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Monday, May 7, 2007

A Conversation With Ed Luce

Ed Luce is the Washington bureau chief of the Financial Times, and author of “In Spite of The Gods – The Strange Rise of Modern India” published by Random House. Describing India’s “schizophrenic” economy, the astounding reach of its massive government, the intricacies of the caste system, Hindu nationalism, India’s ruling families, India’s large Muslim minority, it’s upward trajectory of trade and industry, it’s paradoxically modern and traditional society, and the implications of India in the global future. In his book, Luce reveals that India’s technological revolution, which has been vilified as a threat to American prosperity plays a tiny role in the overall Indian economy.

1. You traveled extensively in India to write "In Spite of the Gods". What were the highlights of your travels?

There were so many. I took a year off from The Financial Times to write this book. Prior to that though, I was the Financial Times Delhi bureau chief for four years and I traveled constantly. It is very hard to single out any, I generally loved traveling in India it is such a varied country. It's such a compellingly diverse society that traveling is always educational. In fact it is a little bit similar to living in Washington. There is no equivalent for beltway/cabin fever in Delhi. If you stay in Delhi too long your sense of reality needs to be corrected, the only way to do that is to get out of Delhi. The same applies to Washington. There should be an equivalent phrase IN DELHI to Beltway fever.

2. What other cities that you went to stand out in your mind?

I love Bombay. If and when we live in India I would prefer to be based there. I find the attitude of people a lot more open. Less status conscious, less of a business card giving, more frank and open and more cosmopolitan in a way and less public sector. It's the same as the difference between Washington and New York.

3. What do you like best about the book? What do you think you might have liked to emphasize better? What would you change now if you could?

The book is a perishable commodity. This is essentially a book of journalism by a journalist. Although I draw in a lot of scholarship and reference it and perhaps, AS JOURNALISTS OFTEN DO, unconsciously plagiarize OTHERS, it's not going to be as relevant five years from now. It's really a snapshot of contemporary India and how it is changing. And because India is changing very fast a lot of things are happening though some of it would become outdated pretty quickly rather than a book on Russia which I don't think is changing AT THE SAME SPEED. So I wouldn't really be able to change that aspect of it.

I'd like it to have a decent shelf life because I think I have condensed a lot of observations and learning into this book. And tried to sort of portray that lightly rather than in a heavy going manner but there is nothing I can do about that. A direct answer to your question is that there is no aspect of the book that I can change. It would be the weak point of the book. It is not going to be NEARLY AS relevant four years from now. India is changing very rapidly

4. What were some challenges you faced while writing this book?

Well, journalists writing books… I am used to what we say in England, we call it "Tommorrow's Fish and Chip paper" you know because we wrap up Fish and Chips in newspapers. I am used to thinking maybe a week, maximum two weeks ahead for a long feature and getting that kind of instant gratification. The book is very different psychologically, temperamentally, for journalists it is quite an adjustment. This is something you have to ensure is relevant, you have to immunize yourself against this short termist thing that journalists sometimes suffer from. So what I did at the beginning of the book process was go through four years worth of notebooks, it took a long time it took several weeks, about a hundred densely written notebooks, and I condensed these into four notebooks, but taking notes on notes. From the journalism I had done, its amazing how much you forget, in retrospect, how it's often the unimportant stuff that you have actually reported on. The passage of time shows you how much you have not used you have probably only print in the newspaper about ten percent of what you write down of the interviews you conduct and so forth. So it was first and foremost a very useful exercise, in discovering how much I had forgotten.

I never understood this phrase until I started writing this book which is "The urgent drives out the merely important," it sort of reinforced that phrase to me. A lot of journalism is the urgent, what I tried to make of this book was merely the important.

5. Have you read "Planet India" by Mira Kamdar? Your thoughts...

I haven't yet. I must get around to it. I will certainly read it at some stage. In fact I was sent a copy.

6. How do you react to reviews of your book? Any that you really liked
and did not like that you would like to share with us?

There have been surprisingly few unkind reviews. Obviously I am interested in reviews. When I read interviews with authors who say they never read their reviews that puts me off their VERACITY. Of course they do. I have been fortunate enough firstly to have overwhelmingly favorable reviews. It was a very nice surprise. And also to have quite a lot of reviews. If you add up the three main markets that this book has been disseminated in, India, UK and the US, theres probably been more than a hundred reviews now. After you have read fifty, you start getting bored even if they are nice.

7. When you do readings what kinds of questions/reactions do you get from your readers... How do the readers react to In Spite of the Gods?

All kinds. It's never the same. I don't specifically do readings, but I give talks about the content of the book or the subject. Readings are better suited to books of poetry or works of prose, and I hope that my prose is good, but really the book is about content and argument and observation and so what I do is I give speeches around this subject.

The questions are as varied as India itself. There is no real pattern there. In some of the radio interviews I have done, its been quite interesting to take the temperature of radio listeners out there in mid-America. In between the coastS there is quite a lot of angst still about outsourcing and off-shoring. And that's been an interesting thing to observe. In general there were just so many aspects to India and an equally large number to the questions I get. But it is a large subject.

8. Some say that when writers who are not from India write books, there is not very much depth to them. How would you react to that?

I could only react to a mention of specific writers. It depends on what you define as Indian, would V.S. Naipaul be defined as Indian? I guess he wouldn't be. I guess it depends on the writer. I'd far rather judge people individually rather than by their passport.

9. Do you have any other books/book ideas in the works? Can you share
them with us?

The job I am in as the Washington bureau chief of the financial Times is extremely draining and always interesting. America is at a political crossroads, I think. The conservative revolution is running it's course. But I don't think we know what is going to replace it. So there are all sorts of fascinating trends there and intellectual questions to ask of America's trajectory and what that means for the rest of the world. So I can quite imagine a book idea emerging from this but at the moment it is all consuming doing the journalism. I just don't have the time to spin out a book outline. But that's certainly my aspiration to continue to be an author. It is much more rewarding to being an author, although I wouldn't be an author if I wasn't a journalist.

10. What do you think about the exodus of Indian Americans / non-resident Indians moving back to India?

It's a natural consequence of the growing economic opportunity and the number of NRI's who by word of mouth get to hear of others who have enriched themselves by returning. Some people call it the "reverse brain drain". It is very different from ten to fifteen years ago, the common narrative was a horror story of what you are subjected to when you return about a telephone connection or a gas connection. Ten years ago you might have had to wait a year or six months for a telephone connection and now you can buy one as you arrive at the airport.

It is particularly interesting to see foreigners being hired by an Indian company, in the pharmaceuticals sector, in telecom, in the hotel industry. I think the head of the Taj group is an American. Its not long before we'll see white waiters, in dhabas around Delhi, which would be fun. In hotels you see all sorts of foreign employees already.

11. Would you move to India again if you had a choice?

Sure. My wife is Indian and also many many of my friends. Its quite a natural thing to do, though I have no specific plans at the moment to live there in the near future. It is something that could quite easily happen. It wouldn't be something I would resist. I love being in India. That's quite possible.

12. A more personal question -- Your wife Priya is Indian. Would you tell me how you met and where and how you came to be married?

We met a long time ago. We met at university in England at Oxford where she was a graduate and I was undergraduate in 1990. I met her a long time before I met India or maybe it's the same thing. We got married in both England and India, legally in England in a rather dry registration office, in India we had a full Hindu wedding. It was great fun, I had no idea what was going to happen. It happened in sort of a chaotic but colorful Indian way. It was one of the most memorable days of my life.

-13. What was the impetus behind this book? Where did the idea for this book come from? What made you want to write this? (Please describe how this book came into being; whether your agent/ editor approached you about it or was it the other way around. How things worked from conception to published book)

I approached an agent in London, Natasha Fairweather, with an outline. She took it from there really. So I was in good hands and very fortunate. The idea came from the work I was doing as the FT correspondent. I felt that India - and the new India - needed a book that was accessible to the mainstream market. The fact that I love writing about India made it a no-brainer for me. It was duck to water situation.

14. Why did you pick this particular title for your book?
The real title is The Strange Rise of Modern India. The publishers wanted a punchier title so I accepted In Spite of the Gods because it seemed better than some of the alternatives. But the subtitle is my real title. The words "strange' denotes the unusual sequence of India's rise and not the fact that it is happening.

15. Who are some of your favorite writers both fiction and non-fiction, Indian and non-Indian?

Too many writers to mention both Indian and non-Indian. I discard about one in three books that I start reading because there are fewer good writers out there than you'd think, or perhaps I'm just getting more choosy as I get older.

By Visi Tilak