The newsletter to fuel — and thrill — your mind. Read for deep dives into the unmissable ideas and topics shaping our world.
Jan 14, 2022
One of the world’s oldest civilizations. The largest democracy ever known to humankind. A country of 1.3 billion people. The land of the Buddha and of Mahatma Gandhi. The birthplace of multiple faiths. The home of the ultimate symbol of love, the Taj Mahal. A newsletter on India might seem like an oxymoron. But the Asian giant is itself a nation of deep contradictions that have threatened to tear it apart yet have ultimately only served to enhance its mystique. Read on!
Marks of Distinction
1 - Democratic Bulwark
The numbers are unparalleled — yet they don’t tell the whole story. More than 600 million voters queued up at more than a million polling booths over six weeks to register their ballots in the country’s 2019 national elections — no other democratic exercise in the world comes close. But to truly appreciate the uniqueness of the modern Indian experiment, consider this: It’s the only major postcolonial nation that gained independence in the 20th century and has since been a consistent, multi-party democracy with peaceful transfers of power. Its military — one of the world’s most powerful — has never attempted a coup. As many as 37 parties are represented in its directly elected lower house of Parliament. Like other major democracies, though, India is riddled with flaws, in particular its deep economic divides, religious fissures and casteism that persists despite laws banning discrimination. Still, India’s resilience makes it an exemplar for other young democracies.
2 - Diverse
What makes modern India even more remarkable is that it has built its achievements with the kind of ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic diversity that has made many nations splinter. India’s independence was accompanied by the bloody convulsions of partition, when the subcontinent was cleaved into Hindu-majority but secular India and an Islamic Pakistan, sparking the largest mass migration in modern history. Today India, with the mighty Himalayas as its crown and the Indian Ocean splashing at its feet, has 19,500 languages and far too many gods and religions to count — with different food habits and film industries every few miles. Especially since 2014, the country has witnessed increased religious fissures. Yet for the most part, the country has balanced its complex identity with its soaring ambitions better than many other nations can boast.
One of India’s secret strengths is its demographic advantage — two-thirds of its population is under the age of 35, at a time most advanced economies are aging. Couple that with an education system that has produced some of the corporate world’s biggest figures, from former Pepsi chief Indra Nooyi to Google’s boss Sundar Pichai and Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella, and you have a recipe for success that few nations can match. Look for India’s skilled workforce to drive industries, innovate and lead companies the world over in the coming years.
5 - Cultural Power
Now I’m no guru, but if you’re reading this in your pajamas brooding over the pandemic’s loot of the economy, convinced that it’s a jungle out there, here’s something to chew on: These italicized words all originated from Hindu or Urdu in India. But it isn’t just the English language that India has influenced: From yoga to curries to Bollywood, India wears its soft power lightly — but pervasively.
India’s home minister joined the BJP’s mother organization, the RSS — the fountainhead of right-wing Hindu nationalism — when he was a teenager. Shah studied biochemistry and started a business selling PVC pipes before jumping full time into politics. He earned his stripes as Modi’s confidante in the state of Gujarat, getting slapped with charges of masterminding illegal police killings that were promptly dropped once Modi became prime minister. Now, he’s Modi’s gun — the enforcer behind everything from the Kashmir crackdown to the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act that imposes a religion-based test.
His lineage is his biggest blessing — and his greatest weakness. The great-grandson of the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rahul’s father (Rajiv Gandhi) and grandmother (Indira Gandhi) were also prime ministers. For decades, Indian politics’ first family has been the glue connecting the Indian National Congress, the party of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru. But for all his apparent earnestness, Rahul is a beneficiary of privilege and nepotism that stand in stark contrast to Modi’s self-made image: the prime minister sold tea as a young man.
She loves making pickles, and now she’s charged with pulling India’s economy out of one. A rare female finance minister in a sea of male counterparts, Sitharaman has rapidly ascended from BJP spokesperson to commerce minister and then defense minister — the first woman to hold that post in India — prior to her current role. Critics question her ability to look for creative solutions amid a global slowdown. But she is persistent and tenacious and enjoys Modi’s trust. It’s in the world’s interests that the Indian economy picks up. She’ll need to drive that turnaround.
6 - Jignesh Mevani
Little that traditional opposition parties have thrown at Modi has stuck. But Mevani, a millennial upstart, is threatening the prime minister’s dominance by striking at the heart of his political messaging: that Modi is a man of the poor, and that he fights for socially disadvantaged castes. A new generation leader of Dalits — the lowest in India’s caste hierarchy — Mevani has emerged as a potent force for change, joining hands with other young activists to organize giant protests against the Modi government.
1 - Vegan Wool
Gowri Shankar knows he owes his innovation to sunbirds. It was while watching them outside his window one day that he realized that they took fiber from the calotropis gigantea wild shrub that’s common in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, and used it to keep their young warm. Struck by the possibilities, Shankar, a natural fashion entrepreneur, turned those fibers into a vegan form of wool — Weganool — that’s now emerging as the next big thing in sustainable fashion in the West and beyond. And the residue can be used to produce insect repellent, all while turning a wild shrub into a major source of income for local communities.
2 - Zero-Waste Chocolate
A backpacking trip through Belgium started it all for former retail business consultant Nitin Chordia. That’s when he decided it was time to change course — and became India’s first globally certified chocolate taster. Now he’s designed the world’s first zero-waste chocolate. What does that mean, you ask? Kocoatrait, Chordia’s chocolate, uses reclaimed cotton and cocoa bean husks to create ultra-thin wrapping paper that is sustainable and lighter to transport, cutting its carbon footprint. Turn the wrappers inside out and another surprise awaits you: They’re embossed with intricate Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Shinto art that you won’t want to discard. The chocolate itself is made from organic ingredients and unrefined sugar. And it’s particularly sweet because you know you’re not hurting the planet while munching on it.
3 - Heritage ‘Airbnb’
India's smaller towns — scattered across its deserts, hills and forests — host decades-, even centuries-old homes and bungalows. As more and more Indians — and foreigners visiting the country — look to go beyond traditional tourist destinations to offbeat locations, these old homes and the towns that host them have a rare economic opportunity. The challenge? They don't have the resources to renovate and modernize old properties. That's where Aditi Balbir comes in. The Duke University graduate and her startup, V Resorts, takes over these properties, renovates them and attracts tourists to them, in effect marrying local economic needs and a growing tourism market. V Resorts runs more than one hundred properties and raised $10 million in funding in early 2020. But it’s just getting started. Airbnb, watch out.
4 - Better Than Bezos?
With her cropped hair and a ready smile, Neha Satak doesn’t seem like a threat to anyone. Yet she’s challenging some of the giants in the private space industry. While Elon Musk’s SpaceX masters launch vehicles, and OneWeb — Jeff Bezos’ and Greg Wyler’s firm — develops satellites, Satak’s startup, Astrome, is promising something none of those tech biggies can offer: satellite transponders with 12 times more capacity than traditional transponders. This could revolutionize access to the internet in remote parts of the world.
5 - Injectable Contraceptive
Sujoy Guha is on the cusp of revolutionizing the vasectomy through an injectable treatment that blocks the flow of semen — a treatment that’s both temporary and reversible. His male contraceptive, RIPUS, is one of only two nonsurgical approaches that are currently in final clinical trials awaiting regulatory clearances. But Guha’s technique doesn’t only stop semen: A version is being trialed in six countries as a possible defense against prostate cancer.
1 - Comic Queen
One of India’s best-known social media comedians, Kusha Kapila will make you squirm — and then laugh at your own unacknowledged hypocrisies. She’s attracted 2.1 million Instagram followers, a good chunk of them during India’s pandemic lockdowns in 2020, and takes on everything from racism and homophobia to the selective outrage from middle-class Indians who support the protests against George Floyd’s murder but not against similar crimes and discrimination in their own country.
2 - Cinematic Chef
He’s cooked for Barack Obama. Gordon Ramsay is in awe of his versatility. He’s India’s first Michelin-starred chef. But Vikas Khanna is much more than the sum of these parts. From New York to Dubai to India and beyond, Khanna is redefining how the world views Indian cuisine, while constantly reinventing himself: as a researcher (he’s working on his third PhD, this one on the impact of climate change on spices), author (he’s written 40 books) and now as a filmmaker. Brilliance could be his middle name.
3 - Audacious Storyteller
When India’s #MeToo movement was at its peak, Danish Husain did something few others did. The theater stalwart ran a much-loved folk storytelling platform with a partner. But after a woman detailed chilling allegations of rape against that partner, Husain took a stand, broke from their platform and testified against him in court. That fearlessness and readiness to break with codes of silence also define Husain’s work. While not overtly political, his art makes a statement in the age of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalism: that India’s cultural, racial and linguistic diversity is worth celebrating.
In a country dominated by Bollywood music, Tipriti “Tips” Kharbangar has carved out a niche as a top blues performer, inspiring an entire generation to take up the genre and reshape India’s musical tastes. Her band has performed with legends like Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal and John Lee Hooker, and opened for Carlos Santana when he played in India. She grew up singing gospel but was often pushed to the back of her church choir. No one’s been pushing her around since she lit up New Delhi’s blues scene.
5 - Tech Food Fix
Thousands of distinct cuisines have coexisted in India for millennia, each influencing the other while maintaining their unique identity — from the spices and other ingredients used to the style of cooking. Globalization’s push for uniformity has in recent years threatened to drive elements of those cuisines into extinction. Tech’s now saving them: A wave of aggregators, apps, physical pop-ups and digital platforms is connecting home chefs to audiences they could never reach before, with the aim of preserving India’s myriad traditional cuisines.
Midnight’s Children: Salman Rushdie’s magical realism at its finest. Saleem Sinai was born at the exact moment when India gained independence in 1947, and so has special powers — a metaphor for the hopes that generation grew up with. Yet he can’t escape the trauma of the subcontinent’s partition, religious strife, wars and political turmoil. In 2008, the novel was awarded the Booker of Bookers — the best among the Booker winners in the first 40 years of the prize.
The God of Small Things: Fall in love with rural Kerala, the southern sliver of a state that gave the world its first democratically elected communist government, in this epic Booker Prize–winning novel by Arundhati Roy. You could read it just for her unparalleled command of the language or for the delicate depiction of the complexities of family life in India. Either way, you won’t be able to put it down.
The White Tiger: Have you ever empathized with a murderer? You will, when you meet Balram Halwai. Darkly entertaining, the winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize captures the deep economic divides and cultural tumult that mark a rapidly rising India — as seen through the eyes of a chauffeur who kills his boss and escapes with his money to start a business where he employs all the tricks he learned from his dead employer.
A Suitable Boy: Filled with the vibrant colors, optimism and disappointment of early post-independence India, this BBC show is a beautiful retelling of Vikram Seth’s classic novel. You’ll watch it again, and again, and again, and its beautifully crafted characters will stick with you.
Sacred Games: This Netflix original follows the life of Sartaj Singh, a troubled police officer in Mumbai who receives a phone call from gangster Ganesh Gaitonde telling him to save the city within 25 days. A deep dive into the underworld, this thriller is a must-watch that spans the country’s religious tensions, corruption and crime.
Meet the Disruptor. Cleveland Brown's quarterback Baker Mayfield is known for his wild moves both on and off the field. Watch as he joins Carlos to discuss the competitive spirit that made him the player he is and the "beauty of the locker room" in our current political climate. To listen to the full, unedited conversation between Carlos and Baker Mayfield, subscribe to the podcast version of the show here: http://podcasts.iheartradio.com/s_34Zjdh
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