Much of the book consists of interviews and colorful vignettes intended to illustrate the myriad statistics that, out of context, can numb the mind. The blend of anecdote, history and economic analysis makes In Spite of the Gods an endlessly fascinating, highly pleasurable way to catch up on a very big story.”

Christopher Kremmer, Inhaling the Mahatma, HarperCollins, 2006.
An account of various aspects of contemporary Indian history and life based on seven years of travels and residence in India between 1990 and 2001 by a journalist and writer who took the trouble to learn Hindi and established very close contacts with influential Indians. Like Edward Luce, Kremmer married an Indian woman.
A recent REVIEW by Richard A. Johnson.

Sarah Macdonald, Holy Cow. An Indian Adventure, Sydney/London, Bantam Books, 2002.
An Australian journalist’s entertaining and informative account of contemporary life in India.
(A suitable bestseller for air travel.)

Sir Mark Tully
The doyen of British correspondents in India over the past 40 years, renowned in the UK and in India. His work in presenting India to the overseas English-speaking world has been recognised by awards from Queen Elizabeth II and the Indian Government. For this basic orientation list the following two works are recommended.
No Full Stops in India, London, Penguin, 1992.
The Heart of India, London, Penguin, 1996.

Bill Aitken
Like fellow Indiaphile and septuagenarian Mark Tully, Bill Aitken has spent several decades of his life living and interacting with Indians and writing about them and about India. Like Tully, he is well known in India, where he has lived as a naturalised Indian citizen for nearly fifty years.

Aitken’s special interests are spirituality, travel, climbing, the Himalayas, and Steam Railways.
The Penguin Introduction to two of his works reveals that “He has lived in Himalayan ashrams, worked as secretary to a Maharani, freelanced under his middle name (Liam McKay) and undertaken miscellaneous excursions – from Nanda Devi to Sabarimala – on an old motor bike and by vintage steam railway.”
For this basic list on “India for foreigners”, I recommend three samplers of Aitken’s specialised oeuvre.
Footloose in the Himalaya, Delhi, Permanent Black, 2003.
Of the three mountaineering travel books by Aitken that I have read, this latest one is the best, full of fascinating detail, observations and adventure.

The Nanda Devi Affair, Penguin Books India, 1994.
Aitken’s very special spiritual climbing quest.
Branch Line to Eternity, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2001.
His travels on the last railway steam engines operating in India.

Dom Moraes and Sarayu Srivatsa, Out of God’s Oven. Travels in A Fractured Land, New Delhi, Viking, 2002.
An investigative book by two Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), based on six years of travel and interviews on contemporary Indian issues.
(For an Asia Times Online review by Jason Overdorf in March 2003, see here.

Overdorf comments: “In a book of remarkable scope, the two writers address many of the seminal events of Indian history of the past three decades, ranging from riots by Dalits (formerly untouchables) …”

William Dalrymple
Dalrymple has harvested considerable acclamation and fame from his many scholarly works on India and Indian history. His latest book on spirituality in India has become a best seller (like most of the books on this list):
Nine Lives. In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, London, Bloomsbury, 2009.
These nine exotic interviews on very diverse aspects of religion were prompted by Dalrymple’s desire to investigate the present state of religious beliefs in India following a period of great economic and social change.

Trevor Fishlock, India File, 2nd edition, New Delhi, Rupa, 1987.
One of a distinguished line of British correspondents in India, Fishlock first published this slim volume in 1983. His first chapter, ‘Inheritance’ (pp. 1-19) is still well worth reading.