The most important thing is done, I think: the cover!


Who are these people?  Once you read the book, you will know!  Also the answer is on the back cover, but you won’t even need that clue.

The text is about done— I have at least one more book I want to read, but it’s about time to order the proof copy. I’m hoping to make the book available by the end of November. Make your family buy you a copy!

I could probably use another couple of readers for this draft. E-mail me if  you’re interested and you are pretty sure you can read it and make comments within the next 3-4 weeks. (Sorry for the rush… some other stuff has needed dealing with.)

By the way, does anyone know what that big tree in the center is?  The fruits look like mangos, but the leaves are nothing like mango leaves. Perhaps an Indian tulip tree?


I just finished Massacre at the Palace, by Jonathan Gregson, which focuses on the 2001 massacre of the royal family of Nepal by the crown prince, but retells the entire history of the Shah dynasty.  And good lord, the massacre is only of a piece with Nepali royal history.

The story starts in 1742 with the accession of Prithvi Narayan Shah to the kingdom of Gorkha. This was only one of sixty independent kingdoms in what is now Nepal, and by no means one of the major ones. Yet over the next quarter century, Prithvi ran a remarkable campaign of conquest, culminating in his overrunning the much more powerful kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley in 1768. He and his successors kept on till they controlled the present-day territory of Nepal and quite a bit more.

In 1814-16, Gorkha ran afoul of the British, who defeated it and required it to take a British ambassador, and no others. Other than that, Gorkha retained its independence, and took on the role of Enthusiastic Ally. The British were impressed by the fighting spirit of the kingdom’s warriors, and recruited “Gurkhas” (their version of the name of the country) into their army. They were instrumental in putting down the 1857 revolt and served in large numbers in both world wars.

After that, the Shah dynasty had a big problem: minor kings.  For half a century after Prithvi’s death in 1775, there was almost never an adult king. That left regents in charge, and invited the family to indulge in some intense Game of Thrones style intrigue. The queens were particularly involved– not least because if their children didn’t win the throne, they could be forced to commit suicide.

By the 1830s, power was divided between king Rajendra, crown prince Surendra, and Rajya Laxmi, one of the king’s wives (not Surendra’s mother). Surendra was not popular, as he had a cruel streak: he liked to order subjects to jump down a well or ride a horse off a cliff, just to see if they’d die.

One relatively minor incident: the chief minister, a supporter of the queen, decided to switch his support to Surendra. Laxmi ordered a retainer, Jung Bahadur Konwar, to kill him– which he did, intensifying the palace intrigue. The next move was the king’s: he had his wife’s lover (another state minister) killed.

Laxmi was incensed, and summoned all the senior officers of the realm to an assembly ground known as the Kot, one night in 1846.  Konwar took the precaution of arriving with his brothers as well as a backup force.  Laxmi demanded to know who had been responsible for killing her minister; when no one replied she accused some wretch of doing it and ordered him immediately executed.  When people balked at this, she ran at him herself with a sword, but Konwar restrained her and escorted her back to the balcony. (The king slipped out and escaped the country.)

Once she was safely there, Konwar’s men opened fire on the assembled nobles.  Over thirty were killed, and an unknown number of soldiers and retainers.

The queen rewarded him with the position of chief minister and commander in chief. She expected that in return her own son would be named crown prince, but Konwar refused. She attempted to have him assassinated, but the plot was discovered; Konwar killed another couple dozen of her supporters and exiled her.  With both Laxmi and Rajendra out of the country, he could have the incapable Surendra proclaimed king.  More importantly, he could assume absolute power himself. He was granted a semi-royal title, Rana, and made the prime ministership hereditary.  The Ranas governed for the next century… not without an intra-dynastic shakeup or two of their own. The Shah family was essentially confined as prisoners in their own palace.

So things stood till 1950.  (The country began to be called Nepal in the 1930s, by the way. Previously this had been a name for the Kathmandu Valley only.)  Nepal remained one of the most regressive and poorest countries in Asia, but there was a new factor: there were now three embassies in Kathmandu: the UK, the US, and newly independent India.

King Tribhuvan saw an opportunity, and it was carefully negotiated by his sons, who had more freedom of movement. He requested from the Rana prime minister permission to hold an outdoor picnic. This was granted– as the army would accompany him, it seemed harmless.  The king and his sons each drove their own cars. As the motorcade passed the Indian Embassy, the doors opened and they drove in. It happened so fast that the army escort had no chance to react.  Immediately the king applied for political asylum.

In brief, the Rana ministers were now put in an impossible position, and had to negotiate a return to royal rule.  This was supposed to be democratic, but the Shah kings rarely had much patience for parliamentary rule, and things were only slightly better than under the Ranas. In the 1990s, a Maoist insurgency rose up in the countryside and soon controlled a quarter of the country.

The 2001 massacre was dramatic, but seems more an instance of insanity than power politics. The crown prince, Dipendra, wanted to get married; in a typical instance of arrogant royal interference, his mother refused to let him marry his chosen partner. That, at least, seems to be the underlying grievance.  Dipendra also enjoyed guns and had quite a collection of automatic rifles; he also had an alcohol and drug problem.

In June 2001 he snapped– or saw his opportunity. He was host for the royal family’s weekly dinner together.   He behaved strangely throughout the evening, at one point passing out.  He returned with a gun and shot up his family: his parents, his siblings, some aunts and uncles.  One wonders if he had some idea of bullshitting his way through to the throne– but if so, he reconsidered it, and instead shot himself.

One uncle survived, and became the new king. But he was never very popular, and the public seems to have finally had enough of royal rule. He was forced to return to parliamentary rule, and then, in 2008, parliament declared an end to the monarchy. Since then Nepal has had one of the most unusual political landscapes in the world: power has alternated between two communist parties (one Maoist, one Marxist-Leninist) and a center-left one.

All this makes a great story, but I should emphasize, the moral of the story is that kings suck. I’m reminded of a terrible passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy, where a king explains that the lot of a king is one of service and hardship and is nothing to be envied… bullshit, C.S.  Where kings have real power, they are absolute bastards… not least because if they aren’t, they will be the puppets of someone who is.

The usual (bare) justification for monarchy is that it avoid succession struggles: you don’t have a civil war upon the death of each leader.  Even this low standard is violated in large swaths of history (see: the Roman Empire).  Though reflecting on Nepal’s history, perhaps a modified version of this claim could be defended: monarchy doesn’t avoid succession disputes, but it does make it a little more likely that they will be handled by nasty and murderous political intrigue, rather than by civil war. Even the Kot massacre was better than all-out war.

Still, the tradeoff is pretty terrible. The Ranas and the Shahs made out well, but the country remained miserably poor and undeveloped, and unequipped to deal with modern problems. (And the British deserve some share of the blame as well.  They were perfectly happy with Nepal as a backwards buffer state on their border, and they implicitly supported Rana misrule for over a century.)

Oh, I guess I should say something about Gregson’s book, eh?  Well, it’s really good, not least because he has such rich material to work with.  It’s well told, and it’s not a bad introduction to recent Nepalese history as well.






One reason I can tell my India book is almost done is that I keep finding things that are interesting, but too detailed or particular to go in the book. But they can go in this blog!

I’m reading Colleen Taylor Sen’s Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, which is pretty good. At one point she writes

The Sanskrit names of several Indian foods contain the element china, indicating their Chinese origin, including peaches (chinani), pears (chinarajaputra), lettuce (chinasalit), and cinnamon (dalchini, or Chinese bark).

Sounds good, except when I checked a Sanskrit dictionary to get more scholarly transliterations. None of these words appears there. Other words are given for all but ‘lettuce’.

Time for some Googling.  I find Sen’s claim repeated in several places. But then I find an old book which has this to say:

The Sanskrit names here given for the peach and the pear seem to be known only from this narrative. Later authorities tell us that these fruits are indigenous in the country, and the whole story of the hostage is possibly invention.

What hostage?  Well, it’s too good a story not to repeat.

When Kanishka was reigning the fear of his name spread to many regions so far even as to the outlying vassals of China to the west of the Yellow River. One of these vassal states being in fear sent a hostage to the court of king Kanishka… The king treated the hostage with great kindness and consideration. …The pilgrim proceeds to relate how Peaches and Pears were unknown in this district and the part of India beyond until they were introduced by the “China hostage”.

The story is not impossible, but we should be extremely skeptical, not least because this is precisely the kind of story people love: tracing a cultural change not to some nameless trader, but to a colorful celebrity, here the son of a far ruler with an inexplicable fear of an Indian monarch. Plus we have the non-confirmation from the lexicons.

All this is a good reminder to approach sources with caution, and to wonder how many normal-sounding statements in history books are based on things as shaky as this. However, it doesn’t affect my book at all— it takes too much space to explain what turns out not to be a fact at all.

Still, there’s more to say! The “old book” I found is called On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India, 629-645 A.D., by Thomas Watters, 1904.  Yuan Chwang is the “pilgrim” referred to in the cite above.

But who is he?  Turns out he’s none other than 玄奘 Xuánzàng, who some readers may remember from my China Construction Kit, and whose trip to India inspired the Míng novel Journey to the West. I’m tempted to read Watters’ book, because I’m curious to know more about Xuánzàng’s actual trip, as opposed to the mythological joyride of Journey to the West. Bookmarked for later!

It’s a great thing, by the way, that scholars have finally standardized on pinyin, because Chinese names used to be murder for scholars. Not a few historians of India didn’t get the memo, as they still refer to “Hiuen Tsang”. Other variants include Hiouen Thsang, Hsüan Chwang, Hhüen Kwân, and Shuen Shang. What a mess. Contrariwise, it’s very nice that even a century-old book like Watters uses a Sanskrit transliteration almost identical to what we use today.

Oh, what’s that about Chinese mangoes?  That’s the literal translation of chinarajaputra. (Well, rajaputra literally means ‘prince’, but it’s also a word for mango, so if you did need a word for ‘pear’, ‘Chinese mango’ makes more sense than ‘Chinese prince’.) (But the real Sanskrit word for ‘pear’ seems to be amritaphala.)




I just finished the Kathāsaritsāgara (The Ocean of Story), by Somadeva, written in Kashmīr in the 11C. Or, well, an abridgment of it, in Arshia Sattar’s very readable modern translation.


A vidyādhara. Nice booties!

The original Kathāsaritsāgara is about six times longer, and claims to be itself an abridgment of a book called the Brihatkathā, written by a celestial being named Guṇāḍhya in his own blood, in Paiśācī, the language of the piśācas, the lowest class of demons. Rather too much scholarly time has been spent on the trail of this mythical book in a mythical language— even some modern scholars are convinced that Paiśācī was a real language, though there exists not a scrap of it nor the Brihatkathā.

I’ve talked about the nested stories in the Hitopadeśabut Somadeva has them beat. Navigating one particular part of the ocean:

  • Śiva is asked by his wife Parvātī to tell a story no one has heard before.  He tells the story of the vidyādharas, celestial beings with magical powers such as flight and shape-changing. He tells it in a locked room. One of their attendants is curious about this and uses his own powers to enter invisibly; he listens to the story and tells it to his wife, who tells it to Parvātī.  Parvātī is angry at Śiva, since it appears everyone knows this story! Śiva divines what happened and explains, whereupon Parvātī punishes the attendant to live as a mortal.
  • This attendant, now living as a mortal, is Guṇāḍhya. He has a whole book’s worth of adventures; one consequence is that he takes a vow not to use Sanskrit, which is why when he writes the Brihatkathā he uses an ignoble language. His curse will end when he spreads this story to the world. To accomplish this, he sends it to a king, who rejects it because it is written in Paiśācī. Sadly, Guṇāḍhya begins to read and burn the manuscript. Finally the king happens to come to the place where Guṇāḍhya is reading, and is enchanted with the stories. Guṇāḍhya has burned 6 of the 7 books, but he gives the last book to the king, ending his curse.
  • Now we come to the story told in that book, which is the framing device for the rest of the stories: the story of the human prince Naravāhanadatta, how he accumulated an impressive harem of human and celestial wives, and finally became a vidyādhara himself and emperor of the vidyādharas. Most of the other stories are told to him to amuse or distract him, or because they relate to some of his problems.
  • One of the these stories, related by his minister Gomukha, concerns the king Sumanas.  One day a tribal woman arrives, a stunning beauty, who has a parrot. The parrot can talk, and is asked for his story.
  • The parrot tells about growing up in a tree, until hunters come by and kill the parrots there, including his father.  A brahmin rescues the young parrot and takes him to his guru, who laughs.  He laughs because he knows the story of the parrot’s previous birth.
  • The guru tells the story of the prince Somaprabha, who does what valorous princes do— conquers the surrounding lands. Far from home, he comes to a lake where a beautiful vidyādhara woman is singing.
  • She tells him her story. She is Manorathaprabhā, the daughter of a vidyādhara king. She used her powers of flight to wander the world, and fell in love with an ascetic. They are briefly separated, and unable to bear this, the ascetic kills himself. The voice of a god prevents Manorathaprabhā from doing the same. Her friend Makarandikā now arrives and falls in love with Somaprabha…

Eventually Somadeva clears the stack and finishes each of these stories appropriately. (If you’re curious, the parrot is Makarandikā’s father under a curse.)

As you can imagine, this structure allows Somadeva to include pretty much any story he’s heard. There are animal stories overlapping with the Hitopadeśa, and jātaka stories (which are stories of the Buddha’s previous births), and vampire stories, and a tiny little retelling of the Rāmāyaṇa. There’s a whole book devoted to stories of the wickedness of women, and to balance them, stories of virtuous women triumphing over wicked men. There’s even an amusing libel about Pāṇini, author of the great, definitive Sanskrit grammar: that he was a dull scholar who only received his grammar from the gods as a reward for austerities.

I have my doubts about the spiritual value of the doctrine of saṃsāra— the endless cycle of rebirth— it’s too easy a solution to the problem of pain. It seems like a copout to blame present suffering on misdeeds in a past life. But the Indian storytellers show the real value of saṃsāra: as a narrative device. Neil Gaiman has noted that stories, if prolonged too far, always end in death. But with saṃsāra, death is only a temporary milestone, a chance for a story to change gears. In these stories, celestial beings are constantly being cursed to be mortals or animals, wives and lovers recur as in a cosmic dance, and stories dash madly from the heavens to the bottom of the ocean to all across historical India.

Malice is usually punished, and virtue is often rewarded… but so is a certain roguish opportunism. There are plenty of ascetics here, and people who tire of the pleasure of the world and go off to meditate in the forest— but Somadeva doesn’t seem to really believe in mokṣa. Here, asceticism too may only be a phase, perhaps ended by falling in love with a vidyādhara, or some other contrivance.

The Ten Princes had a certain unity of theme— men rising from nothing to find wives and become kings— and the Hitopadeśa is all animal stories, so this book is much more miscellaneous. But that’s a virtue in its own way: if one set of stories doesn’t quite thrill you, the next might.

I think my favorite stories are the stories of the vetāla, more or less the Indian equivalent of the vampire. They are spirits who reanimate dead bodies. A king, Vikrama, is visited by a beggar every day for ten years, and given a fruit. He gives the fruits to his treasurer, but one day he instead gives it to a passing monkey, and a jewel comes out. He asks the treasurer about the other fruits, and the honest man answers that he has simply thrown them into the treasury through a window. They go to look, and find that the fruits all rotted away, leaving an immense treasure.

This naturally makes the king ask the beggar what’s up. The beggar says that he was hoping to get the king to do him a favor. The king agrees. He is told to come to a cremation ground at night to meet the beggar.

Once there, the beggar asks him to walk to a tree and bring him the corpse that’s hanging from it.  The king goes and cuts it down, but it turns out to be inhabited by a vetāla. As the king is taking him back to the beggar, the vetāla begins telling him stories. But the stories are also riddles, and the king has to answer each one correctly. For instance, a washing man falls in love with a woman named Madanasundarī. She goes with her new husband and his brother to a temple of Parvātī, but they have nothing to offer as a sacrifice. Her husband goes in and is so overcome by the religious atmosphere that he feels he must sacrifice something— and having nothing else, cuts off his own head. His brother comes after him, and seeing his head on the floor, does the same. Madanasundarī finally goes after them, and is shocked to see them both dead. She is about to kill herself when the goddess intervenes. She tells the girl to reattach the heads to the bodies, and they will be restored to life.  This she does, but in her excitement she puts the wrong heads on the bodies.

Now, the vetāla asks, which man was really her husband— the man with her husband’s head, or the one with his body?  Vikrama responds that the man with the head is her real husband: “the head rules the limbs and personal identity depends on the head.”  (This sounds reasonable to us, but then we believe that we live in our brains, which was not an opinion shared by all cultures.)

After a couple dozen stories, the vetāla reveals that the beggar is a sorcerer, and plans to sacrifice the king to him to achieve power over the vidyādharas. The beggar will ask him to lay down on the ground in a certain way.  The vetāla tells him to ask the beggar to show him how; the king should then cut off his head.  The king does just this.  The vetāla disappears and Śiva makes Vikrama king of the vidyādharas.  Which in turn brings us back to Naravāhanadatta, who at this point in the framing story also becomes king of the vidyādharas.

Anyway: bottom line, if you can find Sattar’s translation, go get it.  It’s a quick read and you won’t regret it.

Maximum City sounds like a good name for a non-Big-Two superhero comic, but it’s a book about Bombay by Suketu Mehta. (The city is officially Mumbai, but Mehta prefers the old name.)

It’s amazing. I reviewed a few other books in the Gawking at Modern India genre,and this is by far the best.

Mostly, it’s because Mehta dives down, deep down, into the underbelly of the city. A lot of the book is about the gangwar— one word in Indian English, pronounced like gen-gwar. He finds the hit men and hangs out with them. He’s full of factoids about them. They’re mostly slumdwellers (but then most Bombayites are; we’ll get back to that). It’s a good job for them; most of the time they hang around watching TV or talking, between jobs; they have plenty of money to spend on girls.  They love Bollywood movies, especially the ones about gangsters. They’re often quite religious… when death is on the line, you’d like some supernatural aid. They seem to like talking to Mehta– they like the idea that their story is being told accurately.

Mehta talks to one of the highest bosses, who runs the gang from Karachi. I wish superhero comics writers would read this, to understand how a powerful villain really talks.  The boss is gracious, solicitous.  He wants to appear normal and rational.  He offers a free contract for Mehta: he can have some work done.  That’s the slang for offing someone.  Mehta muses on what it’s like to be able to call up someone to have someone else killed.  He says it’s calming– you feel a little more magnanimous about Bombay’s many irritations.

He spends almost as much time with one of Bombay’s top cops.  Though honest and effective, he’s also about as brutal as the gangsters. He doesn’t much bother with detective work, though he uses plenty of informants; he picks up a gangster and tortures them. If the police have had enough of a gangster, it’s far too unreliable to try to prosecute him– a bribe will quickly free him.  They just shoot him.

The metropolitan area has about 20 million residents.  9 million of them live in the slums. This is largely because of a well-meaning, disastrous bit of legislation: the Rent Act of 1947. This froze rents at their 1940 levels, and prevented evictions of tenants. Naturally, no one who has an apartment ever moves out; when they die, their heirs inherit the place with its frozen rent. The law was intended to be temporary, but the millions of tenants far outnumber the landlords, so all parties support the bill and it’s been extended till the present.  (Mehta notes that India is the opposite of the US, in that poor people vote, and the rich do not.)

Landlords can’t make money at 1940 rents, so they refuse to maintain the buildings. Services and pipes and wires fail; the tenants repair them haphazardly. There’s no way to make new buildings for profit, so none are built. Instead, people build their own houses in the slums.

Another long chapter is on bar girls.  In the West these would be strippers, but in fact the dancers don’t take off their clothes. Men shower them with money anyway.  They press to get the girl’s number; she is expert at slowing them down, only slowly relenting to give a man her phone number.  She will accept calls, and then only accept meetings if he’s generous with gifts.  It’s not respectable, but there’s far more money in it than in the respectable jobs.

Mehta frequently wonders how Bombay works at all.  Everything is slow, corrupt, falling apart.  Gangsters extort money from businesses; nationalist politicians keep the population at the edge of riot. And yet people keep moving into the city, eager to get in on the action.  Bombay produces 25% of India’s industrial production and 40% of its foreign exchange.

While living in Bombay, Mehta managed to write a Bollywood film, Mission Kashmir. This was done in story sessions with the director and other writers. Though there was a script, you don’t get actors to appear in your film by sending them a script.  You go to their house and basically act out the story for them.  Oh, and banks won’t finance movies, which are highly risky ventures; the underworld does.

There’s a chapter, full of ironies, on the Jains. They are big in the diamond industry, and thus many are very well off.  But many of them choose to give away all their wealth and live as poor beggars; Mehta follows one family through this process.  The family not only gives away everything it has and wanders the roads asking for food; it splits up, as men and women monks can’t travel together.  And yet the process of giving away wealth is done as ostentatiously as possible, at a massive town-wide gathering.

More factoids for you: India is not over-dense with people, compared to Europe. The population density is greater in Belgium than in India. On the other hand, parts of central Bombay are denser than anywhere else on Earth: 1 million people per square mile.

On the lighter side: to Indianize your glass of Coca-Cola, you add spices: lemon, rock salt, pepper, and cumin.

The crime and corruption and density Mehta talks about, by the way, are not exotic features of India; American cities were exactly the same a hundred years ago.

A lot of the success of the book comes from its choice of subjects, but also from the depth and empathy that Mehta brings to them.  He obviously spent a lot of time with people, and the result is a set of portraits that feel like far more than interviews.  (And probably only a born Bombayite could have written this book, simply because he has to know English, Hindi, Gujarati, and Marathi to understand what’s going on around him.)


I think I’ve written a book. This is a special verb aspect, the “dubious completive.” As any author can tell you, a book isn’t done till it’s available for purchase, and that just means the author has finally shrugged and decided to put any further changes into the next edition.

Anyway, the India Construction Kit is at the point where it needs readers.  Is that you?


If so, contact me (you probably have my e-mail, but if not it’s here). It’d be nice to have a mix of readers who know and don’t know something about India.  (Though if you have some special expertise, please mention it!)  I will need feedback in the next month or two, so keep that in mind if you’re entering cryostasis or something for that period.

I usually get more readers than I can handle; if you offered before but didn’t get a chance to read last time, tell me and I’ll try to make sure you’re included.

Edit: Got a good crew already. If you’re still interested, watch this space for the second draft.  (If you’re actually South Asian, though, write me!)

If for some reason you’re unclear, this is much like my China book, only not about China. It gives a somewhat brief overview of Indian history (believe me, not even the scholars memorize the dozens of dynasties of medieval times), moves to a fairly extensive discussion of Indian religions. Then there’s chapters on daily life, clothing, and architecture. Finally, there are grammatical overviews of Sanskrit, Hindi, and Tamil.

The primary audience is expected to be conlangers and conworlders, who will find plenty of interest to help stop making Standard European Fantasy Kingdoms. But it’s really for anyone who doesn’t feel up to speed on one of the planet’s biggest and most vibrant civilizations.

I’ve just read two books in what might be a new subgenre: People Gawking at Modern 51-9UeT8hwL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_India. They are India Becoming by Akash Kapur, and India Calling by Anand. Besides having similar titles and themes, they both have quotes by William Dalrymple on the back cover.

Both writers are Indian by descent, spent their formative years in the US, and went to live in India to report on its remarkable boom times. Kapur is Tamil and focuses on Tamil Nadu; Giridharadas has roots in Mumbai and reports from there and other northern cities. They also share methods: the books are a mixture of personal reflections and the stories of people they met and talked to.

Per capita GDP in India has increased sixfold since 1960— most of this since the economic liberalization of 1991. The result is a scramble, generally successful, to make money. This means former Dalits getting rich; poor people upgrading from grass huts to concrete houses; one billion people getting cell phones; cities expanding into their hinterlands; the upper quintile hastening to get cars and air conditioners.

The left these days distrusts money, and it has good reason to do so.  But money is one of the best and fastest ways of dissolving old systems of oppression.  Brahmins can’t keep oppressing Dalits when the latter can quit their ancient professions, make money in a new one, and move into the rich part of town. Women can’t be held under their family’s thumb when they have their own jobs or houses, or even their own businesses. Caste restrictions on professions mean nothing when people can simply study for a new job, or just move to a new city and take one.

Of course, the boom has its downsides. Both authors are originally enthralled by the new opportunities and new attitudes, but some people are left behind, and there are new things to worry about. Indira Gandhi once dismissed pollution as something only First World nations needed to worry about; now it’s a growing threat within India. Kapur meets people living on a growing, unregulated trash dump. Appalled, he promises that he’ll do everything he can to shut it down. The people are aghast and beg him not to: it’s their livelihood— skimming the landfill for things to use— and they don’t have any other. Kapur also mentions the problem of thugs: it’s cheap and easy to hire them, and they’re used for instance to pressure farmers to sell their land.

The opportunities within a boom can verge on the comic. Giridharadas meets a man, once a penniless Dalit, who has become a big man in a small town. His first big venture was English lessons— there’s a mania for learning English even in the middle of nowhere. (These schools are rough-and-ready, concentrating on teaching idiom and practical speaking rather than literature.) He also organized a local beauty pageant, for both men and women. But he only made it big with… roller skating. He established a roller skating team and ended up coaching the national team. Giridharadas also finds a man who write puff pieces for technological journals in English, and Maoist polemics in Telugu.

Giridharadas is the wittier author; for instance, he describes Indians’ passion for knowing his “native place”, which turns out to mean “where my ancestors had most recently milked cows, even if ‘recent’ meant the year 1500.” He recounts a typical conversation where people ask where is he from.  Washington DC, he replies.  No, no, he is Indian, where is he from?  He was born in Ohio. No, no, your native place.  His parents grew up in Mumbai.  Ah, so you are Maharashtrian.  Well, no, his parents were Tamil and Punjabi— they met in Mumbai. So, basically, you are Punjabi— your father is from Punjab?  No, that’s his mother, his father is Tamil.  Ah, so basically you are South Indian.

Both authors marvel at the changes in gender relations. Arranged marriage is still common. On the other hand, dating and premarital sex are becoming common too. Some women still take the role of always-submissive helper/cook; others indignantly reject it. As love marriages rise, so do divorces.

(Both books were written before Modi’s BJP took power in 2014, so they don’t address the rise of right-wing nationalism, and indeed have little to say about politics at all.)

The books are long on stories, short on analysis. And they rely a lot on chance contacts— but then, knowing the local language, they are far better informed than the Western style of talking only to one’s cab driver and a few high officials.

It’s interesting to compare these books to those of earlier observers, such as Octavio Paz’s In Light of India (1995) and V.S. Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990). Paz is full of solidarity as a fellow Third Worlder, but finds it most easy to relate to India’s great history in literature and religion. Naipaul is terribly worried at the centrifugal tendencies of Indian society.

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