Adam Roberts, Superfast, Primetime, Ultimate Nation: The relentless invention of modern India, Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Ghochar, translated by Srinath Perur

08/08/17, TLS

There used to be a term for breezy, simplistic books written by Western men doing a stint for a high-profile newspaper or magazine in difficult and complex places such as India or Africa or the Far East: the Foreign Correspondent Book. While its title doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, Superfast, Primetime, Ultimate Nation: The relentless invention of modern India by Adam Roberts, the former South Asia correspondent for the Economist, is saved from falling into that old, almost colonialist trap by several things. First, there is the author’s intelligence and research, through which he makes the thick complications of recent Indian history lucid and comprehensible. His focus is on the Hindu nationalist government which came to power under the leadership of Narendra Modi in 2014, and whether Modi’s government can deliver the vast and deep reforms that India needs if it is to fulfil its potential. Necessarily, his book also looks back on the complex set of economic and social issues that resulted in such a huge mandate for Modi and in the crushing defeat of the Congress Party.

Second, Roberts’s book brings a lot to the table by way of numbers and statistics friendly to the non-specialist reader; you would, of course, expect this from a senior writer at the Economist. There is, on every page, an apposite and eloquent use of figures: overall Indian spending on health is a pitiful $75 per person (compared to $420 in China and $947 in Brazil); 30 per cent of Indian children are underweight (compared with 3 per cent in China and 21 per cent in Africa); remittance by Indians overseas in 2016 amounted to $70 billion, equal to 3.5 per cent of the country’s GDP, “often outstripping flows of foreign investment”; as late as 2015, “around 130 million Indian households [in a population touching 1.3 billion] lacked toilets”; women’s labour accounts for only 17 per cent of the formal economy (compared to China’s 40 per cent). These numbers nail a truth that remains outside the scope of any solely discursive genre.

Each chapter follows a pattern: a quick, informative and sound tour around a particular topic, such as the position of women in Indian society, or the corruption that is rife in the country’s elections, always substantiated with interesting and helpful data, but with pulled-punches commentary on how awful the situation is, then a brief, Pollyanna-ish conclusion, which is inevitably along the lines of “some glimmers of hope”. The problems of India are so vast, and on such a vast scale, that some glimmers are not going to cut it. Roberts seems to be hamstrung by what I can only call a kind of politeness; he seems to understand that because of his nationality, historical forces stop him being openly scathing about India. But if he appears to pull his punches in the beginning, there are some later chapters, particularly the ones on election fraud, sanitation, public health, women and sectarian violence, in which even this cautiously optimistic foreign correspondent cannot turn away from his own evidence. Chapters fade out on the bathetic diminuendos of India “can do a lot more”.

This is a measure of Roberts’s truthfulness: the data, wherever you look, is utterly damning. Take, for example, job creation. The time-tested way of getting the economy going and of spreading the benefits of growth widely is to get more people into factories. But India is largely reliant on capital-heavy manufacturing, and Roberts admits that it is “unlikely that such new factories [such as Apollo Tyres, or Tetrapak] would really create tens of millions of jobs”. He even tots up the human cost of India’s failure to catch up with the rest of East Asia in the manufacturing sector: “India missed out on many millions – perhaps tens of millions – of formal jobs”. Another example: a Goods and Services Tax (GST), designed to create a single market for India and make it easier for factories and producers to sell to the whole country, gives Roberts some hope. It became law about a year ago. In a recent op-ed in the Economist, the author (who may well be Roberts) admits that the opportunity has been wasted.

Like all observers of India, Roberts is confronted by a reality that flies in the face of upbeat official data. When the value of exports from the country had diminished for eighteen consecutive months in May 2016, “official statistics claimed the economy was thriving more than any other big one on the planet”. It is worth quoting Roberts fully on this point:

“Talking sensibly about India’s economy was tricky, however, partly because of doubts about new official statistics, introduced in 2015 [by the Modi government], that appeared to be divorced from experiences of businesses and consumers in the real world. Official statistics showed India’s economy racing at well over 7 per cent a year, a much giddier pace than a slowing China. (The same method suggested it had rattled on almost as fast in the final years of [Manmohan] Singh’s government [the previous one], which nobody believed.) On the ground, however, India felt more like an economy in the relative doldrums, growing at perhaps 4 or 5 per cent.”

Roberts provides various examples of the visual markers of a slowing economy, including abandoned construction sites, half-finished projects, silent malls, armies of casual labourers out of work, stalled domestic spending and broken infrastructure.

Modi, however, has a firm understanding of fake news and image manipulation. From 2012 he began to project 3D holograms of himself at several election rallies simultaneously. The images were simple optical tricks but they succeeded in wowing illiterate rural voters. A sure touch with the meaningless soundbite (“less government, more governance”; “men, machines, and money must work together”) and an avid use of social media are, however, no substitutes for the real work that will actually bring about the change the population wanted when it voted him to power. Again, in Roberts’s own words, “Modi seemed to believe much would change in India if only perceptions of the country were different – missing the point that facts also had to change on the ground”.

The solutions to India’s seemingly infinite problems that a correspondent for a centre-right publication would come up with are somewhat predictable: shrink the state, let the private sector in, create a stable and light regulatory environment, then let the free market work its magic. Much of this is unarguable. So many of India’s problems can be laid at the door of the country’s gigantic, interfering, corrupt, lumbering, radically inefficient state. “India’s perennial problem”, Roberts notes, “despite being a democracy, has been the failure of its state to deliver basic services of all sorts.” He is particularly good at putting his finger on the problems, but less expansive on how the reforms he suggests could be implemented, or what they would yield. Make it a business-friendly country. Let foreign investment pour in. Create jobs. Build infrastructure. Enact radical economic reforms in the domains of tax, labour, banking, bureaucracy, land . . . you name it. While earlier in the book Roberts seems to be on the side of Amartya Sen in the notorious spat between him and the right-wing Indian economist Jagdish Bhagwati – a debate between Sen’s idea of the development of “human capital” and Bhagwati’s fetishization of rapid GDP growth – later in the book the author’s prescriptions would seem mostly to be about growth, something that can become sclerotic, even hypostasized, if it isn’t directly linked to redistribution. Roberts doesn’t have much to say about how growth translates into benefits for all and a safety net for the most vulnerable in society.

Creating wealth does not mean a more equal nation; in fact, long-term trends would point exactly to the opposite outcome, as Thomas Piketty has notably shown. Hasn’t the “trickle-down” model of distribution been confined to the dustbin of rubbish economic theories? Here is Roberts’s own data: in the six years between 2009 and 2015, the number of Indians with investable assets worth over $1 million rose from 127,000 to 200,000; “India’s wealthy had assets worth nearly $1 trillion. But their wealth did not trickle far [my italics]”. Roberts may advocate job creation over mere trickle-down economics, but this is where he stops. While job creation would help to bring about a well-needed expansion of the Indian middle classes, it would not in itself address the problem of welfare for the very poor.

How does Roberts envisage a radically dysfunctional and corrupt state such as India creating the right regulatory environment for those private sectors to deliver the magical free-market gains? What about price inelastic sectors where bad, light or unenforced regulation would create unimaginable misery? Take one such example: India’s health care is private; like most private markets, it is a racket; it has failed the poor, who form a very large part of the population, and there is no evidence that it delivers the best to the people who can pay for it. Even in the West, with its (mostly) efficient markets and a (mostly) sound regulatory framework, privatization has been beset by problems. Just look at Britain’s railways. Or US health care. And India is exactly the kind of place where the class of people that economists call rent-seekers will create the worst of depredatory private sectors which will plunder unchecked. Let us not forget the 2G spectrum scam in the auction of frequency allocation licences to (private) telecom companies in 2010 – a rigged sale that is estimated to have cost the treasury nearly $40 million in lost revenues.

Throughout Roberts’s book, China’s success story provides the contrasting template to India’s failure. The version of state capitalism that has delivered such gains to China is inseparable from its authoritarianism. Roberts deplores this aspect of state power; yet the triangulation between his valorization of the theoretical model of Indian democracy (in practice, it is somewhat different), the investing of all hopes in the “strongman” (read: authoritarian) Modi to bring in economic reforms, and the examples of China’s success creates a unique vector. In which direction does it point? Towards the spectre of authoritarianism in India, but with a crucially new factor thrown in. When not actively instigating, aiding and abetting, the current government has dangerously fanned the flames of sectarian violence. There is a level-headed chapter on the carnage in Gujarat in 2002, when Modi was the Chief Minister of the state, the even tone only serving to emphasize Roberts’s condemnation and fears for the future. There are now deeply troubling instances, for example, of Hindu vigilante mobs lynching Muslims on false allegations of carrying beef. Chhattisgarh, one of India’s newer states, is worse than a police state, plagued by state-sanctioned criminal activity and violence, especially targeting journalists, rights activists and NGOs. Nationalism is running high: all the ugly things in the Indian polity and society previously kept under check now seem to be flourishing. Roberts is alive to all of this and he doesn’t whitewash the disturbing Hindu nationalist aspect of a country run by a man who, until recently, was banned from travelling to the US because of his involvement in the massacre in 2002.

This is a responsible introductory tour of the problems and choices facing present-day India, the kind of thing that intelligent journalism does well. One of Roberts’s winning qualities is that he so clearly wants the country to fulfil its huge potential. But hopes and realities pull in opposite directions in the book – so much so that a fine, productive tension comes to exist between the two, making me wonder if the mouthful of the title isn’t after all profoundly, albeit perhaps unintentionally, ironic.

As always, fiction encapsulates a kind of truth with an immediacy and vividness that no amount of data and historical summaries can begin to approach. Ghachar Ghochar, the first work by the Kannada novelist Vivek Shanbhag to be translated into English, is the story of one shabby-genteel, lower-middle-class family in Bangalore that moves up the economic ladder; in just over a hundred pages it distils the human soul’s infinitely complicated relationship with money. Without Srinath Perur’s precisely fluent and beautiful English translation, this jewel of a novel would have been little known even in India. (I should add that I was approached last year by Shanbhag’s US publisher to provide a quotation for the novel’s dust jacket. I agreed, after finishing the book in a single sitting. I do not know the author, the translator, or the publisher. This review offers a welcome chance to expand on my earlier enthusiasm.)

The opening chapter sounds the prevailing note of subterranean, occluded menace as the first-person narrator, a young man in his late twenties, sits in his regular haunt, Coffee House, killing time, “desperate to unburden” himself to the waiter, Vincent, who seems to him the fount of all wisdom. But then, as the narrative loops back in time to give us the story of the family to which our narrator belongs, this note is buried, only to be released again in perfectly calibrated measures over the course of the novel, until it subtly explodes in the final pages.

The family comprises the unnamed narrator, his mother Amma, his father Appa, his sister Malati and his uncle Chikkappa, the younger brother of Appa. In the very recent past, described in an unobtrusive back story, their circumstances have been straitened: at the occasional Sunday afternoon meal out in an unostentatious dosa restaurant the parents must share a single cup of coffee. They live in a house – precisely described – with very few possessions; the windows on one side are never opened because they give onto an open drain; from the other side, strong cooking smells spill from their neighbour’s kitchen. Appa is the only earning member, a tea salesman, who has to make the figures add up at the end of each day’s work. There is a tense scene in which the two columns don’t tally one evening. Shanbhag’s acute understanding of how everyone’s lives turn around this seemingly trivial piece of accountancy is extraordinary.

Then everything changes: Appa is forced to accept voluntary redundancy while he still has a good eight years of working life ahead of him. Disaster seems to be looming, but Chikkappa steps in and decides to start a wholesale spice business with start-up money from Appa’s retirement benefits. Money brings a new gas stove at first, then a bigger house, jewellery, leisure, comfort, liberation from the attrition of the daily grind. But there are other costs: “It’s true what they say – it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us. When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us. Money had swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind.”

The unravelling happens in small increments: Malati descends into incivility (we will understand the full implications of how Chikkappa helps her to walk out of her marriage only later); Amma and Malati gang up against a woman who comes to the house to see Chikkappa, claiming to know him (this chronologically later episode occurs early in the novel, setting the interpretative para­meters of the novel’s unsparing morality). Shanbhag is doing something clever with his female characters, around whom Ghachar Ghochar can be seen to revolve – characters typically designed as ethical barometers in much Indian literature and cinema. Several of Satyajit Ray’s films, for example, use this trope. In The Middleman, a film that seems particularly pertinent to Shanbhag’s novel, the protagonist’s first successful steps in the material world occur with a bribe that he reluctantly arranges for a prosperous client: time with a prostitute. It turns out that the woman is his poor best friend’s sister; she will become the mirror for the hero’s compromised soul. In Ghachar Ghochar, too, the narrator’s wife Anita, an outsider who enters the family, becomes its troublesome conscience, but not in any quiescent way. She upsets the unquestioning power structures based on money, questions notions of leisure and labour, tears up the cardinal rule that the “well-being of any household rests on selective acts of blindness and deafness”, and even gives the novel its title (a nonsense word meaning “a hopeless, unsolvable tangle”). But the truly progressive soul of the book lies not in any simplistic and insiduous equation of women with virtue, yet in a deliberate clouding of the trope.

The Middleman ends with a characteristic Ray touch, a song on the radio in the background – Tagore’s “Shadows are thickening in the forests” – that functions as a particular metaphor for the darkness that has now blotted the protagonist’s soul. Shanbhag uses a pathetic fallacy in a not dissimilar manner: in the final, shocking chapter, as the core family (minus Anita) gathers to trade gossipy anecdotes about traceless murders and how easily they can be achieved, the “clouds thickened outside; the house turned a shade darker”. In a chapter in which everything works by implication, collocation and suggestion, of a signification that remains just outside the margins of the page, the darkening is both moral and symbolic of a real threat, of criminality. These shadows seem to be linked with the novelty of wealth for those who have been constrained by its lack all their lives.

If Thomas Schelling will forgive me for mangling the title of one of his books, on one side there is economics, on the other side microbehaviour, and I don’t know of another novel that bridges the two with such subtlety and penetrating moral force. Ghachar Ghochar is a spare, sharp picture of the complex calculus between morality and material ease.