The Cost of Living


Library, 1999, 126 pages.

By Romi

When in 1998 Shiv
Sena leader Bal Thackeray manifested great pride in the fact that India
detonated nuclear bombs by saying “we are no longer eunuchs,” he unwittingly
revealed the root cause of the Indian power elite’s reckless affair with
bigness—the constant perception of being embattled, ego-bruised, and unable to
meet with the American and European elites on equal parley. (Clearly, the
Indian elite feels “feminized,” and therefore inadequate. Clearly, missiles
make it feel far more “manly”—we, after all, are no longer eununchs.)

The Cost of
is about India’s desire to be recognized as a big player and about
the betrayal of India’s people that this desire constitutes. The book consists
of two essays, one on the disastrous project to dam the Narmada River; the
second on the Machiavellian urges that emanated in the May 1998 nuclear tests.
The common thread that ties these seemingly unrelated issues together is the
miscarriage of justice that arises when poor countries run roughshod over
their own populaces in order to show that they, indeed, have arrived on the
world stage.

This disease of
“bigness” is endemic in India. India is a large country with a long history
and Indians believe they are heirs to a glorious past and an elevated set of
cultures. Added to this is the undisputed fact that India has mature and
stable institutions and is a regional power. Yet on the world arena, the
country is paid scant attention and remains one of the most misunderstood and
uncelebrated countries on earth. This large disconnect between an elite’s
perception of itself and the reigning perception (or lack thereof) of it
causes intractable problems in its psychosocial make-up and impels it to
utilize its power over and control of national resources and the populace to
accrue the trappings of success. But of a brand of success defined by
countries whose conditions and internal urges are far different than India’s.
So being home to the “most ambitious water resources development program in
history” and being one of a handful of countries to have nuclear weapons and
the means to deliver them allows the chimera of progress, of bigness, of
success, of at long last being held in the esteem one deserves, to rear its
ugly head.

Roy’s book is
an eloquent polemic against this India. But even its most vociferous critics
could not dismiss it as just another rant (as much writing from the left is
dismissed). The essay on the Narmada dam project includes an involved
discussion of its technical aspects and shows that the stated goal of the
project will not come close to being met. The essay on India’s nukes includes
a sophisticated discussion of the fig leaf of “deterrence.”

A first-rate
writer and thinker, Roy weaves together moral, philosophical, and technical
details to create a mesmerizing tale of depredation, deceit, and destruction.
Roy’s skill with the language and expressive style are unmatchable. The
Cost of Living
is an easy and wonderful read and must be read for what is
at stake is fundamental to any conception of social justice that exists.

Mahajan is a doctoral student in communications at the University of Texas,