Introduction: Life on Planet India
I remember the last time the world was talking about India. It was a fleeting fashion moment following the Beatles' trip to Rishikesh. Nehru collars and beads came into fashion, along with paisley motifs in psychedelic colors. Transcendental Meditation became the latest fad for stress relief. Laugh-In replaced Leave It to Beaver as the iconic American show. India was suddenly cool. Countercultural types embraced India as the antithesis of the West, lost to the empty materialism of the famous "plastics" scene in the movie The Graduate. India wasn't backward; it was wise and spiritual. But then the West moved on. Plastics prevailed, and India faded into the background.
My Indian father's family lived in Bombay. Every few years, we prepared for the incredible journey to the other side of the world. We collected precious supplies for our relatives in India: jeans and sneakers for our growing cousins, huge jars of Tang, later giant bottles of Tylenol, plastic bags of California-grown almonds and pistachios. Our family mailed us lists, and we stuffed whatever we could into our suitcases.
Living in Bombay in 1967 and 1968, I felt like I had been exiled from the real world. My grandparents' flat in Juhu, though surrounded by the homes of Bollywood stars, had no television. Across the main road near the apartment building was a reeking slum. The only relief from the paralyzing heat was to sit under a crazily beating fan. Everything was different: the food, the language, the climate, the rules of what could and couldn't be worn, what could and couldn't be said. There was no privacy. From early morning until late at night, I could hear neighboring housewives banging pots, parents screaming at children, Hindi film songs blasting, and bicyclists ringing their little bells.
In the morning the milkman came around with his cow. My grandmother or one of my aunts brought a brass pot down to him and he squatted next to the cow and sent warm streams of milk into the pot. I learned to keep a keen eye on the milkman to make sure he didn't, via a well-concealed tube, water down the milk. We took the milk upstairs and boiled it. While I sipped hot milk mixed with Ovaltine, I dreamed of dragging my fingers through the condensation on the outside of a tall glass of cold milk.
My aunt and uncle live in Gurgaon now, a booming suburb south of New Delhi. They have two refrigerators and buy pasteurized milk in sealed plastic bags. A huge, flat-screen television with cable brings hundreds of Indian and foreign channels into their living room. They keep in touch with family dispersed around the world via e-mail and telephone. Air conditioners in the bedrooms keep the apartment pleasantly cool. A late-model Honda four-door sedan is parked downstairs.
From the rooftop terrace of my aunt and uncle's flat, I can see buildings going up everywhere, the little tarps of the migrant construction workers dotting vacant lots. Women in full gathered skirts and flowing half-saris, arms covered with bangles up to their shoulders, carry loads of freshly mixed cement in baskets on their heads to the men who transfer the burden onto their own heads before scrambling barefoot up rickety scaffolding to deliver the wet mass. Near the tarps, a child runs crazily next to an old tire he urges forward with a stick. Beyond him, a Citibank office tower rises into view.
On a recent trip to India, I sat in the new Bombay domestic airport waiting for a flight on Kingfisher Airlines, whose slogan is "Fly the Good Times," my laptop propped on my knees. I typed in the code from the card I had just bought from a Tata Indicom kiosk and immediately got a strong wireless connection. On the way to the airport from the old family flat in Juhu, I had passed forlorn groups of destitute families, huddled under an unfinished highway overpass on thin mats of filthy cotton, the little babies naked and snot-nosed. It was the kind of scene that profoundly shocks first-time visitors to India and to which I have never become immune.
As I checked my e-mail in the gleaming terminal among the Indian and foreign businessmen and families waiting for one of the many flights departing for every part of the country, I thought about the India I lived in forty years ago and India today, and I wondered where India would be forty years from now.
"'Where are we headed with our billions?' That is the question India is asking itself," a friend told me in New Delhi over a drink. It is a question the entire world should be asking.
Half my family is Indian. During most of my lifetime, India changed, but did so almost imperceptibly. Then, suddenly, the changes began to come with dizzying speed. With each arrival, I felt I was watching time-lapse photography. No democracy in history has undergone a transformation of India's magnitude or velocity.
Traveling the length and breadth of the country, I witnessed the churning of India's incredible metamorphosis. I interviewed hundreds of people who shared their visions of India's future, most utopian, some grim, with me. I talked to the people in the culture industries who are reimagining India's ancient stories for a new global audience. I met businessmen who are dedicated to including the poor in India's booming economy, even as they take their companies global. I listened to household servants, taxi drivers, farmers, and street vendors talk about their daily struggles, their frustrations, their faith that their children's lives would be better. Everywhere, I was stunned by the pride, the bullishness, the sense that this moment belongs to India. I caught a glimpse of India's future, its possibilities and its perils, and in that future I saw our own, for as goes India, so goes the world.
The World in Microcosm
No other country matters more to the future of our planet than India. There is no challenge we face, no opportunity we covet where India does not have critical relevance. From combating global terror to finding cures for dangerous pandemics, from dealing with the energy crisis to averting the worst scenarios of global warming, from rebalancing stark global inequalities to spurring the vital innovation needed to create jobs and improve lives -- India is now a pivotal player. The world is undergoing a process of profound recalibration in which the rise of Asia is the most important factor. India holds the key to this new world.
India is at once an ancient Asian civilization, a modern nation grounded in Enlightenment values and democratic institutions, and a rising twenty-first-century power. With a population of 1.2 billion, India is the world's largest democracy. It is an open, vibrant society. India's diverse population includes Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians, Jews, and animists. There are twenty-two official languages in India. Three hundred fifty million Indians speak English.
India is the world in microcosm. Its geography encompasses every climate, from the snowcapped Himalayas to palm-fringed beaches to deserts where nomads and camels roam. A developing country, India is divided among a tiny affluent minority, a rising middle class, and 800 million people who live on less than $2 per day. India faces all the critical problems of our time -- extreme social inequality, employment insecurity, a growing energy crisis, severe water shortages, a degraded environment, global warming, a galloping HIV/AIDS epidemic, terrorist attacks -- on a scale that defies the imagination.
India's goal is breathtaking in scope: transform a developing country of more than 1 billion people into a developed nation and global leader by 2020, and do this as a democracy in an era of resource scarcity and environmental degradation. The world has to cheer India on. If India fails, there is a real risk that our world will become hostage to political chaos, war over dwindling resources, a poisoned environment, and galloping disease. Wealthy enclaves will employ private companies to supply their needs and private militias to protect them from the poor massing at their gates. But, if India succeeds, it will demonstrate that it is possible to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. It will prove that multiethnic, multireligious democracy is not a luxury for rich societies. It will show us how to save our environment, and how to manage in a fractious, multipolar world. India's gambit is truly the venture of the century.
In Search of a New Paradigm
"Our biggest challenge is the challenge nobody has solved in the world: how to grow equity," Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industry, India's biggest company, told me. Can liberal democracies forge a global market economy that is environmentally sustainable and reduces inequality? The United States has failed to achieve this. While it has proven its capacity to generate vast wealth, the so-called Washington consensus has advanced corporate interests over the welfare of average citizens and small businesses, exacerbated gaps between the affluent and the poor, and operated with stunning disregard for the environment. America's prosperity is dependent on overconsumption of the world's resources -- with just 6 percent of the world's population, the United States consumes 30 percent of the earth's resources. And it produces a disproportionate share -- 25 percent -- of dangerous greenhouse gases.
American technological, economic, and strategic dominance is being challenged for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union. Ironically, the communication and information technologies that propelled America to the forefront during the 1990s are now contributing to the erosion of American dominance. These technologies have created a world where time and space are compressed as never before, where ideas, money, services, and people are constantly in motion, freed from the constraints of national boundaries.
The process of globalization spurred by these technological innovations has created what the economist Amartya Sen calls "an age of great affluence,"...
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