Fear and Loathing in India

India is the world’s biggest democratic state—1.3 billion people and growing—with neo-liberal elites, some of whom dream dimly of re-colonising the West, and a nuclear strike capacity—all in all for Henry Kissinger a “fulcrum” of global order.1 Prime Minister Modhi’s second stint as captain of her modern soul awoke to some hard realities. Analysis of surface difficulties abounds: emerging economic weaknesses, security mishaps and so on. But what issues radiate beneath the surface?

Time was you could be an authority on India without actually setting foot there. James Mill, father of the better known John Stuart Mill, wrote a weighty two-volume History of India that became a bible to generations of British East India civil servants. De Tocqueville—never in India—wrote a similarly imperial essay, L’Inde, albeit with France doing things better, naturally. He was astonished not that Britain got India—India was easy to get—but that Britain held India; he aimed to inspire France to do even better. And Tolstoy, who travelled but perhaps not very much, formed views based on Russia’s history which—being Tolstoy—he applied to humanity everywhere; his self-declared disciple, Mahatma Gandhi, tried them out in India. Nowadays, however, writing from a distance is not thought politically correct. Opinion is snootier, demanding experience on the ground before letting the keyboard rattle.2

Kipling’s views might thus qualify. Born in India and a journalist there, he famously said, “East is East and West is West / And never the twain shall meet”—although his India stories belie the prophecy, showing ambitions and vanities apt to run both ways. E.M. Forster, a former teacher in India, might also count: he found “everything that happens is said to be one thing and proves to be another”,3 which suggests East might become West one day. One-time American ambassador to India, J.K. Galbraith, found India suspended somewhere in between.4 Who was right? Has India westernised?

Begin with the golf course outside Delhi. It lies in countryside once ancient forest, now razed, where Arundhati Roy, an Indian writer, says invading Aryan gods chased black-skinned Dravidians south, turning them into untouchables for the service of rulers.5 It is soon reached by motorway in a fast car, that is, it would be soon were there not bullock carts, bullying hawkers, and thin road-worker castes putting in a day’s brutal labour before the reward of women, provided on trailers off-road.

“Caste”—the elderly Brahmin lady lectured on justice in her religion—“is an exact reward for virtue in a previous life”, although, scholars add, the cosmic cycle allows change every 400 million million years. Safe for now is a suitable boy in the Sheraton ballroom greeting distinguished guests to his fifth birthday by the hundreds; or the twenty-something son of a billionaire whose Project Airline aims to cannibalise Air India’s business class; less so the skeletal girls skinny-dipping in neon-blue mud sloshing through their village, road hawkers or road workers. Belief in an afterlife must be far stronger in India than is possible for Westerners. Caste was abolished in India’s Constitution but now seems more important than ever, perhaps confirming Forster’s views on what happens in India.

The golf club itself is a surprise, swanky as any in Australasia, but gainsaying ancientness of the land, with the same slightly empty feel such clubs may have in newer countries, as though they don’t really exist, or might blow away in the wind. And how to understand the clutch of young men hanging around the clubhouse, olive-skinned, smart casual but not golf pro? They seem purpose-less, inside the club but not of it. Their black-eyed stare is opaque yet shining, blank yet angry, fearful and loathing in a millennia-deep kind of way. Neither do they speak. Small things show new arrivals they have done wrong.

To V.S. Naipaul last century, caste was “indefensible”6 and India “full of rage”.7 He saw “the Deva with skulls around her neck” and felt Hinduism “the most violent of religions”.8 He decided that “Indians are basically very violent people” with “no prohibition against or perhaps awareness of cruelty”.9 To him, India simply shone with rage.

But Naipaul, Indian by descent, only visited India. New writers who live there see nuances. For Pankaj Mishra, golf-course dandies:

are not the poorest of the poor, or members of the peasantry and the urban underclass. They are educated youth, often unemployed, rural urban migrants, or others from the lower middle-class. They have abandoned the most traditional sectors of their societies, and have succumbed to the fantasies of consumerism without being able to satisfy them.

Like Rousseau and others of his kind in old Europe, says Mishra, they simply don’t fit. Like Rousseau too, they “respond to their own loss and disorientation with a hatred of modernity’s supposed beneficiaries”.10 Mishra’s book, Age of Anger (2018), a fine history of ideas, might indeed be better if less ringingly titled “age of ressentiment”, the mood he identifies in Rousseau, Herder and other nineteenth-century Europeans anguished at the failed promises—at least to them—of liberal rationalism, capitalism and industrialisation. Witness for the prosecution, Mishra sees young people in poor countries today locked in a rage for justice against the rich at home and abroad; independence is won vilifying iniquity in rulers.

Mishra’s views have corroboration. Shashi Tharoor, a parliamentarian and former UN under-secretary, says “much terror and extreme violence in our country is carried out by embittered and unemployable young men”. He thought this a result of British exploitation under the empire, although Tharoor comes from the south, which according to J.K. Galbraith is the region best developed by British education, and still the most prosperous in India.11

Snigdha Poonam, a Delhi journalist, has also studied the “madness of modern India”. In Dreamers (2018), she says the troubles always come “down to the same thing: the anxieties of young men who no longer know their place in the world”. At the heart of madness, she finds young people obsessed by ideas of sculpting lives of personal success at all costs, a cultural “meme” spread from latter-day American gurus who have reverse-colonised India, mother of all gurus.12 The American meme arrived in India too late to capture Poonam’s own generation, so she finds it strange, if fecund, among India’s young today.

She calls its young victims “dreamers”, and surveys the agonising gap between the numinous symbols of their imagination and the reality of an India shining coldly for them. Dreamers are born in poverty, an old circumstance with a new twist, for even the poorest now live in a world drenched in American-style media images. India has 600 million or more under the age of twenty-five, alike in poverty and in soul, each one unshakeably convinced of future material success. A handful will succeed, forming global media start-ups and the like, or migrating to America, Germany, France or Australasia, but the law of large numbers savagely limits real opportunities. Most drown in a flood of neighbourhood schemes set to entrap young men and women into internet fraud, both local and international. Dreamers end up massively conscienceless, preying off lonely aged Americans, and each other.

Poonam is shocked but to her surprise finds herself unable to condemn the young men and women whose amorality she uncovers. Her picture exposes moral conflicts, the cruelty of poverty, and seepage from the American shadow, issues obscure to the all-too-moral moralist. For Poonam, such factors place dreamers beyond human judgment, perhaps beyond good and evil.13 A century after Forster, Poonam also finds things turning to their opposite in India.

Like writers anywhere, recent Indian writers note the importance of attention to small things. Their modern doyenne is surely Arundhati Roy. She at any rate has recorded the scriptures of their god, the god of small things, benevolent in reward and violent in revenge—“anything can happen to anyone”. Her 1998 novel on this deity (The God of Small Things) weighs up a myriad of terrors, more nightmare than dream: an uncomprehending young boy is lured to masturbate an aged sweet-seller at a big city cinema; a love affair across the lines of caste ends for the untouchable when police brutally beat him to death, and for the woman in a kind of suicide. Her latest novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, provides more readings from the heart of darkness: an hermaphrodite prostitute dishes out capricious kindness and revenge from her hut in the cemetery, the only reliable base for stealing electricity in Delhi; bureaucrats, army, police and spies enjoy the good life in South Block whilst sponsoring daily cruelty in Kashmir, if you believe the stories, adds Roy.14 And so on; her list of thuggeries occupies hundreds of pages.

In between novels, Roy has published several books of non-fiction which show the impact of Western memes in India.15 She records stays with tribal peoples—“terrorists” to officialdom—outlawed by governments razing their forests for mining industries; and time spent with rural peasantry, millions jackbooted from ancestral waterways by the building of big dams (now crumbling), and condemned to the streets of India’s mega-cities from nowhere. She covers crony capitalism, corruption in foreign investment, the outrage of the Bhopal chemical spills, Vedanta’s mining disasters, Hindu and Muslim massacres. She meets Edward Snowden. She writes of irregularities in democracy, of mega-spending in Indian elections (second only to America), of vote-buying and of numerous criminals elected to parliament. This democracy she labels a feudal fiefdom, though not actually dysfunctional.16 She outs blatant indifference to evidence in the Supreme Court—with courage, for speech this free risks imprisonment in Indian jails. She notes political corruption as well as torture and support for official terrorism at the highest levels, the latter a siege meme she thinks has spread to India from America’s post-9/11 crisis. A gulf, says Roy, separates India’s rich, who aim to colonise India themselves, from both the new middle classes, whom they sideline, and the bottom billion, who squat on the lands the rich want to mine. She seeks to sensitise opinion to outrage, putting the skids under what may be diplomatic ruses, such as Kissinger’s failure to mention her at all, or dog-whistles—brushed off as “activist” by Daniel Malone, another diplomatic observer, who is presumably unsensitised or doesn’t believe the stories.17

Experience suggests that Roy and fellow writers are closer the mark than diplo-speak, as might a glance at the English-language press or the millennia of India’s history. Reports rate India one of the most unequal societies in the world, with more billionaires per capita than any, yet with a “middle class” far smaller and less wealthy than once thought—a potential market the size only of Hong Kong—and a seemingly ineradicable mass of poverty from which the dreamers come.18 Media cite official violence and acts of revenge at horrific levels, exceeded nowhere except perhaps by military, police, spies and militias in the Middle East and such places as Kinshasa and Sudan. There is pervasive private violence, poisonous civilian relations, gerrymandering of elections, casual murder of bystanders, cruelty, rape and burning of teenage girls. Suttee was abolished by the British but peasants still immolate themselves.

Like Naipaul, Roy notes the peculiar nature of violence and revenge in India: “Normality in our world is a bit like a boiled egg. A humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence.”19 For her India is site of “a perfect war—a war that can never be won or lost, a war without end”—first set out in the Hindi epic the Mahabharata, which was turned into India’s most popular television series ever.20 Roy shares Naipaul’s anger at iniquities which create and perpetuate social war, but for all that, is not one of his followers. Like Poonam or even Gandhi, she will neither dismiss the evidence against nor condemn India. Where else, she says, can I find people, animals and trees to love, and “who will love me back?” A heart-felt movement separates Roy and Poonam from Naipaul: as non-resident, he was without second thoughts. He knew no dreamers and may have understood India the less for it.


Overall, the new Indian writers show dreamers infected by the defining Western malady, a kind of anomie based on the unending search for individual and material gratification. Mishra records ressentiment; Roy shows existential despair among the rich, in and out of prison; and Poonam clearly doubts many of her young people will find any life beyond the meme. On their testimony this Western malady is an Eastern one too.

This is unsurprising. Putting the last 4000 to 8000 years of history in rough perspective, it becomes apparent that the real difference between civilisations and cultures is less in their basic ideas, most of which originate in Asia, cradle of all clashes of civilisation, than in the energies and talents available to pick up and transform what originates in a common heritage.

Here is not the place to go in depth into the panoply of ideas, inventions and products copied or stolen by successive ancient civilisations one from another and then, after thousands of years, by ancient Greeks and Romans, who spread them throughout Europe. At random: flat roofs and monumental public architecture came to Europe from Egypt via Greece; vaulting came from Babylon via Asia Minor and the Etruscans (whom the Romans copied); and cavalry warfare and horses bred for the job came from the Central Asian–Northern Iran nexus. Monarchy, oligarchy and democracy are Asian ideas. Democracy, for example, invented in the Indo part of “Indo-European”, was an ancient form of village government in India for millennia, and is still common there today. In the West, intellectual property theft has been a way of life.

All that, however, is small change: the extraordinary modern Western achievement has been to invest forms, ideas and conventions received from the East with unsurpassed dynamism, at least until recently. Democracy was thus perfected (if systems of government can be perfected) not in a sub-continent drained of energy by enervated empires but by buoyant upstarts in ancient Greece and Rome, so perhaps Western as well as other countries today can also succeed if they keep trying; tomorrow’s news may tell. On both sides of the East–West divide, examples show this may be so. In 1976, following three centuries in the slough of despond, Spain re-emerged as a secular modern state with fizz; and after three Spanish centuries of its own, China merits a nod on this score too. As Voltaire, who favoured absolute monarchs, was possibly first to note, the historical record has serious lessons for moderns: the effectiveness and justice of democracy, or for that matter monarchy or oligarchy, depend less on the system itself than on the energies and ideals it draws upon.

Tolstoy’s later works might bear out some of these large historical conclusions from yet another perspective—from beyond the great divide—for his mentality was neither Western nor Eastern. As befits Russian exceptionalism, his views were fed by Russia.21 Tolstoy notably agreed with the idea that pursuit of the purely “animal life”, whether by governments or individuals, was a malady. Tolstoy knew what he was talking about. As a young man he lived this life to the full in war and in peace—to the extent of contracting quite other maladies—recorded it in his diary and put it in his novels, although he didn’t load the novels with moral conclusions (perhaps part of their enduring appeal). After a mid-life crisis, he came to feel both the life and the novels were mistaken. Studying new ideas put about by the century’s evolutionary scientists, such as Darwin and Huxley, he accepted their science as good (a bit prematurely, as essential modern experiments had not been carried out in his day) but thought it too reductive as a basis for practical human morality.22 Accepting that human consciousness was a matter of evolution, he spent a long second half-life writing dogmatic stories, books and papers on the paradoxes and conundrums that arise from the evolved human.

His found his dogmas studying ancient Greek and Hebrew religious texts and (then) new German philosophy, following which he rejected all official Christian churches (not just the Russian Orthodox Church, as pious Western literary critics like to think) as well as all official forms of Buddhism, Hinduism and other Eastern religions. Like enthusiastic sectarians down the centuries—and Russia has had its fair share—he founded his “new” morality on literal readings of the New Testament minus the idea of an official church, but unlike the enthusiasts, rejected any notions of an afterlife. He also thought shifting in and out of systems such as autocracy or democracy was futile, as these could not guarantee satisfaction for deeper human needs and ideals. Under Tolstoy’s care and attention, the “words in red” became a secular science to show less the way to heaven than “what we must do” for a better life here and now.

One cannot know exactly what the later Tolstoy would have said of India today, although “I told you so” may come to mind. From his perch halfway across Eurasia, however, it is clear he did not see the urge to reduce human life to satisfying animal spirits as peculiar to New York or New Delhi, or even as particularly modern.

So, all in all, can East and West ever meet? On the evidence, they have long done so and give no sign of stopping any time soon.



1 Henry Kissinger, World Order, New York, 2014, p.208. Peter Frankopan revives Halford Mackinder’s idea of “Eurasia’s” essential geopolitical unity in The Silk Roads, A New History of the World, 2015, as does Robert D Kaplan, who incidentally agrees with Kissinger on India, in The Return of Marco Polo’s World, New York, 2018, p.48. Publishers’ lists bulge with new books on India, among them James Crabtree’s, The Billionaire Raj, London, 2018, a Western journalist’s thoughtful take on a new India of wealth, government complicity, mass inequality and flawed industrialism. But older books show root issues longstanding: Walter Ruben, Einführung in die Indienkunde, Berlin, 1954, esp, chs 28-31 on culture since 1857.

2 James Mill, The History of British India, 1818, second edition, 1858, re-published digitally many times. Alexis de Tocqueville, L’Inde, 1843, re-published in Oeuvres, Vol 1, Paris, 1991, pp. 959-1078; Tolstoy, On Life, 1889, and Essays on Religion, 1894- 1909, Aylmer Maude (trans.), Oxford, 1950.

3 Kipling tells the story of a pandit who receives news on his death-bed that his letter to the editor has been published in The Times, which achievement allows him to die a fully happy man. E M Forster, The Hill of Devi, London, 1953, p38; and his novel A Passage to India concerns the wrongful prosecution of an Indian male for assault; his accuser, an English woman, eventually reverses her (mistaken) testimony, thus incurring the disgust of both Indians and British colonials. Locus classicus for criticism of Western views of the East wherever they were formed is Edward Said’s Orientalism, London, 1978.

4 (3) J K Galbraith, “James Mill’s India,” Encounter, March 1968, p.4.

5 The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, London, 2017, p.87; on the geography, see L Dudley Stamp, Asia, A Regional and Economic Geography, London, 1962, pp.186-189. Joseph Campbell comprehensively surveys religious mythology in his four volume series, The Masks of God, London, 1959 et seq. Cycles of various Indian religions referred to in the essay are dealt with in the volume Oriental Mythology, London 1962, Part Two, pp147—364.

6 India, p.234.

7 ibid, p.420.

8 ibid, p.432.

9 ibid, pp. 324-5; 461; The Economist, June 2, 2018, p52.

10 Age of Anger, London, 2017, pp.75-76.

11 India Shastra, New Delhi, 2015, p.178; and Inglorious Empire, Brunswick, 2017. Ch. 7. J K Galbraith, “James Mill’s India,” Encounter, March 1968, p.4, “India’s rise”, The Economist, July 7, 2018, p.69.

12 Crabtree quotes politicians pitching to this generation, which dressed “blue jeans, they all have mobiles clicking photographs”, op cit, p.130. Daniel Dennett explains how cultural memes “congeal to fixation within a single decade and go extinct in the same time frame… .” From Bacteria to Bach and Back Again, London 2017, p.211. How new this is may be open to question: R L Stevenson, who travelled widely, noted “The interests of youth are rarely frank; his passions, like Noah’s dove, come home to roost. The fires, sensibility, and volume of his own nature, that is all he has learned to recognise… it is only in the course of years and after much rubbing with his fellow men, that he begins by glimpses to see himself from without and his fellows from within”; in Memories and Portraits

13 Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing the World, London, 2018, p186. Poonam’s research echoes Curzon’s report a hundred years previously noting India’s students complained even then of a “lack of adequate range for their ambitions”—in Problems of the Far East, 1894, quoted in C Northcote Parkinson, East and West, London, 1963, p.122. Poonam has that reservation about words known to all writers: as R L Stevenson notes in his Familiar Studies of Men and Books, “words are for communication, not for judgement. That is what every thoughtful man knows for himself, for only fools and silly schoolmasters push definitions over far into the domain of conduct; …”.

14 The God of Small Things, New Delhi, 1997; The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, op cit. In fact the literary tradition of protest and freedom runs back to at least the late eighteenth century “Bengal Enlightenment”, as old as comparable writing in America, much older than, say, Hawthorne’s (1850) Scarlet Letter. A comprehensive survey is in Walter Ruben’s Indische Romanen, Berlin, Band I, Einige Romane, 1964; Band II, Probleme der Liebe und des Freiheitskampfes, 1967; Band III, Eine ideologisches Untersuchung, 1967.

15 Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy, London, 2009; Walking with the Comrades, London, 2011; Capitalism, A Ghost Story, London, 2104; Things That Cannot Be Said, Lindon, 21016; The End of Imagination, London, 2016.

16 The Economist, June 30, 2018, p.32; September 15, p28. Crabtree provides details on how the system of co-dependencies operates; op. cit.Ch. 6. On police corruption, see The Economist, August 18, 2018, p.22.

17 David J Malone, Does the Elephant Dance? New York, 2011. Further on tribals, see The Economist, June 9, 2018, p.25. Crabtree says mining rights are now transparently auctioned but considers eliminating business corruption will take decades rather than years.

18 Crabtree, op cit, pp.37, 71.

19 Ministry of Utmost Happiness, p.151.

20 ibid, p.181.

21 Lack of space prevents review here of Russian exceptionalism—her unique politico-religious culture smelted in opposition to the Medieval Latin Church, its Lutheran off-shoots and Islam. But Tolstoy constantly differentiates Russian from “European” thought, for example, in What is Art? Aylmer Maude (trans), London, 1930, p87-89. Henri Troyat calls Tolstoy a “Slavophile” or Eastern at heart, Tolstoy, New York, 2001, p. 343, but A N Wilson gets closer the mark when he says that “he is alone” from the very outset, Tolstoy, New York, 1988, p.63. Tolstoy largely agreed with Schopenhauer on the unity of humanity whether in the East or the West, a view Schopenhauer developed in Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Berlin, 1844, re-published in Sämtliche Werke, Band I, Frankfurt, 1998, ss.447-453. In On Life and On Religion and Morality Tolstoy claimed to derive his views from a correct understanding—his one—of the “classic wisdom” he thought resided in all religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Confucianism. According to him, shorn of local metaphysics and rituals, classic wisdom was identical everywhere.

22 The philosophical distinction made by Hume in the eighteenth century between the “is” and the “ought” underlies Tolstoy’s stance here. Hume’s Treatise demonstrated the essential fallacy involved in trying to derive any particular moral conclusion—ie an “ought”—from the bare fact something exists—ie something that “is”. For Hume, facts are sensory matters while moral inferences are based on personal values, feelings which can and do vary from person to person, century to century and place to place. Thus, on Hume’s principle, the moral reasoning of today’s evolutionists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, David Deutsch, Stephen Pinker … is philosophically naïve. It is fallacious for the same reason Tolstoy objected to drawing moral conclusions from the works of Darwin’s followers (Darwin himself was more cautious that they). By experiment and by definition, the scientific truth of evolution can have nothing to say about moral issues. Today’s environmentalists often commit the same fallacy and might do well to reflect on Hume’s wisdom.





May 2019

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