I am currently reading “Imagining India” by Nandan Nilekani. I got a free copy from Webchutney, the PR firm for the book, on the condition that I review it and write about it. ( I checked with them. A negative review is also allowed.) I haven’t finished reading it, so this isn’t a review yet. But my initial impression is that it is quite well-written, which is a relief as I wouldn’t want to trudge through 500 pages of badly written prose. As for the content, well, quite honestly I am not sure what to expect. Nilekani is obviously quite smart ( he is from IIT Bombay, he must be.) Smart people have clever ideas. But solutions for India’s problems have been obvious for over 50 years now, and they haven’t been implemented. It is rather unlikely that Nilekani has anything radically new, and I don’t think that he is claiming to have any.
Perhaps what is required is for someone to communicate those ideas clearly and forcefully? There is always a need for someone to communicate ideas and the more the better. From what I have heard, Nilekani is a great communicator, but his comparative advantage is in execution – after all, he founded Infosys and turned it into one of India’s most successful companies. With this record, it is natural for him to expect to be able to do more. But to be able to bring about actual change, it requires skills of a completely different kind, skills that he lumps under “Politics” in the preface. So his attempts to use his skills to actually execute change ends up in task forces with minimal impact.
As I understand, the book is born out of this gap between what he has been able to achieve and what he thinks ought to be done. The answer to the question of how to close this gap is one that will require fresh ideas.
Did I actually read The White Tiger before pronouncing the Booker “undeserving”? No I did not. which is why I attributed “undeserving” to common consensus rather than to myself. I had gone by the views of reviewers I trust, such as Chandrahas Choudhury.
But I am happy to report that since then, I have, as a service to my readers, read that novel. This surprising turn of events came about as a result of a series of coincidences. I visited Mumbai, and there I found that my brother was in possession of a pirated copy of the book. The horrors of a long-distance flight on Northwest airlines lay ahead of me, and I wanted a book that I could finish by the time I reached Amsterdam. I asked my brother if I could borrow it. He was only too happy to lend it. I started reading it at the airport and finished it somewhere over Asia Minor. Yes the novel is utter crap and Aravind Adiga is an incompetent writer.
Longtime readers of The Examined Life know about my deep and abiding interest in the sanitary habits of Americans. It has now come to my attention that a useful addition to the corpus of research on this subject has been made. One Katherine Ashenburg* has written an entire book on the history of personal hygiene in the West. The book is called The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History. Apparently, in the West, the practice of taking a bath daily is a modern one – for much of the last millenium, a monthly bath was the norm. In this, they differed from every other civilization – and in fact, the Christians had a reputation for uncleanness among the Muslims and Jews. Ashenburg blames Christianity for this, as apparently the religion placed much less emphasis on ritual cleanness than other religions like Islam or Hinduism. I am generally sceptical of such explanations – Islam, Judaism and Hinduism developed in much warmer climates where you sweat a lot more, undressing is not a life-threatening experience and splashing cool water on yourself is actually pleasant. To check the influence of Christianity, one needs to look at the rituals of cleanliness in other civilizations in the same belt, like Tibetan Buddhism, Confucianism and Shintoism… umm.. so I guess I am wrong in my scepticism.
There is no word on whether the book discusses the strange reluctance of the Americans to use bidets.
*Yes, she is the same person who wrote this article.
Wired magazine informs me that on this day in 1660, the Royal Society was founded. Coincidentally, just yesterday, I finished reading Quicksilver, a historical fiction that features the Royal Society prominently. Quicksilver is actually book 1 of a three-part novel named The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson. I’ve had the books for over two years and only now have I been able to devote enough time to read them. The story is extremely difficult to follow because of the interplay between fact and fiction and because of the complexity of its ideas. It is also quite interesting because it deals with the genesis of the industrial revolution, a subject that has interested us before.