INDIA RISING: TALES FROM A CHANGING NATION By Oliver Balch, Faber, Rs 599
Oliver Balch is a UK-based freelance journalist specializing in business and world affairs. He returned to India after many years, having read about its “enormous transformations of recent years” and caught up in disbelief and anticipation. “Yet could so much have changed?” was the query of his heart which “still longed for something Other, something enchanting, something utterly different from anywhere else I knew”.
But when he comes upon Arun Nanda, who masterminded the multi-million dollar real estate project Mahindra World City — touted to be ‘an integrated business city’ — his mindset changes. Balch realizes that this indeed is the New India pulsating with the business mantra, which it believes to be the elixir of change. A vision unfolds before him — of an India very other than that ‘something Other’. This doubly othered India, Balch writes, is “a transitory place, not necessarily divorced from the Old, yet not wedded to it either.”
This transitoriness spawns a reality which unabashedly accommodates rank contradictions. The post-colonial experience itself is an apprenticeship in the art of living with paradoxes. Hag-ridden by modernizing processes and the lure of business capital, it turns schizophrenic. This is not, however, unforeseeable. It is a long time since Leon Trotsky, in The History of the Russian Revolution, postulated “the law of combined development”, which was “an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms”. No wonder Balch finds his New India hanging in a limbo.
It is intriguing to note what psychodynamics informs the social relations of this changed India. The cityscapes are already a creepy crisscross of lines. Balch observes that the Mumbai cityscape is “a conglomeration of vertical skyscrapers and horizontal slums”. The mammoth skyscrapers plummeting up from amid the smoggy, dingy Indian slums short-circuit the traditional life-space. The slum-dwellers no longer ‘look ahead’, but ‘look up’ in life. Their horizontal aspiration spirals up to a vertical ambition, and they learn to change gears even in desire. That is why, in one of Balch’s anecdotes, Babu — who lives in the basement — declares, after a chance entry to a twenty-eighth floor flat from where he saw Mumbai “soar up to him”, that he wants to change his profession.
In Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari speak of a “desiring machine” not run by an agent, but self-propagating like “a body without organs”. It picks on agents and motivates them, bringing forth diverse syntheses. Balch’s description of Bollywood exemplifies a “synthesis of connection”, linking the global to the local. Stardom is that body without organs which is lent human shapes through contraptions like acting schools. The cricketing career is another such “body” whose synthesizing potential has democratized the cricketing scenario. Another flourishing sector, Balch notes, is fashion. A semiotic reading of the designer garments and the geometry of the exposed skins of the haute couture brigade hints at the capitalistic highway the nation is on. Balch shifts his venue to the “hobbling” city of Calcutta to study the rising divorce rate in India. This has a tenuous link with capitalism, but only that much. Balch’s New India has older Indias tucked into its folds, which sometimes lie unrecognized, and sometimes get caught in a time warp. His anecdotes in choppy, crispy prose expertly chart out this spasmodic journey.