lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Six impossible things before breakfast

It's one of those days. You can't decide what you want to read. There is consideration these days about the size of the book too. Fat and heavy books daunt me nowadays; I have to wonder if my wrists can manage the weight.

The book came highly recommended, with William Dalrymple and Amartya Sen heaping praises on it, in the back blurbs.

Dalrymple said, "In Spite of the Gods is without question the best book yet written on the New India: witty, clear and accessible yet minutely researched and confidently authoritative. Edward Luce has proved himself an affectionate and unusually perceptive observer of the Indian scene."

I generally take such recommendations with a pinch of salt, but the next one was from Professor Amartya Sen, a marvel of a poorly written recco.

"In Spite of the Gods is not only fun to read, it is also a deeply insightful account of contemporary India. Based on the author's rare combination of intimacy and detachment, the book can serve, remarkably enough, both as a fine introduction for outsiders and as a mature scrutiny that is bound to stimulate insiders."

Even after that, I waded through the 25 pages of introduction. I tell you, I am the persevering sort. But there is always a last straw. For me, after that interminable preface and introduction, the straw was the third sentence in the first chapter. How can I believe anything this man says when he writes:

"It took a long time. But finally, in the late 1990s, India started to build roads which could get you from A to B at something better than a canter. Until then, India's most significant highway was the Grand Trunk Road that bisects the country from north to south."

Dalrymple says this was minutely researched. Indeed. After gnashing my teeth, I read further.

"Laid at various stages by the late medieval Mughal dynasty, then upgraded and extended by the British in the nineteenth century and popularised by Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim, most of the 'GT Road', as it is known, got acquainted with asphalt only after independence. But it is single lane and one can rarely exceed an average speed of thirty miles an hour."

If the author is on record that the Grand Trunk Road bisected the country north to south and no sub-editor thought or chose to correct him, do I want to read further about what he thinks of 'The Strange Rise of Modern India'?

What further gross assumptions does he make, and do I want to wear my teeth out reading them? That Kipling and Kim 'popularised' the Grand Trunk Road? That National Highways did not exist till the Golden Quadrilateral project? That double-lane highways did not exist in India before this? So I did my car trips from Madras to Rishi Valley driving on dirt tracks with ruts of bullock carts, did I?

I gritted my teeth through the introduction and hibiscus juice, but this? Thank you, no. Oh, and happy birthday, Kalyan.



Blogger Kadambari said...

Heh, my sympathies. Have you checked this?

11:28 am  
Anonymous Ash said...

Don't let that one error colour your judgment of the book, it is well written.

Happy birthday, Kalyan.

12:51 pm  
Anonymous Hehhhh said...

Keep telling you, stick to pulp fiction.


I dislike books written about the "esoterica" and "chaos" of India for foriegn palates, in the end they end up trying to cater to the snakecharmer/elephants on the roads crowd. Even if well disguised. Look ma, no snakecharmers ! Only a polite surprise that India HAS highways now, doncha know ?

Pah, I could rant.

And happy birthday to K ? Doan waste time, give the gent a beer : )

2:17 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Kadambari- Yeah, I read that before, bu thanks for the link. Sympathies indeed.

Ash- No way. Once I read something like that it puts me off so totally I can't manage a sympathetic reading.

Hehhhh- Ooh, look who dropped in to comment. Here is another gem, talking about Indira Gandhi and her image as Durga:
"She gained the epithet after India had defeated Pakistan in the war that resulted in the succession of East Pakistan from West Pakistan in 1971."

I kid you not. Really. I suppose I should be glad that words like 'charming', 'quaint', and 'sleepy backwaters' were not spotted in my skimming through the book.

Yes, no time wasted, much beer flowing only. :-)

3:39 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

furriners writing about India is always irritatin, but so called Indians writing about india is as bad. in spite of the gods is a bad book. glad you ranted about it.

8:21 pm  
Blogger Shirsha said...

though, what'd u recommend, if you had to, for a book on contemporary-ish India written by a foreigner?

10:31 pm  
Blogger Sivaram said...

Foreigners writing about India is one thing, mostly I can say, forgive them, for thy know not!
But WOGs is totally a different matter.
I had once an engineer of Bengalee extraction, done his graduation and post-grad from IISc Bangalore, comes to Delhi for commissioning a plant after working in US for 10 years, and tells me - "this thing called Idli - I always wanted to eat it" !!!!
The best book on contemporary India by a foreigner I know is - ?? Haroun and the Sea of Stories ?

12:16 pm  
Blogger Shirsha said...

Thats not by a foreigner now... nor is it non-fiction exactly...

12:12 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Anon- If by so-called Indian authors you mean Rushdie, Seth and Naipaul, I don't consider them Indian; of Indian origin, certainly, but not Indian.

Shirsha- I wouldn't recommend as such. Books and authors should be discovered by ourselves to be enjoyed best.

Sivaram- Hm. It's an allegory, not a straight non-fiction book on contemporary India.

Shirsha- Rushdie is a foreigner. :-) But yes, like I said to Sivaram, it's more an allegory.

6:49 pm  

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