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The Economist reads | India
What to read as an introduction to India
Our Asia editor picks six books spanning 3,000 years of a wonderfully bewildering country
[UNVERIFIED CONTENT] Daily life scene in light and shadows with a woman carrying a bucket and another woman drawing a kollam in front of the door of a colorful yellow house in Pondicherry (now Puducherry), an Indian Union territory enclave in Tamil Nadu, India.
Aug 13th 2022



This article is part of our Summer reads series. Visit our collection to discover “The Economist reads” guides, guest essays and more seasonal distractions.

On august 15th India celebrates the 75th anniversary of its independence from the British. Yet while the Indian republic may be young, Indian civilisation is thousands of years old. And it is among the most diverse in the world. India’s 1.4bn people speak nearly two dozen official languages (and hundreds of others), worship every major religion and many smaller ones, and eat a huge variety of local cuisines (there is no such thing as “Indian food”). Some parts of the country boast gdp per person high enough to put them on par with upper-middle-income countries, while others are more deprived than some of the poorest nations on Earth. It is for these reasons that the country remains, for both foreigners and Indians, an astonishingly complex place, one that nobody could ever claim to fully comprehend. As Joan Robinson, a British economist, memorably put it: “Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.” For those new to the country and for old hands, the selection below is a primer—or a refresher—to some 3,000 years of a land of multitudes.

Mahabharata. By C. Rajagopalachari. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan; 484 pages; $17.90 and £13.50

Along with the Ramayana, the Mahabharata is one of Hinduism’s two great epics. At its heart, it is the story of a familial struggle over the throne. The Kauravas are the 100 sons of the blind king Dhritarashtra. Their cousins, the Pandavas, are a set of five brothers. The story concludes with the battle of Kurukshetra, with one family emerging victorious. The names, events and places in the Mahabharata infuse everyday speech in India, and stories from within it serve as go-to analogies in much the same way that anglophone culture is permeated by lines from Shakespeare and the Bible. The Bhagavad Gita, among Hinduism’s holiest scriptures, comes from a section of the Mahabharata in which the god Krishna and Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers, discuss the morality of war. All of which makes the Mahabharata an important text to understand India. But there are two bigger reasons to read it: the first is the insight it provides into the thinking of a culture used to contradictions, multiplicity and shape-shifting. Gods are often benevolent, sometimes vindictive and always all-too-human; characters can be mortal, divine or something in between, or they can be women and rivers; and it is never quite clear where the lines lie between black and white. The second reason, though, is the more persuasive: the Mahabharata is a lot of fun to read. The version listed here is a translation by C. Rajagopalachari, a freedom-fighter who served as governor-general in the brief period between independence and 1950, when India became a republic. His translation, as he writes in the preface to the first edition (published in 1950), was to offer India’s children “in easy prose the story of the Mahabharata that we, more fortunate in this than they, heard in our homes as children”.

India in the Persianate Age: 1000-1765. By Richard M. Eaton Penguin; 512 pages; $39.95 and £30

For some 200 years, historians have categorised India’s history into three discrete periods: Hindu, Muslim and British, or ancient-medieval-modern. Such neat divisions are of course humbug. Richard M. Eaton, an American historian at the University of Arizona, and the author of many books on Islam in India, takes on this tripartite fantasy with this masterful look at nearly a millennium of Indian history. India stood at the centre of an eastward-looking Sanskrit world, spreading its influence throughout Asia, especially Indochina (the kings of Thailand still call themselves Rama, after the god in the Ramayana; its ancient capital, Ayutthaya, was named after Rama’s home in India, Ayodhya; the famous Angkor Wat temples of Cambodia were built as Hindu places of worship). And present-day Iran and parts of Central Asia were the locus of the Persianate world, which blended pre-Islamic Iranian culture with that of Arab Islam. India was where these overlapped. “Much of India’s history between 1000-1800,” the period traditionally thought of as the country’s Islamic period, “can be understood in terms of the prolonged and multifaceted interaction between the Sanskrit and Persianate worlds”, Mr Eaton argues. The book (which we reviewed in 2021), is two things in one: it is a relatively straightforward chronicle of eight centuries of Indian history, a period that gave rise to many things thought of today as quintessentially Indian, from biryani to the Hindi language. And it offers powerful evidence, backed up with hundreds of examples from Professor Eaton’s scholarship, that Indians before the arrival of the British saw each other and themselves not through the lens of religion, as the leaders of the country today would have their citizens believe, but through the varifocals of language, ethnicity and community.

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Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India. By Shashi Tharoor. Hurst Publishers; 296 pages; £10.99 and $17.95

It is not uncommon to encounter, among a certain class of English gentleman, the notion that, on balance, India did not do so badly from British rule. Not only were Indians spared the horrors of French or Spanish—or, worse, Belgian—colonisation. But the British built the railways, the postal system and the administrative infrastructure of the country. They left behind the gifts of parliamentary democracy and the English language. In under 300 pages, Shashi Tharoor, a former under-secretary-general of the UN and a serving member of parliament in India, demolishes those arguments. Mr Tharoor takes aim, in turn, at the many sins of empire, from draining India of its resources and destroying its industry, to the manner in which the British implemented a policy of divide-and-rule, giving rise to conflict between Hindus and Muslims, which ultimately led to the partition of India and Pakistan and whose repercussions are more acutely felt with each passing day. As for the railways, post and industrialisation, he asks, “Why would India, which throughout its history had created some of the greatest (and most modern for their time) civilisations the world has ever known, not have acquired all the trappings of developed or advanced nations today, had it been left to itself to do so?”

India after Gandhi. By Ramachandra Guha. Macmillan; 960 pages; £20 and $24.99

The history syllabus of the national curriculum adhered to by the Mumbai school attended by your correspondent more or less stopped with 1947, when India achieved independence. What followed was a desultory section on “world development since 1945” covering highlights such as the Marshall Plan, the Bay of Pigs crisis, and the creation of international organisations of varying utility, including the Non-Aligned Movement, the Association of South-East Asian Nations and the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation. Independence was where Indian history ended, both in schools and for many historians. The publication, in 2007 (updated in 2017), by Ramachandra Guha of “India after Gandhi” filled that gap. As if to make up for the absence, it runs to nearly 1,000 pages, by far the chunkiest tome on this list. It is not a slog. Mr Guha, India’s pre-eminent historian and a lively writer, starts with partition and the assassination, less than six months later, of Mahatma Gandhi. His admiration of Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s peer, India’s first and longest-serving prime minister, and, for better and worse, the architect of modern India, is apparent, as is his distaste for Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, who ran the country for 13 years as an elected prime minister and, for two years in the 1970s, as a dictatorship. Mr Guha is a humanist and secularist, and a noisy critic of Narendra Modi, the current prime minister. To understand the dangerous path down which Mr Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is leading India, it is crucial to first appreciate the legacy that it is rejecting. If you read only one book from this list, make it Mr Guha’s.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. By Katherine Boo. Penguin Random House; 288 pages; £9.99 and $15.99


The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age. By James Crabtree. Penguin Random House; 416 pages; £9.99 and $17

Mumbai is in many ways unlike the rest of India: it is far richer, less caste-bound and a lot more easy-going. Yet it is also all of India in a single place. As the country’s commercial capital, it has long attracted migrants from all over the country. Most of India’s communities, languages and cuisines are represented here, if not all of its pathologies. The cliché about Mumbai is that it is a place of extreme contrasts: sprawling shantytowns nestled in the shadows of multi-million-dollar homes. Like all clichés, there is more than a pinch of truth to this. Every day, hundreds of men and women arrive in Mumbai to make new lives for themselves. Some succeed. Many don’t. The books by James Crabtree and Katherine Boo offer glimpses of both sides of the coin. They are best read as a pair.

Ms Boo, who has written about poverty in America for the New Yorker and is married to an Indian, had long visited Mumbai and found herself wondering why the shocking deprivation on open display in the city was allowed to persist. She spent several years reporting from a single slum in search of an answer. “The result,” The Economist wrote in its review, “is a staggering work of reporting and storytelling.” Ms Boo follows two families as they confront vengeful neighbours, corrupt officials, crooked cops and frequent death to portray unflinchingly life at the bottom of the heap.

Mr Crabtree, a former Mumbai bureau chief for the Financial Times, spent his Mumbai years in what Ms Boo calls the “overcity”. Most books by departing foreign correspondents tend to be tedious things, snapshots from their years of reporting tied together with a tenuous grand theme. Mr Crabtree, on the other hand, has a laser-sharp focus on India’s mega-rich, and how they got there. He explains with great clarity the links between big Indian business and politics, and the implications for India’s industrial economy. Even so, India is no post-Soviet Russia. The historical analogy Mr Crabtree uses instead is America in the era of the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. In America, it gave way to a progressive era of greater prosperity for all, he writes. The fate of nearly 1.4bn people hangs on whether India makes a similar journey.■

经济学人》读后感 | 印度
[未经核实的内容] 在印度泰米尔纳德邦的印度联邦领地朋迪榭里(现为普度榭里)的一栋五颜六色的黄色房子门前,一名妇女提着水桶,另一名妇女在画着卡拉姆,这是在光与影中的日常生活场景。

这篇文章是我们夏季读物系列的一部分。请访问我们的收藏,以发现 "经济学人读物 "指南、特邀文章和更多的季节性分心。

8月15日,印度庆祝脱离英国独立75周年。然而,尽管印度共和国可能还很年轻,但印度文明已经有数千年的历史。而且它是世界上最多样化的国家之一。印度的14亿人口讲近20种官方语言(以及数百种其他语言),崇拜每一种主要的宗教和许多较小的宗教,并食用种类繁多的当地美食(没有所谓的 "印度食物")。这个国家的一些地区拥有足以使其与中上收入国家相提并论的人均GDP,而另一些地区则比地球上一些最贫穷的国家还要贫穷。正是由于这些原因,对于外国人和印度人来说,这个国家仍然是一个令人吃惊的复杂地方,没有人能够声称完全理解。正如英国经济学家琼-罗宾逊(Joan Robinson)所说的那样,令人印象深刻。"无论你对印度的评价如何,相反的情况也是如此"。对于那些初来乍到的人和老手来说,下面的选择是一个入门读物,或者说是一个复习资料,以了解这个多姿多彩的国度的大约3000年。

摩诃婆罗多》。C. Rajagopalachari著。Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan;484页;17.90美元和13.50英镑

与《罗摩衍那》一样,《摩诃婆罗多》是印度教的两部伟大史诗之一。它的核心是一个关于家族争夺王位的故事。考拉瓦人是盲人国王德里塔拉施特拉的100个儿子。他们的表兄弟潘多瓦人是由五兄弟组成的。故事以库鲁克什特拉之战结束,一个家族取得了胜利。摩诃婆罗多》中的名字、事件和地点渗透到了印度的日常言语中,其中的故事也成为了常用的比喻,就像英语文化中渗透着莎士比亚和《圣经》中的台词一样。印度教最神圣的经文之一《博伽梵歌》来自《摩诃婆罗多》的一个章节,其中神克里希纳和潘达瓦兄弟之一的阿朱纳讨论了战争的道德问题。所有这些都使《摩诃婆罗多》成为了解印度的重要文本。但有两个更大的理由来阅读它:第一个理由是它提供了对一个习惯于矛盾、多重性和变形的文化思维的洞察力。神通常是仁慈的,有时是报复性的,而且总是非常人性化的;角色可以是凡人、神或介于两者之间的东西,也可以是女人和河流;而且黑与白之间的界限从来就不太清楚。不过,第二个原因更有说服力:《摩诃婆罗多》读起来很有趣。这里列出的版本是由C.Rajagopalachari翻译的,他是一位自由斗士,在印度独立和1950年成为共和国的短暂时期内担任总督。他在第一版(1950年出版)的序言中写道,他的翻译是为了向印度的孩子们提供 "用简单的散文讲述摩诃婆罗多的故事,而我们比他们更幸运,在我们的家里,我们的孩子也听到了这个故事"。


约200年来,历史学家将印度的历史分为三个独立的时期。印度教、穆斯林和英国,或古代-中世纪-现代。这种整齐划一的划分当然是虚伪的。亚利桑那大学的美国历史学家理查德-M-伊顿(Richard M. Eaton),以及许多关于印度伊斯兰教的书籍的作者,通过这本书对印度近一千年的历史进行了精湛的研究,对这种三分法的幻想提出了质疑。印度站在一个东向的梵文世界的中心,将其影响扩散到整个亚洲,尤其是印度支那(泰国的国王仍然以《罗摩衍那》中的神的名字自称罗摩;其古都大城,以罗摩在印度的家阿约提亚命名;柬埔寨著名的吴哥窟寺庙是作为印度教的礼拜场所建造的)。而今天的伊朗和中亚部分地区是波斯世界的所在地,它将前伊斯兰教的伊朗文化与阿拉伯伊斯兰教的文化相融合。印度是这些文化重叠的地方。伊顿先生认为,"印度在1000-1800年之间的大部分历史,"即传统上被认为是该国的伊斯兰时期,"可以从梵语和波斯语世界之间长期和多方面的互动来理解"。这本书(我们在2021年对其进行了评论)集两方面的内容于一身:它是一部相对简单的印度八个世纪的历史编年史,这一时期产生了许多今天被认为是典型的印度事物,从比里亚尼到印地语。它提供了强有力的证据,并以伊顿教授的学术研究中的数百个例子为依据,表明在英国人到来之前,印度人不是通过宗教的视角来看待彼此和自己,就像今天的国家领导人希望他们的公民相信的那样,而是通过语言、种族和社区的变色镜来看待彼此和自己。

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在某一阶层的英国绅士中,经常会遇到这样的观点:总的来说,印度在英国的统治下并没有做得很糟糕。印度人不仅没有遭受法国或西班牙--或者更糟糕的是比利时--殖民化的恐怖。但英国人建立了铁路、邮政系统和国家的行政基础设施。他们留下了议会民主和英语语言的礼物。联合国前副秘书长、印度现任议员沙希-塔鲁尔(Shashi Tharoor)在不到300页的文章中,推翻了这些论点。塔鲁尔先生反过来针对帝国的许多罪恶,从耗尽印度的资源和摧毁其工业,到英国人实施分而治之政策的方式,引起印度教徒和穆斯林之间的冲突,这最终导致了印度和巴基斯坦的分治,其影响随着时间的推移而更加强烈。至于铁路、邮政和工业化,他问道:"印度在整个历史上创造了一些世界上最伟大(和最现代)的文明,如果让它自己去做,为什么它不会获得今天发达国家或先进国家的所有特征?"


你的记者所就读的孟买学校遵守的国家课程的历史大纲或多或少在1947年印度实现独立时停止。接下来是关于 "1945年以来的世界发展 "的零星章节,涵盖了马歇尔计划、猪湾危机以及包括不结盟运动、东南亚国家联盟和南亚区域合作联盟在内的不同效用的国际组织的建立。独立是印度历史的终点,无论是在学校还是对许多历史学家来说。2007年,拉马钱德拉-古哈出版的《甘地之后的印度》(2017年更新)填补了这个空白。似乎是为了弥补这一空白,该书长达近1000页,是迄今为止这份名单上最厚重的巨著。这本书并不枯燥乏味。古哈先生是印度杰出的历史学家,也是一位生动的作家,他从分治和不到六个月后圣雄甘地被暗杀开始。他对贾瓦哈拉尔-尼赫鲁的钦佩是显而易见的,尼赫鲁是甘地的同龄人,是印度第一位也是任期最长的总理,无论好坏,都是现代印度的设计师,他对尼赫鲁的女儿英迪拉-甘地也很反感,她作为民选总理管理了国家13年,在70年代有两年时间是独裁统治。古哈先生是一个人文主义者和世俗主义者,也是现任总理纳伦德拉-莫迪的一个嘈杂的批评者。要了解莫迪先生的印度教民族主义的印度人民党正在带领印度走的危险道路,关键是首先要了解它所拒绝的遗产。如果你在这份名单中只读一本书,那就读古哈先生的书吧。


亿万富翁拉吉:印度的新镀金时代之旅。作者:James Crabtree。企鹅兰登书屋;416页;9.99英镑和17美元



克拉布特里先生曾是《金融时报》孟买分社的社长,他在孟买度过了被布女士称为 "过度城市 "的几年。大多数离任外国记者的书往往是乏味的东西,他们多年的报道快照用一个脆弱的宏大主题捆绑在一起。另一方面,克拉布特里先生对印度的大富豪以及他们是如何到达那里的问题有一个激光般的关注。他非常清晰地解释了印度大企业和政治之间的联系,以及对印度工业经济的影响。即便如此,印度也不是后苏维埃时代的俄罗斯。克拉布特里先生使用的历史类比是洛克菲勒和范德比尔特时代的美国。他写道,在美国,它让位于一个为所有人带来更大繁荣的进步时代。近14亿人的命运取决于印度是否能实现类似的旅程。
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