Bollywood’s biggest international success, after many expensive and absurd attempts to break through abroad, was the 2009 film “3 Idiots.” Based on a novel by the Indian writer Chetan Bhagat, the movie follows three engineering students struggling to realize their deepest desires against the punitive strictures of teachers and parents. Meeting young people from China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan early this month at a conference in Hong Kong, I had a clearer sense of why East Asian millennials responded so keenly to the film’s evocation of a life beyond and above conventional notions of success.
The past 12 months have been bewildering, at least for those who assumed after 1989 that the world could look forward to a future of unequaled prosperity. Protests, often led by middle classes, erupted or intensified not only in economically damaged countries such as Greece, Spain and Thailand. They rattled relatively competent stewards of globalized economies in Chile, Brazil and Turkey.
Almost 20 years ago, shortly after India’s protectionist economy was liberalized, I moved to Mashobra, a small village in the North Indian hill state of Himachal Pradesh. The rent on my cottage was low. Food was cheap; the climate, mostly good; and -- an unexpected bonus in India -- the air and water were clean.
In 1984, criticizing George Orwell for having advocated political quietism to writers, Salman Rushdie asserted that “we are all irradiated by history, we are radioactive with history and politics.” He added: “Politics and literature… do mix, are inextricably mixed, and that… mixture has consequences.”
In college during the late 1980s, in the north Indian city of Allahabad, I heard many stories about local toughs and criminals who were keen to get into politics. They came from Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) and Bihar, two of India’s poorest provinces that together contain nearly as many people as the U.S.
India, the Wall Street Journal claimed recently, is the Iranian mullahs’ “last best friend” for continuing to buy oil from, and trade with, Iran. Questioning why Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “hasn’t already curtailed dealings with the Islamic Republic,” the Journal wondered if it has to do with the Indian fear of “pushy Westerners.” Accusing India of carrying some “mental baggage from the days of the Non- Aligned Movement,” the paper castigated the country for having failed to grow out of its “adolescent neurosis.”
Twenty years ago, India faced a fiscal crisis caused by profligate public spending and rising oil prices after the first Persian Gulf War. There was a risk it would default on its international payments.