In Spite of the Gods

In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India
My friends Shabbir and ILA from Bombay offered me sometime ago the book written by Edward Luce. I am so grateful to them.

It is a very entertaining and yet very well documented book which I thoroughly enjoyed. Living in Mauritius in the country with the largest majority of Indians in the southern hemisphere, I was enthused with the writings of Edward Luce.

I am now clearer (I guess) or at least I could sense the source of some of the unexplained behaviour of some of our Indian origin brothers of Mauritius particularly some of the prominent politicians. Castes system: origin and practices are very well illustrated in the document. One only needs to transpose the basis concept of Caste system from the Vedic literature to the reality of present Mauritian Society.

I was interested to read Luce’s view on:

1.      The relationship of the between the majority community and the Indians of Muslim faith. How the situation will develop with the Islamic world’s expansion.

2.      The impact of Bollywood and the Cinema on the Indian Society and the world.

3.      The continuing threat of Hindu nationalism.

4.      The modern Global and Medieval co existing together.

5.      The future  issues of India in the face of the United States and China


The Guardian English newspaper produced a comment on the book:

While researching this book, Edward Luce visits the Cow Product Research Centre near the central Indian city of Nagpur. It is run by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a right-wing militant organisation dedicated to, among other things, the ‘reform of the Hindu religion’.

Luce is shown around by a senior activist, who starts by taking him to the laboratories. ‘The first room hit me about 20 metres before we arrived. It contained hundreds of bottles of cow’s urine. Next we were shown cow-dung products. My favourite was cow-dung soap.’ ‘God lives in the cow dung,’ Luce’s guide said. ‘All of these recipes are contained in the holy texts.’


This anecdote raises the snigger it is calculated to raise and reinforces a stereotype about India. Luce, however, is no panderer to stereotypes. He shows us that with India, stereotypes exemplified by such anecdotes often turn out to be red herrings.

The euphoria about India’s capability in information technology, economic might and superpower potential has of late been tempered by an awareness of just how much darkness is still beneath the lamp. Study after study has revealed this sobering fact. According to one, India still has only 84 television sets per 1,000 people (America has 938); 7.2 personal computers for every thousand people (Australia has 564.5); and the internet reaches only 2 per cent (Malaysia’s figure is 34 per cent).

Several recent books have examined the savage inequalities between the country’s burgeoning, educated, urban elite and the shockingly poor who live in the vast hinterlands. Luce’s thoughtful and thorough book – ‘an unsentimental evaluation of contemporary India against the backdrop of its widely expected ascent to great power status in the 21st century’ – fits right into this category.

He suggests the dichotomy of India in the book’s subtitle and later calls India’s rise ‘strange’ because, while becoming an important political and economic force, it has remained ‘an intensely religious, spiritual and, in some ways, superstitious society’.

It is always difficult to structure a book like this one, but Luce manages well by breaking up the narrative into neat chapters, each dealing with a different theme and each capable of standing on its own feet. We are offered accounts of India’s ‘schizophrenic’ flourishing economy; its state machinery; its caste conflicts; the rise of Hindu nationalism; the dynastic nature of its politics; its relationship with Pakistan and its Muslim minority; its relationship with the US and China; the country’s experience of grappling with modernity and urbanisation.

Luce is better placed than most to write this book. Between 2001 and 2005, he was the Financial Times’s New Delhi-based South Asia bureau chief and his wife is Indian. His combination of closeness and distance lends him objectivity and credibility. In Spite of the Gods is not afraid to tackle the big question, which is how the rise of China and India might alter the geopolitical map of the world. Towards the end of the book, Luce elaborates on how the relationship between the two Asian countries has altered and how America, suspicious of India during the Cold War years, has warmed to it more recently. The US, he says, would want to promote better ties with India to counterbalance China’s emerging dominance and ‘prolong American power in the coming decades’.

The research here is formidable. Luce is wary of making hasty pronouncements. So he uses statistics – reams of them – to back his assertion. Just at random: ‘Less than 7 per cent of India’s dauntingly large labour force is employed in the formal economy … that means only 35 million people out of a total of 470 million people have job security … and only about 35 million Indians pay income tax.’ This is admirable but it can at times seem a little dizzying. In a country as complex as India, figures do not always tell the whole story, but at least they hardly ever lie. For instance, even ‘in 2006, almost 300 million Indians can never be sure where their next meal will come from’.


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