Relying on preconceived notions, Siddhartha Deb misses the real story.
The book you are about to read does not have a first chapter: you will find that the text jumps from the end of the introduction to the second chapter,” declares Siddhartha Deb in the author’s note of this book. It’s a pity, because those who read the first chapter, which was also published in the February 2011 issue of Caravan magazine, would agree that it is the most engaging of the five chapters that portray life in the “new” India. Because of an injunction order for defamation obtained by its subject, this chapter (“The Great Gatsby: A Rich Man in India”) on self-styled management guru Arindam Chaudhuri was pulled out of the book. The surviving four essays, unfortunately, are more a reflection of an armchair leftist’s world view than a real assessment of the India we live in today.
Deb takes you through the rural heartland and bustling cities where he encounters the protagonists of his emerging-India story. They are engineers, farmers, call centre employees, migrant labourers, communists, a right-wing extremist and a waitress in New Delhi. Chance encounters with mobile phone thieves, middle-class aspirers and policemen on encounter squads complete the picture. Through these characters, Deb seeks to give us a glimpse of a country afflicted by class struggle and a highly “tiered” society with “gated communities” for the elite and no room for the poor. The narrative touches on deprivation and surplus, SEZs and farmers’ suicides, alienation and the “high consumption” side of globalisation.
These are issues that deserve attention. But the story of “new” India is much more complex and cannot be tackled with simple juxtapositions of industrialisation and agriculture, or by comparing the plight of the rural poor with the aspirations of the urban middle class. By doing such things Deb falls into the classic trap — the easy assumption that free-market capitalism is to be blamed for all that plagues India.
The book, however, is not an enquiry into Indian economics and its implications. So it would not be fair to expect the author to delve into it deeply. He keeps economics only as a subtext. What you do expect is a meaningful portrait of India through the story of its people. The author does this most powerfully in the “Introduction”, through his depiction of an activist who runs an organisation that works with women affected by the 1984 Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal. A local hero of sorts, Abdul Jabbar has no faith in the West or multinationals. He possesses a deep dislike for Western NGOs, including Greenpeace, that “fly in” for a few days and show up among the impoverished poor with their laptops and digital camera. With unintentional irony, Jabbar closes his speech with the slogan “Naya zamana ayega” (“The new age will come”). That line suggests that for many the new India is and will remain largely a myth — and you can’t help but be reminded of it as you proceed through the book.
Jabbar comes across as a powerful personality, and you hope to meet more like him. Unfortunately, the rest of the book provides much paler character sketches. It is difficult to warm up to any of them, perhaps because the author’s interactions with most of his subjects remain superficial. Some exchanges almost attain the banality of drawing-room conversation.
In the (now) first chapter, on meeting a poet-engineer who writes “nanopoems” in a binary language, Deb chooses to ask him what he thinks, as an Indian and a Hindu, of the evident inequalities in the country and the caste system. This is seemingly an attempt to shake his “unsmiling, intelligent and always composed face”. Such a question could at best perturb a contestant in a beauty pageant for the lack of a rehearsed answer, not a Tam-Brahm for whom caste perhaps is an identity so deeply etched that he rarely thinks of it. In a second attempt, the author asks him what he thinks of global warming. At which the poet exhibits “something like tension” and responds that he hasn’t heard of it. The conversation ends there. We are probably expected to reel in shock at the New Indian’s ignorance. But what we are left wondering is why the author chose to devote six pages to an “engineer” who doesn’t know about climate change. And even so, could the author not have found a better way to engage him in conversation?
It’s no surprise, then, that Deb later wonders if there were “engineers” who went in the other direction, towards the “human sphere”. Clubbing people by profession — like the caste system does — is exasperating enough, and such broad generalisations don’t help. Moreover, statements like “it was the RSS that sent an assassin who killed Gandhi in 1948” make you wonder at a non-fiction book that makes such a factually incorrect assertion.
In the next two chapters the scene shifts to a more rural, semi-urban milieu where we meet seed merchants, sorghum farmers, industry workers and so on. But it is not until the fourth and last chapter that we come across a portrait as engaging as that of Jabbar. Esther, a Manipuri girl working in the food and beverage industry in New Delhi, is strong and speaks in a matter-of-fact tone. And, thankfully, she doesn’t conform to the stereotypical image we love to paint of north-eastern women.
Through Esther’s story you finally begin to take a liking for Deb as narrator. He lets her do the talking. You also feel that he is making an effort to bring out her story and doesn’t burden her character with his conditioned assessments.
But overall, one can’t help but feel that the examples Deb cites throughout the book burnish his already formed notions of what new India is, and not the other way round. That, in a book that largely has a smooth narrative flow, is a pity.
THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED
Life in the New India
Author: Siddhartha Deb
Pages: xiv + 254
Price: Rs 499