I’ve just read two books in what might be a new subgenre: People Gawking at Modern India. They are India Becoming by Akash Kapur, and India Calling by Anand. Besides having similar titles and themes, they both have quotes by William Dalrymple on the back cover.
Both writers are Indian by descent, spent their formative years in the US, and went to live in India to report on its remarkable boom times. Kapur is Tamil and focuses on Tamil Nadu; Giridharadas has roots in Mumbai and reports from there and other northern cities. They also share methods: the books are a mixture of personal reflections and the stories of people they met and talked to.
Per capita GDP in India has increased sixfold since 1960— most of this since the economic liberalization of 1991. The result is a scramble, generally successful, to make money. This means former Dalits getting rich; poor people upgrading from grass huts to concrete houses; one billion people getting cell phones; cities expanding into their hinterlands; the upper quintile hastening to get cars and air conditioners.
The left these days distrusts money, and it has good reason to do so. But money is one of the best and fastest ways of dissolving old systems of oppression. Brahmins can’t keep oppressing Dalits when the latter can quit their ancient professions, make money in a new one, and move into the rich part of town. Women can’t be held under their family’s thumb when they have their own jobs or houses, or even their own businesses. Caste restrictions on professions mean nothing when people can simply study for a new job, or just move to a new city and take one.
Of course, the boom has its downsides. Both authors are originally enthralled by the new opportunities and new attitudes, but some people are left behind, and there are new things to worry about. Indira Gandhi once dismissed pollution as something only First World nations needed to worry about; now it’s a growing threat within India. Kapur meets people living on a growing, unregulated trash dump. Appalled, he promises that he’ll do everything he can to shut it down. The people are aghast and beg him not to: it’s their livelihood— skimming the landfill for things to use— and they don’t have any other. Kapur also mentions the problem of thugs: it’s cheap and easy to hire them, and they’re used for instance to pressure farmers to sell their land.
The opportunities within a boom can verge on the comic. Giridharadas meets a man, once a penniless Dalit, who has become a big man in a small town. His first big venture was English lessons— there’s a mania for learning English even in the middle of nowhere. (These schools are rough-and-ready, concentrating on teaching idiom and practical speaking rather than literature.) He also organized a local beauty pageant, for both men and women. But he only made it big with… roller skating. He established a roller skating team and ended up coaching the national team. Giridharadas also finds a man who write puff pieces for technological journals in English, and Maoist polemics in Telugu.
Giridharadas is the wittier author; for instance, he describes Indians’ passion for knowing his “native place”, which turns out to mean “where my ancestors had most recently milked cows, even if ‘recent’ meant the year 1500.” He recounts a typical conversation where people ask where is he from. Washington DC, he replies. No, no, he is Indian, where is he from? He was born in Ohio. No, no, your native place. His parents grew up in Mumbai. Ah, so you are Maharashtrian. Well, no, his parents were Tamil and Punjabi— they met in Mumbai. So, basically, you are Punjabi— your father is from Punjab? No, that’s his mother, his father is Tamil. Ah, so basically you are South Indian.
Both authors marvel at the changes in gender relations. Arranged marriage is still common. On the other hand, dating and premarital sex are becoming common too. Some women still take the role of always-submissive helper/cook; others indignantly reject it. As love marriages rise, so do divorces.
(Both books were written before Modi’s BJP took power in 2014, so they don’t address the rise of right-wing nationalism, and indeed have little to say about politics at all.)
The books are long on stories, short on analysis. And they rely a lot on chance contacts— but then, knowing the local language, they are far better informed than the Western style of talking only to one’s cab driver and a few high officials.
It’s interesting to compare these books to those of earlier observers, such as Octavio Paz’s In Light of India (1995) and V.S. Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990). Paz is full of solidarity as a fellow Third Worlder, but finds it most easy to relate to India’s great history in literature and religion. Naipaul is terribly worried at the centrifugal tendencies of Indian society.