In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce Little, Brown, HK$300 Paul French Sir Thomas Roe, an early English visitor to Delhi in 1615, declared: 'Religions infinite; laws none. In that confusion what can be expected?' Actually, rather a lot, both then and now. Roe himself had high hopes of India and the trade prospects it could offer. Indeed, he was willing to drink himself stupid regularly with the Great Mogul, Jahangir, in order to secure the rights of the English factory at Surat. Former Financial Times South Asia bureau chief Edward Luce seems to suggest that India today remains a land of infinite religions and weak laws, but is clearly one of which we can expect a significant amount in the future. But of what? Luce provides a fair and detailed balancing of the scales and comes down on the optimistic side. Balance is, of course, what India is rather good at: balancing thriving democracy against occasional authoritarian tendencies; persistently high illiteracy rates with being an advanced nuclear power; a plethora of interests (religious, caste, business and machine politics) with the greater good of the nation. Luce argues that the vibrancy of India's democracy will outweigh any constraints that religion, caste or corrupt politicians can throw up. For Luce, India is about the people, and the people shall overcome. In Bihar, for example, private (and highly religious) madrasas have grown as the under-funded state education system has weakened. The result has been falling enrolment rates for girls. Yet, when the government does get its act together and build schools with toilets, electricity and teachers, parents clamour to send their daughters. Religion is important, but it need not interfere with aspiration. This year's annoying business buzzword has been Chindia and the supposed synergies between the two countries. In Spite of the Gods is a useful text for those who have concentrated more on the 'Chin' than the 'dia' of late and who need to brush up on the subcontinent. Chindia may mean something to the disengaged businessman looking for the next profit centre, but for more rounded individuals such as Luce the issue that starkly and immediately separates the two is the existence of a vibrant democracy in one and something altogether different in the other. The democratic process in India at times slows development and frustrates business people, but at least democracy is a hurdle the subcontinent has cleared. India may lag China in building infrastructure, but it has built political pluralism. Ultimately, which is the more difficult to construct? Political will and an acceptance of what has to be done can hasten the construction of roads and airports in India far more easily than China, for all its expressways and container ports, can introduce political pluralism, a free press and religious tolerance. Certainly, Luce sees India's pluralism as its greatest competitive advantage - what often boils down to the sacred ability to make a nuisance of yourself and get something done. In Spite of the Gods abounds with examples of progressive trouble-makers who are tolerated in India. Any country even remotely approaching India in terms of religious, social and geographic diversity (let alone sheer numbers) would be hard to understand and interpret. Luce has done an admirable job while remembering Amartya Sen's observation that 'anything one might say about India, the opposite can also be shown to be true'.