"You have to realize," the Bombay intellectual said loftily, "that we are the inheritors of universal civilizations." He was referring to India and China, proud possessors of two of the world's oldest cultures.
Together India and China represent, broadly speaking, the great mass of mankind. India has 652 million people; China has 1 billion. And implicit in that Indian intellectual's comment is the conviction that the two vast and ancient societies are destined to play a large role on the world scene.
Similarly, in a spirited conversation among Indians on the role of superpowers, prompted by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, one Indian declared: "The US and the Soviet Union are superpowers. China is next, and India is No. 4."
Well, hardly. India is by no means the No. 4 power in the world today. But the remark underscores the chauvinistic thinking of many Indians, who see both India and China as either actual or potential world leaders.
But the Chinese themselves harbor few such illusions of world grandeur. "The Chinese do not see themselves as a world power, economically or militarily. I think it's realistic. I don't think India is a world power, either," says Prof. Merle Goldman, a China scholar at the Council on East Asian Studies at Harvard University.
Nevertheless, India is fast moving up the world's power rungs. Starting from practically nothing at independence in 1947, it has climbed rapidly to become the world's 10th-largest industrial power.
China, too, has thrust ahead. Says Romesh Thapar, editor of Seminar, a New Delhi intellectual journal: "In the 1940s China was importing everything. In 30 years both countries, passing along different paths, are standing on their own feet."
China has done it through the enforced egalitarianism of an authoritarian communist system. India has taken the democratic route.
Though they represent ancient civilizations, their respective cultures, and therefore their approaches, are vastly different.
For all its huge population China is a homogenous entity. India is not. In China the main ethnic group, the Han, represent all but 6 percent of the population.
For a long time Chinese accepted the same language. If they did not always understand one another's speech, they could always talk to each other on paper. It was like showing photographs.
The same is not true of India. From its Aryan north to its Dravidian south, more than a half a billion heterogeneous people speak 14 recognized languages and some 1,600 dialects. "In India we say that every four kilometers you'll find a new language," says a Punjabi.
Much of India's culture reflects both the contact and collision, and finally the absorption, of different civilizations, including the Aryans, the Greeks, the Moguls, and last, the British.
It helps explain an Indian's awareness of the world around him. "The Chinese are not only largely ignorant of the world around them," Indians say, "they also don't care." They maintain that Chinese culture is nationally self-centered.
Giri Deshingkar, professor at the Center for the study of Developing Societies in New Delhi and reputed in academic circles to be India's leading China scholar, illustrates the effect of India's acceptance, and China's rejection, of outside cultural values and forces.
"A rich, cultivated Indian," he says, "would have Western books and artifacts in his home. A rich, cultivated Chinese wouldn't dream of having Western art in his home."
Similarly, he continues, "It wouldn't occur to anyone to have a Western museum of art in China. Here in Delhi you see Western art in museums. You cannot in Peking."
Yet there are indications that this might be changing. The Boston Symphony Orchestra was recently invited -- and acclaimed -- by the Chinese. Children are learning English in the schools. Their parents are lining up to buy Shakespeare at the local bookstores. And right now China is bent on modernization, which in many respects is nothing but a code word for Westernization. The accent is on Western technology, defense weapons, and scholarships.
According to Professor Deshingkar, a major difference between the Chinese and the Indians is that the Chinese have a culture confidence. The Indians lost theirs through successive invasions, he contends.
"The Indian tradition of the guru [spiritual leader talking to small groups of students] is dead. Now what we have is a ghost of the British tradition."
In his view, this British tradition inIndia has shifted over the years, regrettably, from classicism, with its reverential attitude to knowledge, duty, and service, to job-oriented training. Poetry, for instance, has been replaced by business management. The professor is not knocking business management per se; he is only saying that the stress on the utilitarian aspects of education is excessive, that students get degrees but are not really well educated or equipped to make intelligent decisions.
"As a result we have so many degree holders who haven't the foggiest clue of what they are going to do next. If we produce good students, it is in spite of the system, not because of it."
All this, he explains, has contributed to the Indians' loss of culture confidence.
As a result, he says, India economists turn to outside models -- the Brazilian model, the Soviet model, the mixed-economy model -- as if they were brands of coffee that could be merely picked up off the shelf of the supermarket and taken home in a shopping bag.
The Chinese realize that only they, and not some imported economic model, will eventually save them. Their stress in the past on self-reliance and the shunning, where possible, of foreign aid were indicative of this, he asserts.
The professor asks: "How much capital can the Chinese be given? No group of nations, Soviet or Western, can together come to help China. China knows that. There is a limit to how much one can arm China. Can anyone arm an army of 4 million?"
Harvard's Professor Goldman agrees that culture confidence may well be a distinguishing factor between the Chinese and Indians. But she questions Professor Deshingkar's assertions that the Chinese retain their culture confidence and their adherence to self- reliance.
"They know that they are missing something. This is part of the reason they are reaching out for Western technology. They do stress self-reliance, but they are reinterpreting it by saying they need outside help and advice that would help to make them more self-reliant."
She also contends that China's opening up to the outside world is not a sudden phenomenon. It was apparent with the West in the 1920s and the '30s, she says, before China closed the door again. It re-emerged, with the Soviets, between 1950 and 1956. China's opening to the West was revived gradually in the 1970s under Chairman Mao, and it accelerated after his death.
As a result the Chinese are reaching out to the West for methods and ideas, as well as the nuts and bolts of weapons and technology, to fill important gaps in their national economy.
The architect of China's modernization drive, Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping, conceded his country's limitations when he reputedly told a group of overseas Chinese visitors last fall: "China may look like a giant, but actually it is a big, fat slob."
Despite such an unflattering description, Chinese discipline, organization, and efficiency still contrast most markedly with what seems by comparison Indian indiscipline and sloppiness.
"If only the Indians could work like the Chinese," an American woman based in New Delhi said on returning from a trip to China.
But the common assumption that the highly disciplined, rigorously controlled Chinese communist economy is surging ahead of the freer economy of India is no longer valid. If there is a "race" between the world's largest democracy and the world's largest communist state, then India, which was considered something of a disaster a couple of decades ago, is doing very much better today than most Asia-watchers had anticipated.
This is not to suggest that it is winning the race. Far from it. A comparison of vital statistics shows that China enjoys superiority in a number of key areas.
Its gross national product per head per year is way above that of India. The 1979 World Bank Atlas lists China's at $460 for 1978, India's at only $180. (Some China scholars believe China's per capita GNP is more like $300 a year.) Again, according to World Bank figures, China's real growth rate between 1970 and 1977 was 4.5 percent; India's a mere 1.1 percent.
China is also doing much better than India in reducing birthrates. The respective rates are 22 per 1,000 for China and 34 per 1,000 for India, according to the Population Reference Bureau, Inc., in Washington, D.C. On present performance, China is expected to reach stationary population in the year 2090, while India will not achieve that until 60 years later.
But the most telling difference is in life expectancy, reckoned the best index of national health.A Chinese has a life expectancy of 65 years. An Indian's life expectancy is as low as 49 years.
The difficulty in making such comparisons is that the conclusions are tentative at best. This is because statistics are not uniform. World organizations frequently come up with different figures. Some are nothing more than estimates, not least because in the case of China authorities either do not have the data or do not release it.
Nevertheless, Asia-watchers have reason to suppose that China is well ahead of India in these areas. But the "race" between the world's largest democracy and the world's largest dictatorship is by no means one-sided. In some important areas India may be ahead.
"India is doing better than China in productivity in terms of agriculture and industry," says Girilal Jain, editor of the Times of India, "and at relatively little cost in terms of human dignity."
India, which a decade ago was a major importer of food grain, has not only reached self-sufficiency. It even exported small quantities of food grains last year to Bangladesh and Vietnam. Economists agree it is a remarkable achievement by any standard. India has emerged as the world's fourth-largest producer of food grains.
China produces much more grain than India. But it has a much larger population. And in terms of boosting food production per head, it is not doing very well.
According to the 1978 World Development Report of the World Bank, food production in India is growing at the rate of 8 percent a year, compared with only 1 percent for China, with its much larger population.
In a three-part series on China in the New York Review of Books last spring, author Nick Eberstadt held that on a production-per- capita basis, "The only region . . . which has certainly fared more poorly than China is Africa, which was crippled with freakish droughts and a Sahelian crisis for more than a decade."
What is more, new information out of China suggests that malnutrition is a far worse problem than had previously been supposed.
Comparisons as to how well the two societies are faring are difficult -- if only because values and expectations can differ widely. A poor Indian could be better off than his Chinese counterpart because of the disrupting political factors in china in the past, such as the excesses of the radical "gang of four". Cultural patterns in viewing poverty in both China and India also differ markedly, according to Professor Deshingkar, who makes a clear distinction between poverty and destitution.
"An Indian," he explains, "will work like mad to overcome destitution. For instance, if I have one acre and five children, if I work hard I can just about feed my family. In that case I would be overcoming destitution, but there is no [Indian] compulsion to overcome poverty."
What Professor Deshingkar is implying is that, provided he has food to eat and to feed his family, the Indian will not attempt to move beyond that to conquer poverty.
But the Chinese, he suggests, can be made to work harder because of their different mentality. In his opinion the Chinese, therefore, have no economic cutoff point like the Indians.
George Beier, a senior economist of the World bank in New Delhi, feels that in the "economic race" between China and India, China is in "better shape." he sees certain built-in advantages assisting China.
"India doesn't have a long tradition of literacy, scholarship, discipline, and Oriental ability to align itself with economic growth."
What India does possess, however, is a comparatively flexible democratic system of values. In any comparison between China and India, the $64,000 question is whether China can proceed without some monumental social upheaval that will undo everything it has achieved in recent decades.
India, for all its millions of teeming poor, is no longer considered ripe for revolution, as it was back in the 1950s. The 1980 election that brought Indira Gandhi back to power passed off with far less political violence, with the exception of Assam in the northeast, than the elections of the 1950s.
Despite the draconian state of emergency that Mrs. Gandhi introduced in 1975 during her last term of office, India is still regarded as Asia's (and the world's) largest democracy and as having the freest press in Asia.
By contrast, Chinese attempts to open up its totalitarian society have been short-lived. "Democracy Wall," where ordinary citizens could paste up their objections and their recipes for reform, has become a footnote to history.
Indians pride themselves that they have a democracy and that the Chinese do not. Yet many Indians think that being the world's largest democracy is not enough. They would like to see it have more clout in international forums -- to become one of the world's more powerful countries.
That hasn't happened -- yet. But for Indians at least there is the satisfaction of seeing their country move out of the "hopeless" category to which they were consigned two decades ago into being a nation of considerable promise.
Next: How India assesses its own performance