WRITING and publishing satisfactorily about modern-day South Asia, a region that is home to nearly 1 in 4 of the earth's people, is almost always a quixotic endeavor - worthwhile but not quite doable. Two recent works that form part of the University of Indiana Press's ``Essential Asia Series'' are no exception.
Both books are valiant attempts at examining the intricate pattern of religion, politics, and culture that characterizes life on the subcontinent. Both ultimately fail to ``gracefully'' convey ``to the general reader the complexities of those societies ... [combining] the accuracy of social science research with the charm of literature,'' as series editor David Steinberg intends.
Barbara Crossette's ``India: Facing the Twenty-First Century'' is an incisive, often biting, look at: ``India and the Indians at a terrifying and yet exhilarating moment in their history, a time of daunting problems and tremendous possibilities....'' A former New York Times correspondent in New Delhi, Crossette focuses on hard-hitting economic and political realities of the day. Her book presents three broad themes: ``The Inner Self,'' touching on religion, women, and minorities; ``Daily Realities,'' covering the foibles of modern-day, urban India; and ``India and the World,'' highlighting the country's view of itself and of real and imagined allies and enemies.
The first two sections are a stinging indictment of a society she finds increasingly consumption-oriented, morally bankrupt, and economically and politically mismanaged. Crossette's contention that the machinations of the Indira/Rajiv Gandhi ``raj'' spawned most of India's current troubles, while arguably accurate, is belabored. Her observations are narrow in scope, drawing largely on her interactions with politicos, intellectuals, and the middle- and upper-middle classes. The relative absence of personalized, first-hand accounts of life for India's vast majority - its rural rich and poor and its urban poor - is regrettable. To one who has followed her reporting from Asia with admiration, such restricted perspectives are disappointing.
In the final section, however, Crossette comes into her own. A deep ``anti-foreign ethos'' in political circles combined with a ``strong Hindu Indian sense of cultural superiority'' have, as she indicates, contributed to India's astonishingly myopic foreign policy. The country's once idealistic rubric of ``nonalignment'' quickly calcified into slavish adherence to a pro-Soviet line.
Using press and public reactions to the United States-led military campaign against Iraq in 1990-91, Crossette skillfully sketches the convoluted nature of Indo-US relations. On the one hand, hundreds of thousands of Indians view the US as a land of opportunity. On the other, there lingers among the elites a certain Oxbridge-inspired chauvinism and, among the general public, a ``CIA phobia.'' Crossette traces much of this suspicion to disinformation campaigns engineered by China in the 1950s and later by the Soviet Union.
But it is India's relations with its closest neighbors that constitute its starkest foreign policy failures. Conflict and unremitting tension with Pakistan may be understandable, given the legacy of partition after British rule and larger-than-life political egos on both sides. But one is at a loss to explain India's imperious treatment of its weaker neighbors.
In all, this slim volume can leave a reader feeling weighed down by foreboding for what modern day India has become and where it may be heading. Given the generally negative tone of the work, Crossette's characterization of India as ``a great story of sheer human endeavor,'' and her comment that ``you can almost hear the rebound coming'' seem out of place. One wishes her book had included more of the evidence that exists for such hopefulness.
James R. Novak's ``Bangladesh: Reflections on the Water,'' in contrast, is an unabashed paean to a land that he deems ``the Paradise of Nations.'' For those to whom Bangladesh is synonymous with floods, famine, and perpetual poverty, this book will be a pleasant surprise. In some 20 years of contact - first on frequent business trips, later as resident representative of The Asia Foundation - Novak has maintained an obvious affection for Bangladesh.
The use of nature as a metaphor - specifically the riverine ecology and the seasons - conveys considerable information about Bangladeshis' beliefs and culture, political quirks and characteristics. Tongue-in-cheek descriptions of the aid and relief ``industry'' offer new perspectives on what Novak calls the country's ``most misreported'' aspect (its annual flood/ cyclone cycle) and its highly underreported advances in labor-intensive, export-oriented manufacture. Novak's recounting of history - especially the Moghul era and the age when sonar Bangla (golden Bengal) was indeed the jewel in the crown of the British empire - is replete with fascinating details and lore. The deliberate destruction of the area's cloth- and jute-weaving industries by the East India Company makes chilling reading.
Less compelling is his discussion of 20th-century developments. The story of independence from ``West'' Pakistan and post-independence rulers - from ``founding father'' Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on through subsequent military leaders - is shackled by poor writing and a cloying sentimentality.
While the book provides plenty of detail and context, it does so in a manner that meanders maddeningly. On too many occasions, Novak's prose tends toward the purple; on too few is it clear or concise. Shortcomings such as these, however, are less a criticism of the author than a reflection on the need for more rigorous editing. Given that, Novak's work might well have become a must-use text for that handful of students and aficionados interested in a little-known, little-reported country.