Stereotypes about India not so much abound as keep multiplying. In popular imagination, India has gone, over time, from being the land of exoticism and mysticism to the back office of the world to - most recently - the rising economic superpower whose dizzying rate of growth is second only to China's and which will, along with China, redraw the geopolitical map of the world by the middle of the 21st century.
These are all misleadingly reductive summations of a country that at its 60th anniversary of its independence from British rule, is simply too various and too complex to lend itself to such shorthands. It is, as Ramachandra Guha persuasively argues in his recent book India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy (Macmillan, 2007), no small triumph that India, as well as its democracy, not merely exists at all but continues to thrive. "India will go on," Guha quotes novelist RK Narayan telling VS Naipaul in the 1960s, and exactly how it does and how it possibly will have become the subjects of a clutch of recent books, including Maria Misra's Vishnu's Crowded Temple.
Misra, who teaches modern history at Oxford, has undertaken an ambitious project. She attempts to telescope more than 150 years of India's history into this book and tries to show, as she tells us in its closing pages, "how India has developed its peculiar form of modernity, the most striking feature of which is its highly atomized, fragmented and diverse citizenry."
It seems clear that one of the things that underscores the idea of India as a nation is its tradition of pluralism and diversity. Misra is not the first to make a case for this. In his illuminating collection of essays, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (Allen Lane, 2005), India's Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has eloquently described how the country's long tradition of argument, public debate and intellectual pluralism is central to the notion of India and Indianness.
This may not seem immediately obvious if one were to look at the long history of sectarian violence that has convulsed India. First, there was the bloodbath that accompanied the birth pangs of India or, more precisely, the birth pangs of the two nation states of India and Pakistan. At least 180,000 people died in what Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy and first Governor-General of independent India, called one of the "greatest administrative operations in history"; train tracks were covered with corpses and whole trainloads of people butchered. Misra is good with the details of this chilling, pervasive violence and brings alive the scale of the carnage in those months.
More recently, there have been anti-Sikh riots in Delhi after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984; the communal riots in Mumbai in 1992 and 1993, which then triggered the serial bombings that killed 257 people in India's financial and entertainment nerve center; Kashmir continues to be an unresolved battlefield; and right-wing Hindu nationalists presided over a pogrom in Gujarat in 2002.
India's colonial history (the British had often encouraged sectarian conflicts, playing one community off against the other) and postcolonial experience both show how the country's democracy has repeatedly come under assault, how its secular fabric has been threatened time and again to be ripped apart. In spite of that, Misra reveals how India has drawn most sustenance from its diversity and plurality.