Under my byline

Guided by reason

Posted in Books, Q&A by Rrishi on 10 April 2009

Guy Sorman (c)Q&A: Guy Sorman

French author, essayist and public intellectual (in his case, a deserved appellation) Guy Sorman has written over a dozen books in the last quarter-century on topics concerning the state of the world, from the environment to economics and human rights. Since 2000 he has written research-, interview- and travel-based accounts of countries like China, India and the USA. A handful, including The Genius of India (2000), are now out in English.

How do you decide where to go?

My choices are guided by reason. I do research on India or China because it would be impossible to understand our time without going there. It will be impossible to understand these countries without spending time there, travelling and listening to the people. I am neither a scholar in his ivory tower, nor a time-constricted journalist; my method is in between both. When in a country, my choices are very much guided by chance meetings. There are also networks, like the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in India, or the invisible network of human rights activists in China.

What do you tell yourself on the brink of another major project — China, India, USA, etc. — as you’re about set foot in another foreign land? How do you prepare?

To prepare oneself is half the job. One needs to have read all the seminal books, studies, columns, reports on the next subject. I include novels and movies, often more revealing than non fiction. I also learn some of the languages in order not to feel lost.

You read Alexis de Tocqueville and Romain Rolland before you set off for India — what lack in their books (and those of others) tempted you to test their ideas and conclusions?

Tocqueville and Romain Rolland are symbolic of the attraction of the French towards India, but a largely mystical India; they did not go to India but guessed some deep truth about India, like the importance of democracy and of religious diversity. I have added flesh to these bones and wanted to introduce the Europeans to real Indians today, not to the mystical India of the past. I like the actual Indians, the way they are, more than the abstract India of the past.

In your China book, The Year of the Rooster, the bulk of the bibliographical references is to books written in French. That’s not the case with the book on India. Does that reflect the comparative levels of interest in France? How about the present — are there lots of Frenchmen studying India?

On China, thousands of books have been written in French and other European languages. On India, except archaeology and religion, nearly none. India belongs to Indianologists. Things are changing rapidly: economists [are] writing on India still at a slow pace. I regret that Western medias still focus on stereotypes, like flood, train accidents, Bollywood stars.

The Year of the Rooster was highly critical of China’s government. You must have had a strong response.

I have not criticised China but the Chinese Communist Party. I consider their economic strategy to be wrong as it does reinforce the power of the State and improve the life of urban Chinese; but the model is based on the harsh exploitation of rural China. And I am shocked by the passivity of the West regarding human rights violation in China. The Party officially reacted to my book, while it is available in Chinese on the Web: many Chinese have read it. The answer was that yes, the facts discussed in the book are right, but that I am stupid not to understand that the Communist Party is solving these problems. Since the publication, I can go to China but I am not allowed to meet human rights activists; many of those quoted in the book are now in jail, since the repression has worsened since the Olympic Games.

What was the response to your India book when it came out in French?

The Genius of India has been a bestseller in France and is constantly reprinted. Travellers to India tend to take my book along. In France, the book has been considered as prophetic while it was published before India emerged as an economic powerhouse. I have no merit; I first went there and opened my eyes.

Since you wrote The Genius of India, do you think economic and political changes worldwide have confirmed your ideas about the growing force of Gandhian thinking? Has that potential future been brought forward or delayed?

The current crisis will bring back some balance in development strategies, with more attention paid to the poor, the women, the resources. Gandhi will be with us.

How did M S Swaminathan’s chosen village do in the long term, with its new computer? Do you still think the Internet is a prime tool in the battle against poverty and disempowerment?

I visit on a regular basis Dr Swaminathan’s villages and each time, I am happily surprised by the rapid progress: women particularly take charge. The Internet has been one of the vector of the transformation: information is power, Swaminathan was right.

How do you think Indians — plural and tolerant — will deal with the coming surveillance society? Is such a society sustainable in India, where the “normative” is mythical, as you suggest? What are some of the consequences you foresee?

The rapid urbanisation of India is tranforming the religious landscape. Local traditions disappear. Uprooted, urbanised people tend to rally [to] more “simple” religious and sometimes more radical [causes]. This creates new risks, like political extremism and terrorism. The government has to walk a narrow line, between surveillance and democracy. A certain degree of surveillance is needed. Free media are the best antidote to prevent surveillance from turning India into a police state.

What are you working on now?

Since The Genius of India, I have published, among other books, Economics Doesn’t Lie: A Defence of the Free Market in a Time of Crisis. This is to be released in the US in June. More recently, I have started writing on a next book on the US leadership, Another American Century?

(Visit Guy Sorman’s blog.)

The Genius of India
Guy Sorman
Trans. Asha Puri
Full Circle Global
pp 272


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