Insightful look at India

It was a full house as readers learnt about India from Mr Ravi Velloor (left).
It was a full house as readers learnt about India from Mr Ravi Velloor (left). PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Veteran journalist Ravi Velloor was quite the wit at The Big Read Meet on his book India Rising

When an acquaintance of veteran journalist Ravi Velloor told him she could not register online for his talk at The Big Read Meet on Wednesday as there were no seats left, he replied that that was not likely the case and she might have just encountered "a computer glitch".

But Mr Velloor, 58, had reckoned without the faithful, and still- growing, following for the almost three-year-old non-fiction book club, which I moderate monthly and which is run jointly by the National Library Board (NLB) and The Straits Times (ST).

There was indeed a full house as 85 readers turned up to learn more about India, with NLB staff having to put out extra chairs as readers streamed in for his talk on his debut book, India Rising: Fresh Hope, New Fears.

Mr Velloor, who is ST's associate editor for global affairs, proved quite the raconteur over 11/2 hours, as readers asked him for his take on how Indian premier Narendra Modi was faring, whether the frosty ties between India and Pakistan will thaw and the fear that communal violence would return to the subcontinent.

Mr P.K. Modi, 56, chief executive of an insurance broking firm here, asked how resilient India could be now that many could not see eye to eye even within their community. For example, he said, if anyone were to dispute the Ramayana as a historical event, some in his community would threaten him with harm.

Mr Velloor said: "The middle ground is shrinking. But if we want to be optimistic, the minorities in India should take comfort that Hindus are so divided."

What, then, was giving him fresh hope about his birth country? Contrasting a saying in Sanskrit that went "as the king, so the people" with the Western old saw "people get the leaders they deserve", he noted that palm-greasing in New Delhi was on the wane, with Prime Minister Modi able "to tick off" even the most senior officials.

Whereas, he added, during the time of Mr Modi's predecessor Manmohan Singh, "everyone had his hand in the cookie jar". So Mr Velloor expected India's ranking in Transparency International's corruption index to improve.

Mr P.K. Modi, a Singapore permanent resident from India who is not related to the Indian Prime Minister, appreciated that Mr Velloor gave readers information "that was otherwise not publicly available". These included his observations on how food shortages and an Indian Civil Service travel perk have helped unite diverse India.

Mr Velloor had readers in stitches when he told of how his hero, the Dalai Lama, had stunned an air stewardess when he "wolfed down" a beef steak. "After a while, she could not contain her curiosity and asked him, 'Aren't you the Dalai Lama of Tibet? Shouldn't you be a vegetarian?' The Dalai Lama replied, 'There are bad people in Tibet too'."

When procurement manager Tan Pui Hee, 64, asked what Mr Velloor thought of India-China ties, he replied that these would likely be stronger in future as the two Asian giants were already working closely "in issues we do not see all the time, such as climate change" and that "any real military conflict between them would be very foolish".

Noting how "searing" India's defeat was in the Sino-India Border Conflict of 1962, he added: "Indians got their own back by murdering Chinese cuisine with such dishes as gobi or cauliflower Manchurian."

Mr Velloor, who is now a Singaporean, mused: "India has seemed as if it is lurching from crisis to crisis.

"But today, when people think of India, they also think of software and so on. Who would have imagined that brands such as Jaguar, Land Rover and Tetley Teas would be owned by Indians?"

The next Big Read Meet will be with ST's editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang on his new book, Singapore In Transition, on June 29 from 6.30pm at the Possibility Room, Level 5, NLB headquarters, 100 Victoria Street. Sign up for it at any NLB e-Kiosk.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2016, with the headline 'Insightful look at India'. Print Edition | Subscribe