The boy who fell to earth

Observations on India

India loves a hero; it is one way that a country of such size and diversity can remind itself of its identity. Half a century on from Gandhi and Nehru, however, in the age of globalisation, heroes can be hard to find. Which explains the excitement when news broke that 17-year-old Saurabh Singh had come top in a worldwide Nasa talent contest, beating thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of other entrants. This, it was reported, was the same exam sat long ago by no less a person than India's president, Abdul Kalam - and he had come only seventh.

Short, plain and poor without being impoverished, young Saurabh came from an obscure village in Uttar Pradesh where no one had ever been abroad: he was Village India incarnate, and he had beaten the world.

For a week the country could not get enough of this wonder boy who had "conquered science". And his triumph was India's triumph: "When he goes [to Nasa]," wrote one reporter, "Saurabh will be carrying with him the pride of his family, his village and the entire country." A bandwagon so attractive soon had politicians scrambling aboard. As the regional government showered the prodigy with money, an invitation arrived from New Delhi for him to meet the president.

Then - you've guessed - the story fell apart. Minutes before the Delhi meeting officials learned that it wasn't true that President Kalam had once sat this test. Smelling a rat, they aborted the photo opportunity, and further investigation swiftly showed that young Saurabh was nothing more than a teenage fantasist. Not only had he never taken the Nasa exam, but no such exam even exists.

How were the media of an entire (very large) nation so comprehensively duped? It certainly wasn't any sophistication on Saurabh's part: he claimed in interviews to have flown to Britain for the test, stayed at Buckingham Palace and taken taxis to Oxford University to sit the papers. And he didn't even have a passport. Just as feeble was the certificate Nasa supposedly awarded him, which bore the name of the former space agency chief Sean O'Keefe, rendered as "Cin K Kif".

Journalists turned on the boy like angry wasps. He was a con artist and should be punished, they said. No one, however, thought to apologise for failing to hold so transparent a hoax up to the light.

It is hard to imagine a similar stunt succeeding even 20 years ago, when India's media world was small and its journalism so high-minded it could be called headmasterly. Now there is an explosion of rolling news channels and newspapers, which, for Indian audiences, has had two main effects: an emphasis on advertiser-friendly, feel-good material and the very rapid replication of any half-decent news story across every possible outlet. "Journalists don't sit on stories any more: they just rush them out," says Sevanti Ninan, one of India's few media critics.

It would be wrong to blame the media alone, for a con works only if the audience wants to believe it, and the truth is that Saurabh's story tapped into a national conviction that, as one advertising campaign has it, "India is shining". The economic policy-makers have been following the textbook model of globalisation since the early 1990s and they claim the country is now reaping the benefits in vibrancy and prestige. The media have been happy to back the story up: India is on track for superpower status, it is often said, and Mumbai is the next Shanghai.

Stories about village whizz-kids are like national wish-fulfilment. One former senior journalist, Prasun Sonwalkar, says: "As India becomes more and more globalised, it wants to say: 'We're as good as our colonisers, if not better!'"

But many of the trappings of India's third world status are still painfully evident, and so the country's case for transformation rests largely on individual success stories. These are India's new heroes. If some businessmen of Indian origin feature in a rather obscure foreign magazine's list of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, the story goes on the front page of the Times of India. If a Californian surgeon pioneers a new treatment, the press crows that he was born in India. And if a village boy claims to have come top in a Nasa exam, the story is too good not to be true.

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Smokescreen