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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A Wondrous creation

How India was born -- and how it has failed its founders

By Tarun J. Tejpal


SO WHAT IS INDIA? The world's largest functioning anarchy? A state of mind or a mere idea? And if it is only an idea, whose was it? In 1947, when the British finally relinquished control, the subcontinent was a disunited melange of kingdoms, principalities and British-governed territories. They were inhabited by dozens of races speaking a baffling mix of languages and dialects and practicing different religions and social mores. India had a history stretching back into antiquity, but a political consciousness that was just a few decades old.

The British were only the latest in a long series of conquerors who had marched in over the centuries. For all that, their departure left a vacuum to be filled and a country to be created virtually from scratch. Still as young tutor Sunil Khilnani puts it in his extended historical essay, The Idea of India (Hamish Hamilton, London. 17.99): "If India was weakly united, it was also weakly divided: there were no politically significant regional identities that could either obstruct unification or direct it."

The author argues that India was essentially a fantastic, supremely aesthetic and ethical idea dreamed up by a handful of outstanding nationalists. Chief among them was the peerless Jawaharlal Nehru. Mahatma Gandhi's confidant, Nehru was an alumnus of English public schools and Cambridge University, and intellectually a child of modernism and rationality -- both distinctly un-Indian at the time. A sensitive liberal, Nehru philosophically saw India as joining in the grand fusion of different cultures and politics, of the West and the East, of equality and science.

As Khilnani points out, there were no obvious historical precedents in Indian culture for any of these concepts, not to mention democracy and organized economic development. As India's first prime minister -- for 17 years -- Nehru essentially grafted them onto a mostly unreceptive society. "Democracy based on universal suffrage did not emerge from popular pressures, it was not wrested by the people from the state; it was given to them by an intellectual elite," the author writes. This is just one instance in the wondrous story of how a small elite sculpted an entire nation in an alien mold.

Traditional Indian society had been largely impervious to its rulers of whatever color. Governed by strict codes of social hierarchy, a caste system and insular rituals, Indians had seldom let distant rulers and conquerors intrude into their lives. Nehru's achievement, for good or ill, was to insinuate the idea of the state into the core of Indian society. Enlarged, its ambitions inflated, the state was transformed from something distant and alien into a ubiquitous source of jobs, ration cards, education, security and cultural recognition. In that way, the state etched itself into the imagination of Indians in a way that no previous ruler had ever done.

But, as Khilnani repeatedly asserts, Nehru's original vision has been parodied. Democracy has been reduced in the past two decades to its basest definition: the winning of elections. Most politicians mouth the ideal of secularism like a mantra, but few live by its principles. Religious tensions and divisions are rife.

And then at the bottom of it all is the disappointing failure of the tightly controlled command economy, which has proven to be, in the author's words, "grandiose, irrelevant and even destructive." He argues that the profusion of controls has failed to create a productive public sector. "It has squeezed out private enterprise and given the state access to resources used not for welfare but as pools of patronage."

Brilliantly linking concepts and propositions, Khilnani maintains throughout an unsentimental, unprejudiced tone buttressed with potent, vivid prose. He does not advance an ideological agenda; he merely debates causes and effects -- with striking results. The sweep is wide, but the essay is not weighed down by wordy footnotes and laborious cross-references. It is a classical essay, positing viewpoints, examining theories, testing claims, sparking old material in new ways.

Khilnani's prognosis on India? "Ultimately, the viability of [its] democracy will rest on its capacity to sustain internal diversity, on its ability to avoid giving reason to groups within the citizen body to harbor dreams of having their own exclusive nation states. Such dreams of partition and domestic purity are animated by the fantasy that all problems begin and end at the border; they do not. There is no ideological or cultural guarantee for a nation to hold together. It just depends on human skills."

In 200 pages, Khilnani tells us more about India, past and present, than most other heftier books on the subject. This work is unquestionably the most significant examination of the country to be published this year, in which India celebrates its 50th year of Independence. In terms of his literary flair alone, Khilnani puts into the shade most of India's loudly acclaimed new young writers.

Tarun J. Tejpal is an editor with Outlook, India's

second-largest-selling newsmagazine

Sunil Khilnani's Obsession

Born in Delhi and educated at Cambridge, 36-year-old Sunil Khilnani is based in London, where he teaches politics at Birkbeck College. His parents were killed more than 15 years ago by robbers breaking into their home in New Delhi. He has lived abroad ever since. Jawaharlal Nehru is his obsession, and he is working on a monumental biography of the leader that he claims will be "the definitive biography for his generation." Khilnani believes, not surprisingly, that the current anti-Nehru trend is misinformed, and that, generally, even Indians fail to assess the former leader in all his complexity. Low key, with a charmingly open air, Khilnani is not at all inflated by the enormous praise The Idea of India is drawing in England and India. At the book's launch in London, former British Labor Party leader Michael Foot described it as one of the most significant works of its kind of the 20th century.

The Secrets of Levitation

A Filipino guide to the art of social climbing

Books don't come much lighter than Jullie Yap Daza's Manners For Moving Up -- in more ways than one. It runs to just 79 pages, which makes it slighter than many magazines. And it contains a good deal of fluff. Entertaining fluff, mind you, but definitely not a thesis on mores and the man.

Sample: When dining out, the woman should give her food order to the male and he will tell the waiter what she wants. But what if the waiter asks the woman directly? "She should say she's still thinking about it," Daza advises. The trick is that by the time the pesky waiter comes back, the man will be ready to step in with the order.

Simple stuff, but let's not mock Daza or her book. It offers a range of tips for all strata of society. Some deal with topics that can baffle those just learning to maneuver their way around the social scene, such as the order in which to use your dining utensils ("outermost first, going in toward the plate"). To anyone but a Filipino, others seem blindingly obvious. How do you know if you are wanted at a wedding? "If you did not receive an invitation, you're not invited."

A mite unnecessarily, the author suggests reading the book in morsels, while waiting for the traffic to move or during TV commercials. And it doesn't have to be approached from the front. Just dip in anywhere you like, learn something and get out again.

Did you know, for instance, that there are rules -- or at least guidelines -- about the wearing of precious stones? "Diamonds are okay if you're 18 or over, but don't flaunt them for the sake of flaunting them," says Daza. "Children should not wear diamonds, not even in small amounts." Pearls? They are fine for day or night, but diamonds are for the evening.

Daza first made a splash in the shallow pond of Filipino literature with Etiquette For Mistresses, a 1994 handbook on conducting illicit love affairs. This compilation of what was little more than coffee-shop gossip got tongues wagging with its thinly veiled references to "other women."

Etiquette For Mistresses was quite a success. And so is Manners For Moving Up. "We're often out of stock," said the manager of a national bookshop chain when it was released. For that, Daza should perhaps say a big thank-you to her faithful readers. It's only good manners, after all.

-- Wilhelmina Paras


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