December 25, 2008

A book is judged by the ideas it provokes in the mind of the readers. By this measure, Nandan Nilekani's Imagining India is a winner. It is a bold book that attempts to tell as well as foretell the story of India. The best part about the book is an almost perfect amalgam of in-depth research and authentic thought process.

Although it takes patience to navigate through this 485 page tome, the time is well spent in understanding post-independent India, her problems, how she rose to succeed from an almost certain failure, and what challenges she is facing in her quest for a glorious future. The book tries to solve a jigsaw puzzle called "India" by coherently stitching together major issues affecting India, associated challenges, and possible way forward.

Fundamentally this book is not about ideas. It is about social, political, and economic issues we face today. In the process of analyzing these issues, some 18 of them, Nandan provokes the readers to think. This forced contemplation throws up some insights to tackle our problems. The book is more of tool for idea generation to solve India's problem rather than a foolproof blueprint.

For example, while discussing demographic dividend, Nandan takes us through "double hump" nature of India's demographic dividend and forces us to look at India's future from a completely different perspective – that future growth is likely to come from demographically endowed but struggling states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan instead of western and southern India that fuelled the current growth story but whose demographic dividend is bound to vanish in coming years. This provokes us to think – what are we going to do to make sure that, as Nandan says, this dividend does not turn out to be fool's gold? The real worth of the book lies in its ability to provoke a reader to think and act to claim the opportunities that are tapping on our doors.

The book is not a continuous flow that builds the momentum from start to finish. It is essentially a collection of essays. This makes it easier for readers to snack on the book and get immersed in one issue at a time without following the defined flow of the book and yet not lose the essence.

Some of really thought provoking and vibrant discussion of issues are contained in "India, by its People", "The Phoenix Tongue", "From Maneaters to Enablers", "S is for Schools", "Erasing Lines", "Jostling for Jobs", 'Institutions of Sand", "ICT in India". Even if one doesn't have the time and inclination to complete the whole book, I highly recommend readers to read these chapters.

But despite all the virtues of the book, I have one big grievance. The issues traversed in the book need to reach the youth of India. Unfortunately, in its present form, it would hardly reach a fraction of India's youth. Cost of the book, highly scholastic language, and the thickness will limit the reach of this remarkable book among youth. And this, I feel, is a tragedy. The real worth of this book would emerge only if youth, who are the driver of future, assimilate the multitude of issues engulfing India and use their talent to trigger an ocean of breakthrough ideas to propel India's growth story to its next logical orbit. To reach youth, the ideas in the book need to be put in a simple yet interesting language and packed in 200 odd pages with a price tag of less than Rs 100. May be Nandan should think of an abridged youth edition of "Imagining India" to reach the "Five Point Someone" audience!


  1. Anonymous // January 29, 2009 at 5:31 PM  

    good review. Yes, The important point is that the book should reach the young audience in huge numbers.