An insider's insights into India

Veteran journalist Ravi Velloor's debut book India Rising is an unflinching look at his birth country's successes and failures

INDIA RISING: FRESH HOPE, NEW FEARS

By Ravi Velloor

Straits Times Press Paperback/368 pages/$27.20 with GST from leading bookstores or on loan from the National Library Board under the call number English 954.0532 RAV

Everybody knows India or at least he thinks he does. Its curries are among the world's favourite dishes; its cultural collaborations have produced Oscar winners, composer A. R. Rahman and the films Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and Gandhi (1982); and billions admire its literary laureates such as Rabindranath Tagore, Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh.

But how many people really know what makes the world's largest democracy tick, or rather hum, buzz and sparkle with an indomitable spirit?

  • FIVE QUESTIONS THIS BOOK ANSWERS

    1 On what idea is the Indian civilisation founded?

    2 Why and how has India's North-South divide been bridged?

    3 How and to what extent has India's caste system evolved?

    4 To what extent is India opening up, on all fronts?

    5 Why have India's leaders often regarded Singapore so highly, even affectionately?


    Meet Ravi Velloor on May 25

    Join The Straits Times associate editor Ravi Velloor at The Big Read Meet on May 25 from 6.30pm, at the Exhibition Area in the Central Public Library at Basement 1, National Library Board (NLB) headquarters at 100 Victoria Street.

    The Straits Times senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai will moderate the session. Sign up for it at any NLB e-Kiosk or go to www.nlb.gov.sg/golibrary.

    If you cannot make it to the meet, you can talk to Velloor and Cheong about India Rising at 2pm on May 14 at Books Kinokuniya at Level 4 Ngee Ann City.

The reader now has, in The Straits Times (ST) associate editor Ravi Velloor, a respondent with a ringside seat on evolving India and one adept at bringing its biggest scenes between 2004 and 2015 to vivid life.

Kerala-born Velloor has designed his debut book as self-contained chapters, like snapshots of India's simmering issues, such as its evolving caste system, its communal schisms and its still- awkward relationship with China.

But thanks to his knack for engaging people from all walks of life, reading each chapter is like watching a short video of an insider huddled with The Powers That Be as they share insights. It is a savvy approach for the YouTube generation.

His narrative does not flinch or flag, so you might sometimes find yourself wanting, but unable, to look away, such as when, in a Mumbai morgue, he approaches the body of Lo Hwei Yen, the first Singaporean victim of a terrorist attack. Or when United Nations stalwart Shashi Tharoor is politically eviscerated. Or when you are given glimpses of the last days of gang-rape victim Jyoti Singh Pandey.

Velloor, 57, began reporting in July 1979, first for wire agencies, then for Time magazine offshoot Asiaweek from 1984, where he distinguished himself early. He joined ST in 1992 and, after a sojourn at Bloomberg between 2002 and 2004, returned as ST's South Asia bureau chief, foreign editor and now its associate editor for global affairs.

All told, he is more upbeat about India's future than those who are weary from dealing with the lumbering, oft-prevaricating giant. For example, in his prologue, he notes how Yugoslav writer Milovan Djilas predicted that India would soon collapse under its many contradictions.

Today, Yugoslavia no longer exists as a nation, while India has grown from 17 states to 29.

Velloor goes on to say that railways and the Internet, popular culture and cricket have done much to unite its diverse communities. That summing-up is surely premature, given recent communal clashes sparked by the lynching of Muslim man Mohammad Akhlaq in September last year for allegedly keeping beef at home.

In another chapter, Velloor puts the failure of the Tata Nano, billed as the world's cheapest car, down to "marketing mistakes" when it had a hairier problem - it sometimes just bursts into flames in mid-drive.

These are but blips in his part-memoir, part-study of his birth country. Still think you know India? Well, after reading India Rising, you will be able to say, "Been there, done that, got the T-shirt."


Just a minute

THE GOOD

1. Veteran journalist Ravi Velloor is a consummate storyteller. He is also blessed with an almost photographic memory, which enables him to transport the reader back in time to the very moment he met each interviewee. You will likely marvel at how, for example, he can recall the countless heart-tugging details that stuck in his mind as he wandered through the rubble after the Indian Ocean tsunami on Boxing Day 2004.

2. Velloor melds his unadorned prose with well-timed turns of phrases that are almost poetic. For example, here he is on India's top tennis player Sanir Mirza after her valiant duel at the Australian Open in 2005 against top-rated American Serena Williams, who eventually beat her: "Never before had the vanquished looked so much like the victor."

3. Good writing is an art, but it takes an eye for the ridiculous and a deep appreciation of the vagaries of human nature, to keep a book in everyone's consciousness. Velloor has the eye and heart to make India Rising an instant classic.

4. He has built an extensive network over almost four decades that spans not only South Asia, but also a highly influential circle of thinkers worldwide. To cap that, he was born and schooled in South India and worked in the North, and so can compare both spheres of the country very well.

THE BAD

1. This book contains some glaring typos. These include such howlers as "relationshup" instead of "relationship". In one instance, the name of a senior officer in the Singapore Legal Service is misspelt. These blemishes do not belong in a book as fine as this.

THE IFFY

1. For the most part, Velloor strikes a balance between calling a spade a spade and giving credit, or criticism. But occasionally, such as when he notes that the Nepalese are "slow learners", he might actually be making a more nuanced point than what is apparent from a plain reading of his narrative. For example, he tells me that he is actually referring to the Nepalese elites with that remark, but the reader with no knowledge of Nepal will not be able to infer that from reading between his few lines on the Himalayan nation. So that mention in passing might seem like a side swipe at the Nepalese, who have long been under India's thumb.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 01, 2016, with the headline 'An insider's insights into India'. Print Edition | Subscribe