A Portrait of Life in Modern India
A portrait of incredible change and economic development, of social and national transformation told through individual lives
The son of an Indian father and an American mother, Akash Kapur spent his formative years in India and his early adulthood in the United States. In 2003, he returned to his birth country for good, eager to be part of its exciting growth and modernization. What he found was a nation even more transformed than he had imagined, where the changes were fundamentally altering Indian society, for better and sometimes for worse.
To further understand these changes, he sought out the Indians experiencing them firsthand. The result is a rich tapestry of lives being altered by economic development, and a fascinating insider's look at many of the most important forces shaping our world today. Much has been written about the rise of Asia and a rebalancing of the global economy, but rarely does one encounter these big stories with the level of nuance and detail that Kapur gives us in India Becoming.
Among the characters we meet are a broker of cows who must adapt his trade to a modernizing economy; a female call center employee whose relatives worry about her values in the city; a feudal landowner who must accept that he will not pass his way of life down to his children; and a career woman who wishes she could "outsource" having a baby.
Through these stories and many others, Kapur provides a fuller understanding of the complexity and often contradictory nature of modern India. India Becoming is particularly noteworthy for its emphasis on rural India-a region often neglected in writing about the country, though 70 percent of the population still lives there. In scenes reminiscent of R. K. Narayan's classic works on the Indian countryside, Kapur builds intimate portraits of farmers, fishermen, and entire villages whose ancient ways of life are crumbling, giving way to an uncertain future that is at once frightening and full of promise. Kapur himself grew up in rural India; his descriptions of change and modernization are infused with a profound-at times deeply poignant- firsthand understanding of the loss that must accompany all development and progress.
India Becoming is essential reading for anyone interested in our changing world and the newly emerging global order. It is a riveting narrative that puts the personal into a broad, relevant and revelational context.
The East Coast Road has changed. Twenty-five years ago, when I was a child growing up at its edge, it was a potholed tar road that meandered across the South Indian countryside, cutting through rice fields and coconut plantations and sleepy fishing villages. The views were stunning—a rippled ocean, the gray waters of the Bay of Bengal, shimmering under the harsh coastal sun.
Sometime in the nineties, government contractors descended upon the road. They surveyed neighboring fields and farms, they bulldozed surrounding huts. Villages were cut in half, families were uprooted. Hundreds of ancient trees were brought down. Activists protested, but they were told the social and ecological disruption was the price of progress.
By the time I moved back to India, in the winter of 2003, after more than a decade in America, the country road I knew as a child had become a 160-kilometer highway. Politicians extolled it as a model for modern India—an ambitious collaboration between government and private companies, the kind of infrastructure the country needed to develop its economy.
The surface of the East Coast Road is now a smooth mix of tar and powdered rock. The road is adorned with dividers that glow in the dark, signs for emergency services, and toll counters that light up the night with their halogen lamps and bright metal booths. Some of the rice fields remain, and the views are still beautiful. But much of the countryside has given way to the promised development—beach resorts, open- air restaurants, movie theaters, and scores of small tea shops catering to the tourists that throng the road on weekends.
At the top of the East Coast Road, outside the city of Chennai, the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu, tourist attractions lead into urban congestion. Traffic is denser, the crowds swell off the sidewalks and onto the streets, and the ocean breeze is obstructed by tightly packed shops and office buildings.
The East Coast Road joins Rajiv Gandhi Salai, Chennai’s technology corridor. The change here is even more striking. Twenty-five years ago, Rajiv Gandhi Salai was itself a country road, a little-used path that carried tourists from Chennai to the seaside town of Mahabalipuram. Like the East Coast Road, it was bordered by farms and plantations; well into the nineties, when the software and outsourcing companies began setting up shop, you could see the occasional tractor, maybe even a bullock cart, on the road.
Today, Rajiv Gandhi Salai, also referred to as the Old Mahabalipuram Road—as if to distance it from the present, to demarcate it as a relic from a different moment in the nation’s history— is a showcase of the new India. The farmland has become fertile terrain for steel- framed and glass-paneled offi ce buildings. These buildings house the technology companies driving India’s economic boom—the Yahoo!s and PayPals and Verizons that have rushed into the country over the last couple of decades, but also local upstarts like Infosys, Satyam, and Wipro that have for the fi rst time put India on the map of global business.
Employees of these companies—men in tightly tucked shirts and khakis, women more likely to be dressed in pants than saris— swarm to work in the mornings, jamming the highway with their motorcycles and scooters. At noon, they break for lunch on well-maintained gardens, expansive lawns adorned with transplanted palm trees, like something out of Southern California. These are the foot soldiers of India’s surging economy; with their confidence, their enthusiasm, their willingness to work long hours, they are driving the emergence of a new nation.
It was to this new nation—this country where rice fields were giving way to highways, farmland to software complexes, and saris to pants—that I returned in 2003. I was coming home, but in many ways it was to a home I didn’t recognize anymore.
I landed in Chennai on a December morning. It was just before dawn. The sky was a dark blue, the air was cool but heavy. I remember being surprised by the humidity.
Outside the airport, amid the touts and baggage handlers, the commotion of a crowd whose crush I had almost forgotten, I caught an air-conditioned car. I was going to Auroville, the town where I had grown up, about a three-hour drive from Chennai.
I took the East Coast Road. In Chennai, I crawled through congested streets where traffic had once flowed easily, and I drove past the towers of Rajiv Gandhi Salai, their cubicles lit up even at that early hour. Outside the city, with the ocean gleaming on the horizon, I passed through the urban sprawl of gated communities and plotted-out fi elds.
In the village of Kadapakkam, about an hour and a half from the airport, I stopped for a coffee in a tea shop by the side of the road. The owner of the tea shop was a skinny, garrulous man. He stood over a kerosene stove and told me about his life. He said he was born poor, the son of a landless laborer. The road had changed everything for him.
He talked about the taxis and buses that stopped in at his tea shop, about the new house he had built, about the motorcycle he had bought himself. He talked about the private school where he sent his children.
He talked and talked and then, while he was talking, an older man sitting in front of me, a customer, interrupted. He told the owner he was wrong; the road had ruined many lives. He spoke about families that had lost their houses to government acquisition, about all the development that had spoiled the area, about the accidents.
Just last month, the customer said, a boy, the relative of someone he knew, was run over and killed outside this village.
Their conversation turned into an argument; a few others joined in. I listened for a while, and then I turned away. I was jet-lagged, still taking in the familiar yet strangely unfamiliar sounds and smells of my childhood. But I heard enough to know that I was with the owner: I welcomed the change. I found what was going on in India exciting, even intoxicating.
In America, I had been living in New York. I loved New York—loved the nightlife, loved the parks, loved the diversity of the city—but increasingly, I had found life there stifling. America, I felt, was in a kind of fog. The war in Iraq was turning sour, the economy was sputtering. The country was depressed, consumed with forebodings of decline.
India was so different. India was emerging from its depression, a centuries- long misadventure of colonialism, poverty, and underdevelopment. Now, on its way to what was surely a better future, the country was giddy, exuberant. Bookstores were filled with titles like India Arriving, The Indian Renaissance, and India Booms. Newspapers and magazines regularly ran surveys showing that India was the most optimistic country in the world.
In America, my friends were worried about losing their jobs; they held on to what they had. But in India, people I knew were quitting their jobs, casting aside the safety of well-established careers for the excitement—and potential riches—of starting their own business. Every other person I met dreamed of being an entrepreneur; they were willing to take a bet on the future.
It was as if my world had come full circle. I had grown up between India and America, the son of an Indian father and an American mother. I always considered both countries home. In 1991, at the age of sixteen, I moved to America in search of better education and more opportunities. Like so many before me, I was escaping the economic and social torpor of India—the austerity imposed by the nation’s socialist economy, the fatalism and bureaucracy that blocked all creative impulse and even a hint of entrepreneurial energy.
The India of my youth felt cut off, at the edge of modernity. When I boarded that plane in Chennai, trading the heat of coastal South India for the bitter winters of boarding school in Massachusetts, I felt like I was entering the world.
Now, twelve years later, India was at the center of the world. It was India, with its resurgent economy, high savings rates, and young, educated workforce, that beckoned with the sense of a brighter future; it was India that offered the promise of a country and an economy on the upswing. Einstein once wrote of America that its people were “always becoming, never being,” but it was in India now that I felt that sense of newness, of perpetual reinvention and forward momentum that I had felt when I first moved to America.
Almost half a century ago, R. K. Narayan, that great chronicler of Indian life in a slower, less complex time, traveled through the United States. In a book he later wrote about his journey, he noted the apparently irreconcilable gaps that separated the two nations. “America and India are profoundly different in attitude and philosophy,” he wrote. “Indian philosophy stresses austerity and unencumbered, uncomplicated day-to-day living. America’s emphasis, on the other hand, is on material acquisition and the limitless pursuit of prosperity.”
Indians, Narayan added, cultivate a certain “otherworldliness.”
Americans have “a robust indifference to eternity.” A typical American “works hard and earnestly, acquires wealth and enjoys life. He has no time to worry about the afterlife.”
By the time I returned home, India was determinedly shedding the abstemiousness and detachment that had defined it since independence. “Material acquisition” was no longer the preserve of Americans. The “otherworldliness” of an earlier era—a certain apathy, a charming if ultimately unproductive indifference— was being replaced by the energetic (and often ruthless) ambition of a new generation.
A great reconciliation was taking place. As a boy, my two worlds had often felt very far apart. India and America were literally—but also socially, culturally, and experientially—on opposite sides of the planet. Now, for better and for worse, in ways that both excited and at times frightened me, I felt as though India was co-opting the very qualities that defined America.
India’s transformation began in 1991, when a financial crisis forced the government to lower import barriers, ease foreign exchange controls, and allow a greater degree of private investment. These reforms unleashed the nation, spurring economic growth from an anemic 3.5 percent or so (what economists derisively referred to as “the Hindu rate of growth”) to around 8 or 9 percent. They transformed a closed, socialist—or at any rate semi- socialist—nation into a country that was far more willing to accept and even embrace global capitalism.
The change was most evident in the cities, in urban metropolises like Chennai and Bangalore and Mumbai, which were the first to feel the impact of the reforms. On the green lawns of software parks, in the corridors of new shopping malls, crowded with young consumers clutching cell phones and bags of cosmetics and DVDs, and in the bars and clubs where men and women mingled freely, I felt that India was being redefined. The nation was widening its horizons, experimenting with fresh ideas and ways of living.
But even in rural India, where I had grown up, and to which I was now returning, the reinvention was palpable.
Auroville is in the countryside; it is surrounded by fi ve villages. In the fields around me, farmers who had once gone to work in bullock carts without tires now drove shiny tractors. Down at the beach, fishermen were trading catamarans for diesel-powered motorboats. Satellite dishes were ubiquitous, and even a couple of ATMs had sprouted up between the older thatch huts and the new concrete buildings.
In both city and country, in shopping malls and on farms, what struck me most about India was not so much the cell phones and satellite dishes and other physical manifestations of change. I was impressed by something less tangible, something in the spirit of the nation.
Middle- class children, sons and daughters of parents who had aspired to nothing so much as a secure government job, were planning careers as software entrepreneurs; they envisioned themselves as the next Bill Gates. Farmers and fishermen were setting up restaurants and guesthouses; their ambition challenged the social order that had for so long pinned them to poverty and illiteracy.
For the first time—the first time in my life, but arguably in India’s history, too—people dared to imagine an existence for themselves that was unburdened by the past and tradition. India, I felt, had started to dream.
Later, after I had spent more time in the country, when I had traveled around and met more people, I began to question aspects of that dream. The self-confidence I began to see as a kind of blindness, an almost messianic conviction in the country’s future. The unrelenting optimism was often delusional, a blinkered faith that ignored the many problems—the poverty, the inequality, the lawlessness, the environmental depredation—still facing the nation.
I grew less impressed with the shopping malls and shiny office complexes, with the fancy bars and the variety of cocktails they served. I began to feel that the country was being engulfed in its encounter with capitalism, swallowed by a great wave of consumerism and materialism that threatened to corrode the famous Indian soul.
Nothing is free. The more time I spent back home, the more it became apparent to me that India would have to pay a price for its prosperity—that new money was being accompanied by new forms of inequality, that freedom and opportunities were opening the floodgates, too, to disorder and violence.
Millions of Indians have risen out of poverty since the nation’s economic reforms. But millions more remain in poverty, and millions, too, are being subjected to the psychological dislocation of having their world change, of watching a social order that has given meaning to them—and their parents, and their grandparents before them—slip away.
Development, I came to understand, was a form of creative destruction. For everyone whose life was being regenerated or rejuvenated in modern India, there was someone, as well, whose life was being destroyed.
This book really contains two stories. One is a story of progress, of the sense of purpose and direction that rapid economic growth can bestow on a nation that had in many ways lost faith in itself. The other is a darker story; it tells of the destruction and disruptions caused by the same process of development.
One process, two outcomes. India is a complex country. Sometimes the creativity and the destruction, the good and the bad, were hard to disentangle.
I didn’t see this complexity when I first came back. My understanding of the country I had known only as a boy was superficial. When I landed on that winter morning in Chennai and took the East Coast Road back to Auroville, I saw just the optimistic side of India.
I suppose I saw what I wanted to see. After years of feeling alienated, never quite belonging in America, I was desperate to find a home. This book is in part a story of that homecoming—of how I embraced and found myself revitalized in the new India, of how I rejoiced in the nation’s economic progress; and then of how, after a few years, I learned to see the many edges, more than a few jagged, of that strange phenomenon called development.
Most of all, this book is the story of the people I met after returning to India. These people allowed me to glimpse, and at least partially understand, the complexity and nuance of this exceptionally layered country. I have come to know India again through the men and women who shared with me their life stories, who allowed me into their families and their homes. Many of these people have become friends; their friendship has allowed me to write this book.
I have been back in India, now, for a little over nine years. A lot has happened in my life during that time. I have built a house, married, had two children. Sometimes I watch my boys—Aman, age six, and Emil, age four—play in the same forests I did as a child, run through the same fields and villages I knew when I was just a little older than they are. It makes me happy, warms me in a place that I didn’t know I had until they were born, that their childhood memories will occupy the same landscape as mine.
But I know, also, that that warm feeling is a little bit of wishful thinking—that though the forests and fields and villages remain, and though my children are growing up, as I did, in rural India, nothing is really as it was. The world I knew as a boy doesn’t exist anymore.
Most of the time, I’m at peace with that reality. I celebrate the new India. But there are moments when all I can focus on is the sense of loss—the memory of a time before software parks and shopping malls, the sobriety and moral purpose of a country before it succumbed to the bland homogenizations of twenty-first-century capitalism.
I know that the great transition under way now is inevitable, and probably even desirable. I know, too, that it is unstoppable. The forces at work in modern India are part of the great sweep of history. All I can do is watch them, understand them, and maybe, through understanding, learn to accept them.
I’d like to think of this book as a step in that direction. It represents my effort to come to terms with the forces remaking my home."This is a remarkably absorbing account of an India in transition - full of challenges and contradictions, but also of expectations, hope, and ultimately optimism."
"A wonderful writer: a courageously clear-eyed observer, an astute listener, a masterful portraitist, and a gripping storyteller. Kapur's voice is as sure and as intimate as his subject is chaotic and immense, and he proves himself the perfect guide to the enthralling promise and the terrifying menace of a society in the throes of colossal, epochal, all-encompassing change."
-Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families
"Marvelous . . . Kapur shows how the old rural cycle of the south Indian village depicted and romanticized by R. K. Narayan is fracturing and breaking apart to reveal a very new, more unstable world where the old certainties are disappearing and everything is up for grabs. Sharp-eyed, insightful, skillfully sketched and beautifully written, India Becoming is the remarkable debut of a distinctive new talent."
-William Dalrymple, author of Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
"Akash Kapur lives in and writes out of an India that few writers venture into. Curious, suspicious of received wisdom, and intellectually resourceful, [Kapur is] one of the most reliable observers of the New India."
-Pankaj Mishra, author of Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond
"Through a series of deft character sketches, Akash Kapur captures the contradictions of life in modern India-between city and country, technology and aesthetics, development and the environment, greed and selflessness, individual fulfillment and community obligation. His writing is fresh and vivid; his perspective empathetic and appealingly non-judgmental."
-Ramachandra Guha, author of India after Gandhi
"Beautifully written . . . Akash Kapur celebrates the gains and mourns the losses, conveying a complex story through the ups and downs of the lives of some fascinating individual women and men."
-Kwame Anthony Appiah, author of Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers
"India today is in the midst of profound change and Akash Kapur captures the impact of that change on the lives of ordinary Indians with a narrative that avoids all clichés, platitudes, and simplifications."
-Gurcharan Das, author of India Unbound
I left India in 1991, and returned twelve years later. I left, as so many had before me, in search of better opportunities. The India of my youth—and especially rural South India, where I grew up—felt cut off, isolated from the world. America, where I spent most of my time abroad, was at the center of the world.
By the time I returned, things had in many ways come full circle. America felt weighed down, burdened by a troubled war in Iraq and a sputtering economy. India’s economy, on the other hand, was one of the fastest growing in the world. Surveys regularly showed that its population was one of the most optimistic. It was as though India had co-opted the energy and optimism, the sense of possibility, that had once drawn so many to America.
India’s transformation was exciting, but it could also be confusing. Einstein once wrote of America that it was a country always becoming, never being. Now, I felt that same energy, that sense of forward momentum, in India. But this is an ancient, complex culture; India was changing so fast, and in so many different ways, that it was hard to know what to make of it all. Sometimes I wondered just what the country was becoming.
In the villages near my home, the transformation was apparent. Farmers who had once ridden to their fields in bullock carts now drove shiny tractors; concrete structures were replacing thatch huts. But alongside this evidence of new prosperity, the seamier side of development was evident, too. The villages were wracked by environmental depredation, and torn apart by new forms of inequality. A social and cultural fabric built up over centuries and millennia was suddenly unraveling. The process of change was messy, at times even frightening.
This book represents my effort to make sense of it all. For almost five years, I have traveled the country, meeting people, getting to know their families and lives. These people have taught me a lot. They have shown me just how complex is this country, how layered and nuanced is the transition it is currently undergoing. I have learned to see—and to love--this country in a new way. In many ways, after more than a decade away, writing this book has brought me home.
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