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The Cost of Living
Henry A. Giroux
Alex n. Dajkovic
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The Cost of Living
Modern Library, 1999, 126 pages.
By Romi Mahajan
When in 1998 Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray manifested great pride in the fact that India detonated nuclear bombs by saying “we are no longer eunuchs,” he unwittingly revealed the root cause of the Indian power elite's reckless affair with bigness—the constant perception of being embattled, ego-bruised, and unable to meet with the American and European elites on equal parley. (Clearly, the Indian elite feels “feminized,” and therefore inadequate. Clearly, missiles make it feel far more “manly”—we, after all, are no longer eununchs.)
The Cost of Living is about India's desire to be recognized as a big player and about the betrayal of India's people that this desire constitutes. The book consists of two essays, one on the disastrous project to dam the Narmada River; the second on the Machiavellian urges that emanated in the May 1998 nuclear tests. The common thread that ties these seemingly unrelated issues together is the miscarriage of justice that arises when poor countries run roughshod over their own populaces in order to show that they, indeed, have arrived on the world stage.
This disease of “bigness” is endemic in India. India is a large country with a long history and Indians believe they are heirs to a glorious past and an elevated set of cultures. Added to this is the undisputed fact that India has mature and stable institutions and is a regional power. Yet on the world arena, the country is paid scant attention and remains one of the most misunderstood and uncelebrated countries on earth. This large disconnect between an elite's perception of itself and the reigning perception (or lack thereof) of it causes intractable problems in its psychosocial make-up and impels it to utilize its power over and control of national resources and the populace to accrue the trappings of success. But of a brand of success defined by countries whose conditions and internal urges are far different than India's. So being home to the “most ambitious water resources development program in history” and being one of a handful of countries to have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them allows the chimera of progress, of bigness, of success, of at long last being held in the esteem one deserves, to rear its ugly head.
Roy's book is an eloquent polemic against this India. But even its most vociferous critics could not dismiss it as just another rant (as much writing from the left is dismissed). The essay on the Narmada dam project includes an involved discussion of its technical aspects and shows that the stated goal of the project will not come close to being met. The essay on India's nukes includes a sophisticated discussion of the fig leaf of “deterrence.”
A first-rate writer and thinker, Roy weaves together moral, philosophical, and technical details to create a mesmerizing tale of depredation, deceit, and destruction. Roy's skill with the language and expressive style are unmatchable. The Cost of Living is an easy and wonderful read and must be read for what is at stake is fundamental to any conception of social justice that exists. Z
Romi Mahajan is a doctoral student in communications at the University of Texas, Austin.