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Subcontinental drift: the ups and downs of a nation of extremes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am

India Rising: Tales From a Changing Nation
by Oliver Balch
Faber and Faber

This might not be the best of times for a book titled India Rising. The economy has seized up, the rupee has hit rock bottom, reforms have stalled and the government is in limbo. But then, paradox is inevitable in any study of India. And, as author Oliver Balch finds out, so is the emotional roller coaster of hope and despair that the country's extremes tend to trigger.

India has experienced massive changes during the past couple of decades. Hundreds of millions have moved out of poverty, malls and skyscrapers have mushroomed while globalisation and prosperity have ushered in new attitudes and social mores. Balch, a British journalist who returns to India after 15 years, traverses the country to understand the dynamics of this change by drawing on the stories of myriad characters, from corporate honchos to slum dwellers, actors, monks, fashionistas, social activists, students, teachers, marketeers, lawyers and sports people. The result is part travelogue, part journalism, part nostalgia, wholly anecdotal and largely entertaining.

Using the medium of everyman as the narrative of a nation has its obvious, intuitive appeal. All the more so in undermanaged India, where much of what people make of their lives, they do so despite the way it is governed, not because of it.

That's the opposite of over-managed China, with which Indians benchmark their nation. Which is why individual triumphs in India are as hope-inducing as its tribulations are dispiriting. Balch's journey is filled with both in equal measure.

First stop: entrepreneurs. Market, after all, is why India is back on the radar after decades of impoverished irrelevance. Understanding the people shaping and driving the changes seems the logical first step in understanding the new India itself. The new breed of risk-takers is inspiring: a village boy who rises to launch a budget airline; a doctor whose hospital chains make health care affordable by mass-producing it; and so on. A growing economy and new technology are also changing lives in fresh ways, from farmers selling their produce online to village women enlisted by companies to peddle soaps and toothpaste.

Yet, for all the obvious verve New India exudes, the Old is never far away. Its inhibitions, ignorance, poverty and privilege hobble the New at every step. Take Sunny. A journalism student from a small town, Sunny has a 'girlfriend', a student in another city. They met through a social networking site and the 'relationship' has progressed from message-board posts to online chats, before Sunny 'proposed' by e-mail. They are now in a 'serious relationship' because 'they know each other's passwords on Facebook, Google Talk, Orkut, everything'.

Sunny and his lady-love are talking of marriage. But the first hurdle is caste, the second, dowry. Balch is pained by Sunny's conformity to these social anachronisms despite the trappings of modernity. 'He finds himself crushed between two worlds, squashed between orbits that are spinning in opposite directions.'

New and Old India not only seem to spin in different orbits, they might as well inhabit different planets. Take Jeevan, whose realities are worlds apart from Sunny's. While Sunny's life, love and lust are built round the information highway, Jeevan, a tribal villager in a remote nook of India, does not even know who runs the country.

India has become the sixth country capable of launching a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile. After a torrent of chest-thumping commentary on the 'strategic depth' afforded by a missile that can reach China, the Indian media moved to a new story: an army operation to enter a 6,000 sq km forest patch bang in the middle of the country where the state has never set foot before. Through this forest, along with large swathes of areas such as Jeevan's village, runs the 'red corridor' where the state has little or no presence, and Maoist rebels have appropriated its authority.

A trip to this nether India leaves Balch shaken. His script of a nation on the up is falling apart. He has come to accept India's daily discrepancies in close proximity - the futuristic townships and the slums, the 'mwah' set of the fashion world and the ragpicker-prostitutes, celebrity cricketers and faceless swimmers. But nothing prepared him for this. There is no inequality here, everybody is downtrodden. In fact, there is no India here. Jeevan's village - with no health centre, no paved road and an apology for a school - lies far from the reach of the Indian state and even farther from the promise of New India.

But then, as it always does just as you are about to give up on India, it throws a 'sucker punch of hope' - this time in the shape of another village, also in the forgotten hinterlands, that is blazing a trail in self-empowerment by wresting from the government the right to manage its forest resources.

Its source of confidence, says a young change agent at the village, is education. That takes Balch on another voyage, this time to discover the silent revolution waged by numerous individuals who are reimagining India's destiny by spreading education and information through their own initiatives. The roller coaster comes to a gentle bend, hope lives on.

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