Why India is not functioning

John Elliott - Implosion

John Elliott talking about his book

John Elliott, a  journalist in Asia since 1983, initially for The Financial Times and then for The Economist and Fortune magazine, has written a book on “how India works and how it could work better”. As he thinks it doesn’t work so well, the book is titled “Implosion”.

“I didn’t set out to write a negative book, even though people think it is,” Elliott said when he talked about his opus at the Foreign Correspondents Club.

Elliott explained he describes how slowly and gradually all institutions and organisations, that support a functioning democracy, are imploding in India. He asks if a society can be successful when it is based on “jugaad” and “chalta hai”. “Jugaad” is the art of coming up with unusual, quick-fix solutions for problems, “chalta hai” means “it’s alright, don’t bother, it doesn’t matter (e.g. rules), it’ll be alright”.

Interestingly, Dean Nelson, the South Asia Editor of The Daily Telegraph, doesn’t see jugaad in the positive light many do, because it generates great ideas due to a shortage. He believes that rather it holds India back.

For example: When Nelson moved to India, everybody told him he had to buy a converter. Why do I have to buy one?, he asked. Because there are a lot of power cuts, came the answer. Why are there regular power cuts? Because there is not enough supply, he heard. But why isn’t there enough supply? Because no one is tackling the structural shortage. So the real question is, why is no one tackling the shortage?, he finally asked. Because the politicians and businessmen have converters.

Jaipur Literature Festival, in quotes

Festival director William Dalrymple: Diggi Palace is packed with people. This shows: Books still matter, authors still matter.

Novelist Jonathan Franzen: “Show, don’t tell,” I was tought in the 70s and 80s. “But it is story telling, not story showing, so I unlearned this idea.”

Franzen: “We are still post-modern, but don’t call ourselves post-modern anymore, we call it post-post-modern.”

Franzen: I don’t know how a book ends when I start it. And so I hope that if I am unsure where it’s going, maybe it feels like a mystery for the reader.

Franzen: “A novelist is a man who every morning goes to his own little world and meets the people he himself created.” Franzen adds that readers never feel alone as they connect to the people in their books.

audience at Jaipur LitFest

Question on the Bollywood Nation panel: “What happened to the angry young man?” Economist and politician Meghnad Desai: “He became Arvind Kejriwal.” He will also solve every problem in twelve hours.

Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan: Sometimes the investment in a film is there, then they get an actor, but there’s no story. The actor demands: I want five action scenes and three songs. And the movie is still a success!

Khan: Some stars basically say: Come to the cinema, get some action sequences, get some songs – and see me.

Desai on social change through films: “They reach out wider and deeper to the audience than any writer or author can.”

Khan: “These are changing times in Indian cinema and society. The audience is maturing, movies are changing.” But often the cinema doesn’t reflect society, it just wants to give you a good time. “Then cinema is like a sleeping pill: chill and relax.”

Vamsee Juluri, professor of media studies and son of Tollywood star Jamuna: This cultural pastime (films) has so much power, that as a child I was often separated from my mother by a wall of fans.

Desai: Nowadays you only need to attach “Khan” to your name to get to the top in Bollywood.

Khan: Most of the stardom is about scaling down people, making them feel lesser.

Vamsee Juluri: Bollywood keeps Gandhi’s ideas alive, more than any politician.

Author Jerry Pinto: “When the government has nothing else to do than watch twitter and facebook these days, I would like to be the government. But shall the twitterati now built roads and run schools?”

Journalist Madhu Trehan: In India, “we don’t like irony, we don’t like the funnies. Just say it as it is, and if you can’t do that, then let it be.”

Director, actor and writer Mahesh Dattani: “One thing we all grew up with is hating woman: We see the man being privilegded and therefore supress the woman in us.” And if the Indians hate anything more than females, it’s the hijras (men in South Asia who adopt feminine gender roles and wear women’s clothing)., “as they defy every aspect of the masculartity we aspire”.


Aditi Maheshwari, director at the publishing house Vani Prakashan: “India may dream in Hindi, speak in Hindi, but it aspires in English.”

Sir David Cannadine, professor of history at Princeton University: In 1910, the majority of the world was ruled by empires, lead by kings and queens, today we have more than 200 republics, most of them democracies, or claim to be. There is no assurance that this will remain to be like this. “The British ruled their empire more than a thousand years, in that light the republics are a very recent phenomenon.”

Another one by Cannadine: “If you asked the British why there are so many Indian restaurants in Britain, most people wouldn’t know the answer.” – “Whereas, if you asked Indians why cricket is the national sports, most knew the answer.”

Jaipur Literature Festival, on partition

Mohinder Singh Sarna was a witness of what his son Navtej Sarna described as “immense scale of bloodshed and killings on both sides of what later became the border”. The son never heard his father speak of the partition between India and Pakistan, about the “absolute terror, absolute hatred, when innocent people were being massacred for no reason whatsoever”.

But his father handed down his stories. In order to let more people know about what happened in 1947, Navtej Sarna translated the harrowing accounts from Punjabi, and had them published. The result is “Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition”.

“In some stories the marginalised or even the animals are better than humans,” he explained. But a lot of the tales are also about deep friendship. When Sarna read out the shortest of the narratives the audience at the Jaipur Literature Festival, the people fell dead silent and listened intensely of how a Moslem driver sacrificed himself to safe a Sikh family.

Urvashi Butalia and Navtej Sarna

Navtej Sarna in conversation with Urvashi Butalia on “Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition”

Gurudwaras (places of worship for Sikhs) were giving out little portions of poison, so when women were in fear of loosing their honour by rape, they could swallow it. Some groups of Punjabi Sikhs took a vow to kill all their wifes and daughters to keep them from abduction. These were two of the many terrible side stories that transpired from the conversation of Sarna with publisher Urvashi Butalia.

They also talked about the “reluctance to confront this bloody period of grief and despair” in the Indian history. “All life was destructed. The human instinct tells us to cling on, to rebuilt, to look forward. Only after a while we look back, we reflect, and pass it on to our children,” Sarna said. This is the time when books are written or translated.

He  experienced this in his own family. Nobody in the house would talk about partition – as his own sister was killed during the time. “Silence was a trick of survival.”

Butalia gave some further background information: 100 000 women were possibly raped, abducted and sold during partition, and many of them committed suicide, for example by throwing themselves into wells. The silence, she analysis, was also a way of cutting these women out of family history, because “the stigma of rape stays not only on the woman, but is also transferred to the family”.

So far, both the conversationalists concluded, not enough of retrospection, documenting and conviction is done. “That would help to heal,” Sarna said. But, for example, there are only two or three movies on partition. And: “In India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, we all have been really silent. If we would have spoken out more, we would be more tolerant, more understanding.”

Urvashi Butalia

Publisher and author Urvashi Butalia

Another panel of four talked about “Reimaging Partition”. It was lined out that the partition between India and Pakistan included the largest forced mass migration in history: twelve million people had to move in a matter of a few month.

“We have to remember partition so we can deal with the consequences and ensure it doesn’t happen again,” Butalia said. And people should grow aware of the fact that there were no clearly good or bad guys, there were victims and aggressors in sikh, hindu and muslim communities,  the publisher said. People don’t recognise how deep it lies inside them and how it remains unresolved.

These days, Butalia thinks, we listened to many a story about Sikhs and Moslems. So it should be about time to go deeper and see the layers beyond: What happened to the Christianes, the Dalits and other minorities, the second generation, and so on.

Vishwajyoti Ghosh

Vishwajyoti Ghosh, curator of “This Side That Side”, a collection of stories about the partition

Vishwajyoti Ghosh, a graphic novelist and artist based in Delhi, believes that the second generation is the biggest in denial, because they hear many stories from their parents, but stick to the thought: “I wasn’t born then, it doesn’t affect me.” They are also too busy re-building and setting up their own life.  But Ghosh reminded the audience that in West Bengal the refugee camps of 1947 still exist, as some people there still live on rented government land.

“We need more writers who tell in graphic novels or short stories or movies or write online,” Ghosh in order to communicate to different people. And anyway, every retelling of a story is a transition, he thinks.

Ahmad Rafay Alam

Ahmad Rafay Alam

The Pakistani environment lawyer and activist Ahmad Rafay Alam recounts how he had to go to another country to find literature on 1971, when Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan. “There is still an element of denial in the Pakistan establishment,” he said. But: the people should come to a point of acceptance.

Today with social media we have much more documents which can be fast and easily be shown around, Alam continues. But so far there is no museum on the partition in Pakistan, even though historians collected 15 000 interviews and 80 000 documents.

There is an urgent need to remember this part of history, but at Purana Qila in Delhi, where the biggest refugee camp was situated, there isn’t even a plaque, Butalia laments. But the good thing is, she continues, that the third generation can now deal with it, and there is more literature on partition coming at the moment.

Butalia recounted the story she heard so often in the villages of Punjab of the “Madman Radcliffe“. Sir Cyril Radcliffe apparently came to the subcontinent and couldn’t handle the task of finding the line on which to divide India and Pakistan. So all night long he got drunk, and in the morning got out a pen, and because he couldn’t draw a straight line anymore on the map, the border nowadays is ragged and totally random: this stone is in Pakistan, and that one in Bangladesh (former East Pakistan).

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