India in the Age of Ideas is a collection of essays written by Economist and Urban Theorist Sanjeev Sanyal. The essays are divided into an eclectic mix of themes, namely Indian history, Urban Dynamics in India and Economics. These are the areas the author is known to have interest and expertise. Throughout each chapter, Sanjeev attempts to challenge the siloed approach to think and to see the day to day activities in each of the areas mentioned above. To expand on this approach, he proposes the concept of Complex Adaptive Systems, a system with dynamic interactions and interrelationships adding up to a net high-value system as opposed to a net sum of each entities participating in the act. This is a massive shift from the traditional way of looking at urban societies, university ecosystems, and history as some static and rigid arrangements. An excerpt from the author’s foreword says:

The one thing I have learned from these experiences is that the most interesting things about the world derive from the complex and unpredictable interactions between different aspects of human activity. - Sanjeev Sanyal

In the first section History and Culture, Sanjeev talks about the architecture of Hinduism. This truly is relevant for a crucial reason, an external observer to Hinduism has a fundamental issue of defining Sanatana Dharma. As against the faiths of books, Hinduism does not rely upon a much diverse and open foundation. One analogy I draw is that of operating systems. I describe monotheistic religions of the book as the commercial operating systems akin to Windows® and macOS® and the Sanatana Dharma as the UNIX system – you can create as many distros as you want. A fitting quote from the book:

Hinduism should be thought of as an organic, evolving ecosystem of interrelated and interdependent elements that are constantly interacting with each other (and with the outside world).

In the following chapters, the author discusses King Ashoka, China’s presence in the Sea, the threat faced by Indian languages from our anglicised education system.

In the next section of the book, Sanjeev discusses urban dynamics. He brings up the concept of Complex Adaptive Systems as a way to think about cities, a stark contrast against mid-twentieth century thinking of Le Corbusier and socialist India. Drawing on the NDA government’s smart city programme, Sanjeev describes how urban thinking is changing in the new India and further needs to liberalise. While doing this, the author also remembers to keep the history of the cities such as Delhi and Mumbai in contrast. An essential topic of the discussion is the balance between urban hardware and software (social interaction, economic activity, culture, entertainment and urban buzz). While making a case of for a grand maritime museum matching the size and scale of MET or Victoria and Albert Museum, the author discusses India’s maritime past, sailing kingdoms, and the reach of Hinduism as a result of this exploration. He further expands on the spice trade, cultural exchanges, mass migrations, and influx of refugees all through the sea route and their influence in the Indian cultural narrative. The section builds upon the ideas such as the structure of universities in the Indian context and their counterparts in the west, urban planning in India, and smart cities. He concludes the section with thoughts on property rights of the future and drainage systems of the cities.

The next and also final section of the book focuses on Economics. The topic is an area in which Sanjeev is an expert, enjoys one of the most elegant pieces throughout the text. He begins by discussing the status of mainstream economics and how it has been unsuccessful at preventing all the economic mishaps that took place in the last couple of decades. Further, Sanjeev has discussed India’s policy reforms after independence, and in 1991 with market liberalisation. The following chapters have dived into India’s growth story through different governments, policy paralysis, and the need for creative destruction. A significant amount of effort is also dedicated to analysing the economics of the US, the status of the Dollar, America’s boom-bust cycle, and Trumponomics.

The collection of essays mentioned above is a beautiful read and a compelling one. Younger generations have a lot to learn from the book. The topics discussed in the book touch some or the other aspect of our lives. Through his sharp observational skills, Sanjeev helps us observe phenomena that are rather unnoticeable.

2020

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