Unsolved puzzle

Last Updated: Thu, Dec 20, 2012 20:20 hrs

The astonishingly wide range of ideas explored in Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India by Vivek Dehejia and Rupa Subramanya will delight some readers and frustrate others. The authors have applied methods of their own specialisation – economics – and borrowed liberally from many other disciplines including history, political science, psychology, sociology, evolutionary biology and even religion, in their attempt to understand modern India. In their words, the “richness of India – which to some people may appear as mere messiness – deserves, indeed demands, such an interdisciplinary approach. When you dig below the apparent chaos of India, and get to the mechanisms hidden below the confusing patterns on top, India makes sense after all”.

Indianomix is centred on India, but by no means limited to it. It goes on to explore not only the real world in which we live, but the limitless world of counterfactuals – what would have happened if some major event of the past had ended up differently – as also myths and blind beliefs and how they affect the behaviour of individuals and groups from different cultural backgrounds.

While the authors have presented convincing analyses of the near-universal lack of punctuality and lack of cleanliness in India, the same cannot be said of some of their other analyses. The authors’ forays are often more in the nature of probing expeditions without any attempt to consolidate and reach a definite conclusion — or, at least, some sort of an overview. This is why the book ends somewhat abruptly.

The authors’ Chapter Notes at the end of the book suggest a level of academic discipline and rigour — but the major factual errors in the book (referred to below) show that the sources on which the authors have relied may not have been equally robust.

Though the authors have referred to the incursion of the Chinese army into India in 1962 repeatedly, their description on page 31 implying some kind of threat to Calcutta (as it was then called) borders on sensationalism not expected from academics. The Chinese were never “… as it were within shooting distance of Calcutta …”. The deepest ingress of the Chinese forces into India was up to the hills about 15 km from Tezpur. This is more than an 800-km straight-line distance away, across three major rivers and cutting through the then East Pakistan. Moreover, the authors do not explore the short- and long-term effects of this attack by China on India. If they did, they would have found that, ironically, unlike China, India benefited immensely from this attack.

The otherwise fascinating analysis in the chapter “Heads or Tails” is marred by two major factual errors. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and its allies were forced out of their existing tie-up within the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) before the 2004 elections as a result of Lal Krishna Advani’s insistence on the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). POTA was not acceptable to the DMK and its allies — whose leaders had been imprisoned earlier without trial under this Act. This single act of folly cost the NDA 40 seats, 39 in Tamil Nadu and one in Pondicherry — and it lost when it was almost sure to emerge victorious and continue in power.

Moreover, Sonia Gandhi did not become Congress party chief in 2004. She had become Congress party chief around the time when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government lost a no-confidence motion by a single vote in the late 1990s. In fact, Sonia Gandhi, a political greenhorn back then (critics famously called her a reader rather than a leader because she would only read from prepared speeches and not take questions), failed to become prime minister at that time — only because Mulayam Singh Yadav, leader of the Samajwadi Party, refused to extend support to her. Mr Yadav had declared publicly that Sonia Gandhi’s attitude in the negotiations at that time reminded him of the childhood game in his locality of “Main banungi Rani, tum bharo pani” (I will be Queen, you play the role of the servant and fill the bucket).

Nevertheless, these painstakingly compiled – apparently random – musings provide many surprisingly valuable insights, although the initial pages of Indianomix may leave the reader struggling with an increasingly uncomfortable feeling of what all this is leading up to. This book can also be read as an interesting yarn with no particular purpose in mind.

The delightful cover illustration conveys the sense of puzzlement and uncertainty that the authors may have felt while writing and the readers may feel while reading Indianomix. This illustration is based on the old tale of “Six blind men of Hindoostan” trying to make sense of an elephant. Though why the six have been changed to five blindfolded suited and booted white and brown men (and no women — in these days of gender equality, even when one of the authors is a woman) is not clear. Mohit Suneja and those who commissioned his work have added value to Indianomix.

Vivek Dehejia and Rupa Subramanya Random House
219 pages; Rs 399

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