Mira Kamdar’s supposition in the book Planet India is that our modern dilemmas are all magnified in India, and that it uniquely holds the potential to solve them and be an example for the world. An intriguing idea, given India’s 5,000-year history and its ancient spirituality and mysticism. But Planet India holds about as much promise as a franchise Planet Hollywood store.
Mira Kamdar is of Indian and American heritage and spent part of her childhood in India with her Indian grandparents. She has published a memoir about her family, Motiba’s Tattoos (Plume, 2001), and is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute. Ms. Kamdar’s hypothesis can be summarized as follows: India is in the midst of a renaissance, emerging as a major cultural and political force, and Indian “compassionate capitalism” will be revolutionary.
Kamdar spends the first three chapters among India’s rich and famous, using adjectives dripping with star lust. She is obviously enamored with the “cultural cream of Indian society,” using the word “elite” so often one would think it the highest of compliments. She fails to detect any irony in her own position as she describes passing barefoot, dusty children in her air-conditioned car on the way to a dinner party.
The author obviously has pride in India’s meteoric rise in all things Western and India’s ability to “beat the West at its own game.” Why can’t India come up with its own game, or change the rules by which we play?
Kamdar conducts thorough research in the narrow spectrum of her known world — the business sector and movie industry. Assuming that wealth and technology will lead us out of self-destruction, she asserts that capitalism with Indian sensibilities will be the answer. “One hopes,” she says repeatedly, as she finds a handful of entrepreneurs who espouse visionary ideals of capitalism with social responsibility. Her naiveté is obvious when she’s stunned by Deepak Chopra’s negative assessment of where India is headed.
Kamdar does cite the massive problems of poverty, illiteracy, AIDS/HIV, and inequality based on caste and gender. Traveling with a reporter to rural India with its alarming rates of farmer suicides, she acknowledges Monsanto is selling GMO seeds that produce crops that don’t regenerate themselves — a true wonder not found in the natural world — without a hint of corporate culpability. She notes India’s militarism and its warm welcome to Wal-Mart. After citing evidence that India is repeating many mistakes of Western capitalism, she states what India must do, while glossing over the reality: They aren’t.
Kamdar’s book leaves many contradictions unexplored, her analysis tightly circumscribed by class and capitalist allegiances. “India has within its grasp the technology to find solutions [to global warming]” (no hint of what they might be); India’s potential as a superpower is heralded without considering that a “superpower” itself is a problem. Perhaps most illustrative of the blinders of her class, Ms. Kamdar states that India has an inclusive vision for transforming its mega-cities. “Indian cities have the potential to be role models. Hyderabad was one of the first Indian cities to renovate, widening streets… clearing sidewalks of vendors and beggars.”
With its deep reservoir of culture, India may indeed create new alternatives to address urgent contradictions, but one will find little evidence of this in Planet India.
By BONNIE OLSON, Contributing Writer
Planet India: How the Fastest Growing Democracy Is Transforming America and the World by Mira Kamdar, Scribner, February 2007, Hardcover, 336 pages, $26