February 16, 2011


Cameron’s Cuz Is More The Curzon: Pankaj Mishra’s was more an ideological cry of pain than any honest appraisal of my book (Patrick French, Outlook India)

I write as someone who has long admired Pankaj Mishra’s literary aspirations. I first met him in 1996, when he asked me to lunch at the Gaylord restaurant in Connaught Place so as to give me a copy of his Bill Bryson-style travel book Butter Chicken in Ludhiana. It was funny and entertaining, and remains his best book. His journalism has been interesting: no fellow writer could fail to be impressed by his rendition of the story of Ngodup, a Tibetan man who died in a protest in Delhi. It is a pity Pankaj did not pursue his burgeoning career as a novelist, or produce the promised short history of modern India. Instead, he has ranged widely, sitting on eminent literary prize committees, popping up as a visiting fellow at assorted foreign universities and jetting about denouncing “business-class lounges” and their elite inhabitants. It is not clear whether Pankaj—travelling the globe for high-paying western publications, while busily condemning “late capitalist society”—ever uses these lounges himself, or whether he prefers to take a downgrade to cattle class. For a long time I have appreciated his chutzpah most of all, though he remains a writer of promise. He has been successful in imparting his “authentic” take on India to the West, and one American intellectual even adjudged our reviewer to be “the young Siddhartha Gautama himself: a scholar-sophisticate” after meeting him at “the lower Manhattan holiday party of a stylish magazine”.

Pankaj has obviously been on a long journey from his self-described origins—in what he calls a “new, very poor and relatively inchoate Asian society”—to his present position at the heart of the British establishment, married to a cousin of the prime minister David Cameron. But he seems oddly resentful of the idea of social mobility for other Indians. One of the most unexpected aspects of my research for India: A Portrait was the sheer extent of aspiration and achievement across the country, ranging from a girl from a poor background who secured a place at an IIT, to a man who has devoted his life to inventing and manufacturing a low-cost sanitary towel, to Dattu, a landless and illiterate adivasi, who today has a good job in a Maharashtra winery, to C.K. Ranganathan, who trudged the streets of Cuddalore in the 1980s selling sachets of shampoo and now employs more than 1,000 people. Pankaj looks down haughtily on the Re 1 sachet revolution, saying “cheap beauty aids are unlikely to compensate the poor for a cruelly inegalitarian healthcare system”. But whoever suggested they would? It is a fatuous conjunction of two unrelated points.

Having read his review, it is still not clear to me what he wants for India. He mentions what is wrong: poverty, corruption, debt, resource shortages, poor primary education and healthcare. But everyone knows this. Much of my book is devoted to analysing the ways in which progress is—and is not—being made. And the question remains—how to proceed from here? I do not buy the romantic view that an end to poverty is possible without the creation of wealth, or that the era of the permit raj was somehow an easier time. “India registered its most impressive gains from 1951 to 1980,” Pankaj wrote in one of his blogs on the Guardian website. “Until 1980, India achieved an average annual economic growth of 3.5 per cent”. This is a ludicrous statistic to quote, since it makes no mention that the population grew rapidly during the same period: by the 1970s, per capita GDP in India was rising more slowly than at any point in the preceding century. In another exhausting blog post, he makes a paternalistic plea to the British government not to cut its foreign aid, so as to avoid “the severing of Britain’s old links with India’s great mass of ordinary people”. But with the British economy contracting and cousin Cameron having to borrow money to fulfil that particular obligation, it hardly looks like a long-term solution.

It goes without saying that I do not believe—as alleged—that “consumer capitalism is the summit of human civilisation”, but I also have grave doubts whether Marxism, Maoism or Mishraism offer a solution. Can India’s chronic rural poverty really be alleviated only by the state? If so, how will the state get the money to do this, except by further economic growth? It is no use chanting “garibi hatao” and patting yourself on the back if you have no coherent suggestions of how to abolish poverty. You do not choose your history or your geography, and India is situated in a dangerous and difficult neighbourhood. It may be a long way from Utopia, but India has an entrenched and developed democratic system, a long tradition of fervent debate, a vibrant economy and a largely tolerant relationship between different communities.

I have some questions for the vendors of the apocalypse, who make a living abroad selling a constrained, outdated and implacably narrow vision of what India is and could be. Where do they currently see their own political and economic ideas being put into effect in a useful, humane way? Is it in West Bengal, or Dantewada? Or perhaps abroad, in foreign countries? How does poverty stand a chance of being alleviated unless someone does the work of creating wealth?

The path to prosperity is the one laid out by the Anglos.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 16, 2011 6:29 AM
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