Mihir S Sharma: Writing a country

How does one stuff a country into a book? Those of us in the book-reading trade are frequently called on to address this question. Those in the book-writing trade – a far more confident set of individuals, something we downtrodden reviewers are continually reminded of by author photographs that grow ever more distinguished and glamorous – usually know the answer. Some follow the traditional, or Naipaulian route: travel the country, meet a few people at roadside stalls and tony dinner parties, and deduce Grand and Important Things about the Future from what they say, or in some cases what they don’t say but should, in the author’s opinion, have said. Others, like Mr Naipaul’s biographer, Patrick French, choose instead to write careful reportage, picking a few incidents, people or places that they think are illustrative. The problem in this case is, of course, that you can endlessly quibble over a choice of incident, person or place. Or you could write the big Book of Ideas on the assumption that, in the end, all countries are ideas anyway. Thus the gold standard, Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India – so very influential in the decades after its release that it is now used as a term of abuse online for those insufficiently deferential to aggressive Hindu nationalism.

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