Tales From Shining and Sinking India, written by Akash Banerjee, a well-renown Indian journalist, is an amazing compilation of his on-the-ground reportage of major Indian news events. Broken out into a series of a dozen vignettes, Banerjee’s book is a first-hand account of how India is a land of contrasts—almost painfully so. While India has some of the world’s most resilient and courageous people, it also has some of its weakest and most self-centered people. Affluence and cheek-by-jowl poverty also exist side-by-side (from the overpriced rooftop bar at the top of the Four Seasons Mumbai, one can see directly into a large slum colony of nearly half a million people).
The stories range from reportage right in front of the Taj Hotel in Mumbai when it was attacked by Islamist terrorists in 2008 to accompanying commandos into rebel communist-held territory in India’s heartland (with the author even posing with an AK-47!) to showcasing India’s colorful religious festivals. These vibrant pieces portray India as both rising (e.g., the growing affluence of the elite, the continued ability of Mumbai as a city to bounce back from calamities such as the 2008 attacks, the ability of the Mumbai police force to vanquish the Islamist terrorists, etc.) as well as sinking (e.g., the ineptitude of the politicians in the backwater state of Bihar in eastern India to rescue stranded citizens during the devastating 2008 floods, the 2G Spectrum License Scam, the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games scandal, etc.). I personally loved Banerjee’s riveting, first-hand account of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, as well as his story charting the slow decline of the West Bengal-based Communist Party of India (the story is aptly entitled Poribortion, or Bengali for transformation).
For those interested in learning more about how India functions and what the country is like as a whole, this book offers some valuable lessons. First, India is not a monolithic country and businesses seeking to do business in India should not see it that way. While Hindi and English are the two official languages, there are also nearly two dozen other regional languages, and the cultures and tastes vary significantly across the states. For example, while most people in the western state of Gujarat are vegetarian, most people in the northern state of Kashmir have no such dietary restrictions. Second, one needs to be careful who they partner with. As Banerjee points out in his Poribortion vignette, Tata Motors (current owner of Land Rover and Jaguar and manufacturer of the Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest car) collaborated with the Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M) when choosing to build the manufacturing site of their Tata Nano near Calcutta in the state of West Bengal. However, the CPI-M had intimidated indigent, local land-owners—many of whom relied upon subsistence farming—into “selling” their land to the government so that Tata Motors could build their facility. A firebrand politician named Mamata Banerjee (now Chief Minister of West Bengal) took advantage of this situation and eventually caused Tata Motors to shut down the plant in West Bengal and shift production to the state of Gujarat, causing the car rollout to be delayed.
This ties into the third lesson, which is that all major companies, both foreign and domestic, need to conduct serious risk analysis to see if any politicians might try and take advantage of a fragile situation to further their own political careers (even if it leads to unemployment). Mamata Banerjee used the incident to first become the Minister of Railways (a national position) and then the Chief Minister of West Bengal. As soon as the protests at the Tata Nano factory subsided (which she helped instigate) and the factory shut down, she conveniently disappeared. The fourth lesson is that in India today, corruption is a major problem and companies need to navigate very carefully when conducting business there. Companies that are not careful or grease palms to win government contracts will regret doing so (the ex-CEO of AgustaWestland, the Anglo-Italian aviation firm, was jailed earlier this year for bribing Indian government officials to win a $600MM contract).
While Tales From Shining and Sinking India is a timely, well-written book, I feel that Banerjee can enhance it – especially if he wants to expand the readership beyond educated Indians in India. Every vignette should have a map detailing exactly where the story is taking place. I found myself continuously using Google Maps to find the stories’ locations, which was frustrating. Also, while he is right in that in India many individuals’ rights are trampled upon by politicians and some companies, I sense a slight populist fervor in him and think that some of his ire is slightly misdirected. Again, this book is a definite must-read for those interested in learning about India’s diversity or what it’s like for a journalist to report on the frontlines for a breaking news story, including some of the dangers that journalists face.