"Remember," said one of Edward Luce's colleagues at the Financial Times, "in India things are never as good or as bad as they seem." This was wise advice for a journalist about to report from a country that sometimes appears designed to inspire feelings of love and hate, often in the same person, sometimes on the same day. India has never been a land of shade and nuance, but its contrasts seem more pronounced today than ever before. Not far from Bangalore, where software companies burgeon and thrive, farmers still labour with bullocks and a wooden plough.
Luce, who was until recently the FT's bureau chief in Delhi, is an excellent guide to India in all its contemporary diversity. At the start of his book he warns readers that, despite his affection and fascination for the country, parts of his account are "of a critical nature, occasionally very critical". Yet the criticisms are made with courtesy. Observant and perceptive as well as good-tempered, Luce must be a difficult journalist to dislike, even for people who disagree with him. He moves with ease, often amiably, among such characters in his book as social workers, Bollywood stars, computer engineers, venal officials and murderous policemen. Some of this cast must have tested his good manners. On going to Nagpur to visit the Cow Product Research Centre, he is informed that cow urine cures cancer, that cow-dung shampoo solves dandruff and that no medicine since the Vedas (composed more than 3,000 years ago) is worth using.
Luce finds much to admire about modern India. In Aurangabad he meets members of a community of Dalits (formerly known as Untouchables) and feels uplifted by the self-confidence they have acquired and the social progress they have made. He goes south to Tamil Nadu and praises the state government for delivering efficient services and a high rate of literacy. The tens of thousands of people who were made homeless by the tsunami in 2004 were rehoused "in pukka accommodation" within a year.
Yet for all India's recent successes, an apparent hopelessness hovers over much of the land, especially in the vast northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In Bihar, more than 90 per cent of households have no electricity; Patna, its capital of three million people, has not a single traffic light that works. In spite of the country's enviable growth rate, many of the human development indicators are appalling, worse than in poorer countries such as Bangladesh and Botswana. More than a third of the world's chronically malnourished children live in India, and nearly a million of them die each year from diarrhoea caused by dirty water.
Almost half of Indian women remain illiterate, and gender inequality has barely decreased outside the educated classes. Although female infanticide was more or less stamped out by the British, its goals are now achieved by late abortion, decided upon only when a scan has revealed that the foetus is female. As Luce demonstrates, this method of gender control is growing in popularity, especially in Punjab and Gujarat, where boys outnumber girls in ever-increasing ratios. The number of "missing girls" in India is now estimated at between 40 and 50 million.
While Gujarat is a prosperous and in some ways sophisticated state, it is unusually bigoted in its attitudes towards women and religion - defects that manage to goad Luce into rare moments of anger. It is a stronghold of Hindu fun damentalism, an ideology which rewrites the past by claiming that India was always Aryan and Hindu, and by reducing Christians and Muslims to the role of bad guys in the historical narrative. In political practice, that means oppressing minorities, especially Muslims, whom its adherents are determined to "teach a lesson" and "keep in their place".
The most barbaric lesson so far was taught in Gujarat in 2002, after 58 Hindu "pilgrims" travelling from Ayodhya, where fundamentalists had destroyed the mosque a decade earlier, died when their train was set on fire, probably by a gang of Muslims. Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the state and a leading member of the BJP, incited retaliation on a huge scale. In what was widely regarded as a planned pogrom, about 3,000 Muslims were butchered, many of them women and children, incinerated in public as crowds of affluent Hindus cheered and the local police either stood watching or collaborated with the killers.
Modi, who was not punished or dismissed for his crime, is one of several unsavoury characters in Luce's book. But there are some honourable figures, too, even among the politicians. One is Rajiv Gandhi's widow, Sonia, labelled by the ineffable Modi as "that Italian bitch" and "a half-bred Jersey cow", who renounced the premiership in the interests of her party (Congress) and the country. Another is Manmohan Singh, the current prime minister, a man of reason, probity and good judgement, attributes not often found among the governing class.
Apart from BJP leaders, the only people Luce finds generically deplorable are diplomats. These exasperate the author by approaching diplomacy "in the manner of a clever high-school debater", by seeming to "mind more about etiquette than they do about substance", and by their prickliness, obsession with status and need to be "treated with exceptional respect" - manifestations of an enduring inferiority complex inspired by a consciousness of how so many Indians allowed themselves to be subjected for so long to such a small number of Britons. These attitudes resurfaced after the tsunami, when India rejected offers of foreign aid for its victims of the disaster.
Books by journalists about the condition of their last posting are bound to contain a "Whither X?" conclusion. In Spite of the Gods, one of the best books in this genre, ends on a note of qualified optimism. The political system remains stable; the "saffron [BJP] vote" is in decline; the country's 140 million Muslims are still loyal (hardly any of them have become jihadis in Afghanistan or anywhere else); and social and economic indicators are slowly improving, literacy rising and poverty declining at much the same rate, about 1 per cent a year.
Yet Luce warns that India is "suffering from a premature spirit of triumphalism". It may boast that its economy will become larger than Japan's within 20 years but, given the ten-to-one ratio between the populations of the two countries, the Japanese will still be ten times richer per capita. Although India probably will emerge as a great power later this century, in Luce's view it is "not on autopilot to greatness". Many things could go wrong. In any case, unless India, together with China and the United States, decides to do something about climate change, predictions of future greatness could become irrelevant for us all.
David Gilmour's most recent book is "The Ruling Caste: imperial lives in the Victorian Raj" (John Murray)