There’s something of the Petrarchan lover in Daniel Lak’s abiding passion for India. But with one difference: unlike Laura with whom Petrarch had little or no contact, Lak has known India, grown with India, and has followed her through 12 years — without changing his glasses.
“I’m not a political animal at heart,” says the former BBC correspondent who came to India after his Pakistan assignment in 1997. Lak is in Delhi for the promotion of his book, India Express: The Future of a New Superpower. “I like being positive,” he says, unhappy at the suggestion of a certain ism that most non-Orient writers are slammed with each time they do an India book. “Pessimism is the default response of the intellectually lazy,” answers the writer when asked about certain passages that read like an uncritical product sell of India. Sample this: “[In India], governments change with regularity, coalition of parties form and reform and people gaze in wonder at the spectacle…”
Orientalism is, however, not always a hostile gaze of the East by the West. Often it can be a case of too much loving — of constructing the other in one’s own image. With Lak, his India-sentiments override a sense of balance and have made him essentialise the country’s growth story in stray examples of success. “The tea-serving boy in the Infosys chairman’s office is a millionaire,” he says in defense. “And there are beggars with twisted legs outside expensive boutiques here,” says Lak. “This is realism, not Orientalism.”
Lak has, indeed, seen things the way they are but he has diminished his book — fast-paced 295-pager that is packed with interviews from the ghats of Varansai to the polling booths in Bihar — by not interrogating what is ‘real’. Terrorists are Muslims, for example, (this is not an example from his book) is on the face of it, a true statement, but it cannot pass without asking what is terrorism and when does a community take to it.
Pushing one’s part of the world on the TV menu is part of the job of a broadcast journalist. And Daniel Lak has certainly pushed India well. “India has always been a very important news story but it contends with other global news,” he says. “At the BBC, we were always having to compete with ‘something big’ that had happened in Israel and ‘something big’ in Russia…” How difficult was it for Lak being a Canadian to break into it? “I got a break despite my accent,” he says. “Broadcasting is international and the BBC wants journalism from a variety of perspectives.” Is that why one is a little surprised that Lak should, for all his experience, write his second India book by giving voice only to the Brahmins of India? “I didn’t find too many Muslims or backwards in administration, private sector or politics. Now if I ever open an office here — it will be truly representative of all classes. It’s good policy.”
India Express has an anecdote about an Indian corporate’s — also a good policy-maker — part-time commitment to Marxism. The man told Lak he had been an ardent Marxist but a night train to Yugoslavia changed everything. He struck up a conversation with a girl, and her jealous boyfriend “spoke to the police when we got to the Bulgarian border…They told me I was lucky that India and Bulgaria had friendly relations. I thought, if that’s how communist regimes treat friends, I don’t want any part of it….” That man was Narayana Murthy. The chai-wallah at Infosys, he helpfully points out to Lak, is a rich man. His (Murthy’s) canteen workers, on the other hand, says Lak’s book, had no “sick-leave, no overtime, no job security”. So why does he still sing about it?