Title: The Billionaire Raj
Author: James Crabtree
Year of publication: 2018
At the port, the facility’s amiable chief executive, Captain Unmesh Abhyankar, talked excitedly about the mechanics of the place: a world of berth occupancy, throughput rates and turnaround times. Mundra had an unusually deep harbour, allowing it to attract some of the world’s biggest cargo ships, he explained, giving it an edge over rivals elsewhere along India’s western coast. ‘We focus on the three Cs: coal, containers and crude,’ he said of the cargoes the ships brought in. Exports were more of a mish-mash, including everything from bauxite and cars to iron ore and wood. India’s dilapidated road network made it hard to move this in and out, so industrialist Gautam Adani built a 60-kilometre private freight line to the main rail network. Most Indian ports were state owned and inefficient, taking a couple of days or more to unload a ship. At Mundra, however, cargo was mostly whisked in and out over a morning. Abhyankar expected his facility to become the country’s largest port later that year, handling 100 million tonnes of goods, the first in India ever to do so.
Even at dusk the giant container cranes were easy to spot from the window, as our plane took off that evening and flew us back to Ahmedabad, ready to meet Adani the next day. The day’s last light glinted on the grey of the Gulf of Kutch in the distance. A few years earlier a team of oceanographers had found an ancient stone anchor lying 50 metres below the waves, of a type used by merchants more than a millennium before. For centuries, those same waters had been India’s trading artery, bringing wooden dhows and then steamships across from Africa and the Middle East. Through such trade and commerce, India had been an early pioneer of globalisation, at least until Nehru launched his new age of self-enclosure in the aftermath of Independence in 1947.
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By Aminah Sheikh
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
It’s tempting to blame it on inner impulses that would devour me if I didn’t, but that wouldn’t be the whole story, especially with non-fiction. Simply put, I’m better at writing than I am at most other things I’ve tried my hand at (though not necessarily better at writing than most other people), and the act gives me pleasure of a laboured kind. That’s more than what you can say for most kinds of work, and believe me, the complete act of writing – from conception to execution to almost-perfection – is work.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
Speaking Tiger has just published my second book, Thamel:Dark Star of Kathmandu, a biography of the tourist quarter that grew out of a medieval Buddhist settlement in Kathmandu. Writing about a place like Thamel is not, on the face of it, an urgently necessary task. At least not as obviously so as a book on our relationships with Nature (my next writing project). Nonetheless, I feel it’s useful to obtain an understanding of the totality of the environments we have spent significant time in – past, present and future. This is what Thamel means to achieve, as much as the book on Nature: to deepen our understanding of our built and natural environments, and thereby of ourselves, so we can reconsider and improve on our interactions with them.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
I’m no fan of bald writing that means to drive home a social message, nor lazy writing dragged along by a pacy, racy narrative. With both fiction and non-fiction, I hope to provide serious reading pleasure, without being carried away by either the message or the medium.
Who are your favorite authors?
Those I haven’t read – names I know, names I don’t know, names that haven’t seen the light of day. They represent the titillating totality of my ignorance.
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