India, shooting for the stars.

India Goes to Mars and Madison Square Garden

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
Read More.
a | A

In the past year, two fast-moving objects have done a great deal to invigorate India's sense of its place in the world.

The first is Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who in May took office after the most convincing victory in Indian elections in 30 years. Modi's desire to use his capital in parliament to engage the wider world was clear from the very beginning, when his inauguration was attended by leaders from eight South Asian countries, including Pakistan. More recently, his appetite for what the Indian government has called "fast-track diplomacy" has brought significant advances in the past month with Japan and China. At some points, he's almost looked like India's foreign minister.

The second is India's indigenous space orbiter Mangalyaan. Last November, it made a similarly meteoric leap into outer space and into the imagination of the Indian public. Sent off with great fanfare as the most ambitious project of India's 44-year-old space program, the unmanned spacecraft has spent the last nine months quietly traversing the inky depths of outer space, tracked not by cameras and columnists but scanners and scientists.

Modi's work to project India's power to the world brings him next weekend to New York's Madison Square Garden, where he will deliver a highly anticipated speech to about 20,000 members of the Indian diaspora before he heads to the White House. Mangalyaan's own trajectory should lead it next week into the orbit of Mars, which would bring India's space scientists acclaim for having achieved a Mars mission at a fraction of the cost of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's own Maven program. Given the low success rate of Mars missions, this event would signify a great advance not just for India's global ambitions but for its interplanetary ones as well. I wouldn't be surprised if Mangalyaan featured prominently in Modi's Madison Square Garden speech.

Even better, it could be celebrated unambiguously by all Indians as a victory of modern Indian science and technology, rather than of the allegedly foundational "Indian culture" that somehow always seems to degrade in the minds of so many otherwise smart people -- including, on occasion, in Modi's himself -- into some sort of argument for Hindu nationalism. This desperation to establish Hindu primacy in all the world's achievements (which would be comic if it did not also have sinister implications for India's vast non-Hindu citizenry) has even led some Hindu supremacists who have the ear of the prime minister to assert that the flying chariots of the great Indian epics were actually the world's first airplanes.

But if I bring Modi and Mangalyaan into the same frame, it's to make a wider point about India's outlook toward the world, so inhibited and insecure for more than a century because of the legacy of colonialism and socialism and their harvest of diffidence and poverty. Much though the prime minister's energy is appreciated, it would be best to see him and the space shuttle as the two extreme points of a continuum. Their victories are vaunted in newspapers; what India needs is a conduit by which it also accumulates goodwill and influence more invisibly, and indeed un-self-consciously.

When I was a student, a stroke of luck allowed me to live in Connaught Place in central New Delhi. Only a few minutes' walk from my residence, I discovered the British Council, the American Centre and the Goethe-Institut. Sometimes I went to all three venues in one day. Immersing myself in the books, films and music of the U.K., the U.S. and Germany made these countries an ever-present part of my mental life and allowed to me to discover, through slow osmosis, values and cultural predispositions that I could use to question and advance my own.

As I have grown older and traveled the world, I have come to realize that while there's so much interest in India around the world, it's the world that approaches India, not the other way 'round. Only private associations, cosmopolitan individuals and the Indian diaspora take Indian ideas and values outward. This is not a good way to work.

There's a tremendous interest everywhere in yoga, Indian classical music and dance, film (and not just Bollywood), political and civilizational history, spiritual practice, books and art, indigenous peoples, textiles, architecture, landscape and ecology, food and drink. But a paltry 6 million or so people actually visit India each year, about as many as go to Venice. If they manage to enjoy themselves, it is often at the luxury end of the market, where things are managed so carefully that there can be no genuine engagement with society. It's not their fault, but rather that of India's badly managed tourism industry and the country's own conflicts -- whether prejudice, incomprehension or even awe -- in dealing with those seen as outsiders.

Both Modi and Mangalyaan are, so to speak, exceptional individuals; they need to be supported and perhaps even surpassed by an ambitious new institute of Indian culture. The view of India's diverse peoples and realities that such an institution would project in the capitals of the world might also liberate the current right-wing party in power from some of the straitjackets of its past thinking on India.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net