Argument

Debacle in New Delhi

How can India be a superpower if it can't even build a bridge?

View a slide show of New Delhi's Commonwealth Games crisis.

What was meant to be India's coming out party is quickly turning into a walk of shame. Only 10 days remain before the curtains go up on New Delhi's Commonwealth Games, the 19th edition of a quadrennial gathering that brings together the 70-odd nations of the former British Empire, and India's capital is a city in disarray.

In the past week, Islamist terrorists claimed credit for injuring two Taiwanese tourists in a drive-by shooting; a pedestrian bridge near the event's flagship stadium collapsed, injuring 23 workers; a Scottish official declared the athlete's village "unfit for human habitation"; and Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand issued travel advisories warning their citizens of more terrorist attacks during the games.

Ratcheting up the pressure on India, officials from England and New Zealand have raised doubts about whether the games will go ahead as scheduled. On Wednesday, Sir Andrew Foster, the chairman of England's Commonwealth team, told the BBC that the future of the event remained "on a knife edge." And what was a trickle of top athletes pulling out threatens to turn into a flood. Among those who won't be in Delhi come October: Jamaican sprinters Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser, Australian tennis stars Lleyton Hewitt and Samantha Stosur, Scottish cyclist Chris Hoy, and English triple-jumper Phillips Idowu.

Cancellation still appears unlikely. Depending on whom you ask, and on whether you include a broader aesthetic and infrastructure facelift for Delhi timed to coincide with the games, India has sunk between $3 billion and $10 billion on the event. With national prestige riding on a successful outcome, it would take a catastrophe -- say a major terrorist attack or flooding on the streets of Delhi -- for the government to throw in the towel. And decisions by individual competitors notwithstanding, few countries would risk a diplomatic row with India by pulling out over the state of athletes' apartments and amorphous fears of terrorism.

Nonetheless, the controversy over the games highlights the gulf between India's lofty ambitions and its often messy reality. Over the last 20 years, liberalization and globalization have unshackled many of the country's most productive citizens from heavy-handed socialism and raised living standards faster than at any time in the nation's history. But even as the private sector booms -- swelling the middle class and producing billionaires by the fistful -- the quality of governance remains abysmal. Neither the courts nor the electorate punish public servants for amassing private fortunes. In parts of the country, the political and criminal classes are hard to tell apart.

Even before the most recent spate of bad news, the run-up to the Commonwealth Games has been plagued with scandal: multimillion-dollar stadiums with leaky roofs, fly-by-night firms accused of collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars without a written contract, and absurdly overpriced equipment and supplies, including $8,700 air-conditioners, $19,500 treadmills, and, most famously, $80 toilet paper rolls. Needless to say, Delhi is hardly the only city in the world where politicians and building contractors collude. But somehow, in other places, overpriced roads and bridges don't seem to fall apart with such alarming regularity.

For India's burgeoning middle class, the Commonwealth Games' natural audience, daily reminders of official ineptitude and corruption are hard to swallow. A popular joke on Twitter about Suresh Kalmadi, chairman of the organizing committee and a member of the ruling Congress Party, sums up the national mood: "Suresh Kalmadi tried to hang himself but the ceiling collapsed!" Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit and national Sports Minister M.S. Gill are the other popular villains. The comparison with Beijing's immaculate hosting of the 2008 Olympics only adds insult to injury.

Of course, as with so much else in India, there's always the chance the games will come together at the last minute in the madly disorganized but ultimately enjoyable manner of a Punjabi wedding (to use the Indian media's favorite metaphor). Early troubles with stadiums appear to have been resolved for the most part -- at least until Wednesday, when part of a false ceiling collapsed at a weight-lifting venue. A frenzied clean-up job will likely make the athlete's village "fit for human habitation." And barring further mishaps, once the games begin, the media's attention will naturally shift from organizational deficiencies to athletic performance. But the games' deficiencies might actually be a home-field advantage: The absence of many international stars will likely give India's traditionally underperforming athletes their 15 minutes of Commonwealth-wide fame.

Larger questions about India's governance capabilities remain. The Indian middle class -- at best, 300 million people out of a population of 1.1 billion -- may not have the numbers to decide elections, but it needs to demand a greater say in the country's governance. This means finding ways to translate its economic muscle into political clout. Until Indian politicians are held to the same standards as their counterparts in advanced democracies, the country will have to continue to suffer the ignominy of collapsing bridges, sub-par apartment complexes, and $80 toilet rolls.

MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Israel’s Conscience Goes Global

With Mideast peace talks as a backdrop, the U.S. publication of David Grossman's novel is a window into Israel's uneasy present.  

The Israeli writer David Grossman's new novel To the End of the Land, which was published in the United States this week, has generated the kind of buzz that publicists dream about. Paul Auster likened Grossman to Flaubert and Tolstoy and declared the book a work of "overwhelming power and intensity." Novelist Nicole Krauss was even more emphatic. In a long blurb, she gushed, "Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime, you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same.... To the End of the Land is a book of this magnitude."

It's easy to snicker at the breathlessness of such praise (and many did), but it testifies to the reverence with which Grossman is regarded in liberal circles in America and Europe. Though much of his recent fiction (most of which has been translated from Hebrew into English and published widely abroad) deals with quotidian topics like marriage and adultery, drugs, love, and life as a teenager, Grossman is known -- and venerated -- outside of Israel primarily for his critiques of Israeli policy. Slate Group editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg, writing recently in Newsweek, characteristically described Grossman (and his fellow novelist Amos Oz) as Israel's "national consciences." In June, Grossman won the prestigious German Book Trade Peace Prize for his efforts as an "active supporter of reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis."

This week, Grossman is the subject of a long, laudatory essay in the New Yorker by George Packer. The article, along with the publication of Jessica Cohen's English translation of To the End of the Land, the story of a woman wandering across Israel to escape the possible news of her son's death in combat, completed after Grossman's own son Uri died in Lebanon in 2006, will likely only add to the Grossman mystique in America. And as fragile peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians threaten to collapse, Americans are looking to Grossman for a distillation of the Middle Eastern moment.

But in Israel, where the book came out in Hebrew in 2008, perceptions of the novelist are more complicated. David B. Green, opinion editor at the English edition of the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, singles out Grossman's "dignity, grace, humor and -- foremost -- imagination," as the qualities that have made him "a national treasure." But other Israelis are wary of Grossman's international reputation as an emissary from the "liberal, peace-loving, moral Israel that all those who would like to divide this country into two neatly warring camps of light and darkness wish to promote," the Israeli writer Hillel Halkin tells me. In a country where, as Grossman himself once put it, Israeli couples "have three children so if one of them dies, there will be two left," To the End of the Land could never just be about politics.

On August 12, 2006, a month into Israel's campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon, a missile struck Uri's tank. He was 20 years old. News of Uri's death came as Grossman was finishing up an early draft of To the End of the Land. The woman at the center of the plot, Ora, has a premonition that her soldier son, Ofer, will die in combat. Wracked by fear and despair, she succumbs to a fantastic thought: If the military can't find her they can't notify her, and if they can't notify her then Ofer's death hasn't happened. Ora sets off on a hike across Israel, avoiding all sources of bad news and reflecting on Ofer's life. By telling his story, maybe she can save him. "The point is to be in motion," she thinks, "the point is to talk about Ofer." Echoing his protagonist's quest, Grossman wrote in an afterward to the Hebrew edition, "I had a hunch -- or more precisely, a wish -- that the book I was writing would protect [Uri]."

The tragic scrambling of reality and fiction heightened anticipation for the novel, which became an instant best-seller and critical hit when it came out in Israel. Writing in Haaretz, Michael Gluzman, a professor of literature at Tel Aviv University, argued that the novel's importance "exceeds the ordinary realm of literature."

Grossman's status, too, goes far beyond the ordinary literary realm. Born in Jerusalem in 1954, he stepped onto the international stage in 1987 when he wrote a long article about life in the West Bank that later became The Yellow Wind. Grossman, who is fluent in Arabic, made the then 20-year-old occupation less abstract, more human. When the first intifada began later that year, readers worldwide embraced The Yellow Wind as a blueprint for understanding the uprising. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish translated the book into Arabic. The New Yorker ran two lengthy excerpts.

But in Israel, not everyone was thrilled with Grossman's work. In a later interview, Grossman described receiving threatening letters and phone calls and finding his car sabotaged. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, he said, rebuked him for portraying the Palestinians as chafing under Israeli rule. The year after The Yellow Wind was published, Grossman was fired from his job as host of the morning news program on Israel Radio after a dispute with management over the network's coverage of Yasir Arafat and the PLO.

Since then, Grossman -- who believes in a two-state solution and has said that the basic inspiration for Zionism was a "noble idea" -- has remained critical of Israeli policies. In 2003, he participated in the signing ceremony of the Geneva Accord, an unofficial Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement brokered by former negotiators. In 2006, a few months after Uri's death, Grossman delivered a landmark speech to 100,000 Israelis in Tel Aviv. "Israel has, for many years now, criminally wasted not only the lives of its sons and daughters, but also the miracle that occurred here," he declared, "the great and rare opportunity that history granted it, the opportunity to create an enlightened, properly functioning democratic state that would act in accordance with Jewish and universal values."

Earlier this month, Grossman joined a boycott of a new cultural center in the West Bank city of Ariel, an action that has stoked the ire of many on the right. Ariel mayor Ron Nachman called the boycott "tantamount to incitement to rebellion." A few weeks ago, a ministry of Education official complained to the newspaper Maariv that Grossman and other leading Israeli authors "express alienation to the point of automatic identification with Israel's enemies in their writing." It's not the first time Grossman has been charged with undermining the Israeli project: Conservative academic and pundit Yoram Hazony writes in his 2000 book The Jewish State that Grossman teaches "Israelis that it is weakness that gives birth to virtue," a lesson that threatens "to demolish the foundation on which the entire edifice of the Jewish state rests."

In his recent fiction, Grossman has avoided politics. As he told the German magazine Der Spiegel last year, "Because so much of our energy goes into the conflict we don't have energy to deal with the real existential things of life: being a father, being a mother, being a partner." Grossman added that he preferred to write about those topics because for him "they are more important." To the End of the Land marks a return to big political themes that Grossman addressed in earlier novels, such as The Smile of the Lamb and See Under: Love, which dealt with the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Holocaust.

The writer Haim Watzman, who has translated many of Grossman's books and essays into English, told me that he and his wife have been unable to pick up To the End of the Land: "We have two sons in combat units and we're not sure we want to go where this story may take us."

Where To the End of the Land takes readers is into an Israel that feels feeble and teetering, a country full of uncertainty. A sense of looming disaster hangs heavy over the novel. In the opening pages, a teenaged Ora is quarantined in an abandoned hospital in Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War. Egyptian radio broadcasts announce Israel's defeat. Feverish, bathed in sweat, Ora drifts in and out of consciousness; she has nightmares about Arab soldiers pouring into Tel Aviv. At one point, she remarks about Israel, "I know that this country doesn't have a chance at all."

It is an anxiety that resonates powerfully in Israel today, says Nitza Ben-Dov, a professor of Hebrew literature at the University of Haifa. To the End of the Land is so relevant, she says, because it encapsulates the Israeli predicament: "We love this land, but we pay such a terrible price for this love."

JOHN MACDOUGALL/IDF/AFP/Getty Images