Since embracing economic reforms in the early 1990s, India has undergone swift and wrenching changes that are remaking the country from the ground up. As village and farmland give way to tech companies, call centers, factories, and malls, these new landscapes are increasingly peopled by new archetypal characters, much as the similarly radical transformation of the American West brought the world the cowboy.
In this sobering series of profiles laced with memoir and reportage, Siddhartha Deb examines several such figures, including the self-made man, the ubiquitous engineer, the rural farmer, the migrant laborer, and the urban working woman. Through the stories of several Indians from these groups, Deb, a novelist and native of India who teaches at New York City’s New School, reveals a composite portrait of a country in transition that is fascinating, troubling, and—to Western readers—unpleasantly familiar.
There is Chakravarthy Prasad (“Chak”), an engineer and onetime Illinois resident who is building a million-dollar house in a gated community that recalls the McMansions he saw in America. There is Arindam Chaudhuri, the founder of a dubious management school whose famous-for-being-famous image poorly withstands the scrutiny of investigative bloggers. There are middle-class strivers, an “army of Gatsbys” who have embraced the Bhagavad Gita’s warlike philosophy to justify their indifference to the poor—old Hindu wine of caste resignation in new bottles. (Similarly, Chak has adopted a guru who tells him the war on terror doesn’t matter, since one cannot change the world, only oneself.) There is Esther, a migrant waitress in the “unforgiving city” of Delhi who endures an epic daily commute; her boyfriend comes home from a stint in UAE and texts his lover there under Esther’s nose.
A striking barrenness marks many of these lives. Engineer S.S. Prasad claims never to have heard of global warming; he writes “nanopoems” in unintelligible zeroes and ones, then inscribes them invisibly on microchips at his workplace. Employees at tech firms like his are so engulfed by their jobs that happiness companies provide them with on-the-spot physical exercises and word games during the work day.
In some cases, the aridity is literal. Deb spotlights the disaster taking place in the lives of rural Indians in the form of dry wells, deadened soil, and lakes full of chemicals. Having switched from growing millet, many farmers are being driven out of business by the cost of sinking wells for thirstier market crops like soybeans. They are committing suicide by the hundreds of thousands, a profoundly underreported phenomenon.
Then, too, there is the plight of the migrant factory worker. By avoiding the conflation of poverty with squalor, Deb pinpoints what is terribly wrong in a steel-plant barracks full of men from all over India who share no common language, take turns sleeping in a single bed, and piss in a gutter running down the center of the room. They have no job security or upward mobility and few worker protections. More importantly, though, they keep no potted plants or touches of home. There are no women, no children playing, no colorful saris hanging out to dry. In the new India, these men and millions like them are adrift in the worst way: “[They were] cycling in and out of jobs and returning to their villages to recuperate from their hard labor and loneliness before setting out again when the money ran out.”
This is India lurching simultaneously into the Industrial and the Information ages, and even as it churns out new millionaires and creates a small middle class, the trip is destroying many lives. But land-use overhauls and migrations aside, the profoundest change in the subcontinent is voiced most clearly by Chak: India is shifting from a high-context to a low-context culture. In low-context America, people’s interactions focus on the reason that has brought them together, whereas in high-context India people have traditionally interacted in all kinds of ways, building strong social networks. But as villages are bulldozed by office parks, Deb neatly points out, “it would be possible, in some years—or maybe it was already possible—to put the Walkman on in India and ignore the maid coming in to do the cleaning.” Thus goes the loss, for worse or better, of a sense of place.
Signs of this loss are everywhere. The management school’s graduates become its faculty in a Mafia-like family, their fierce loyalty to their school’s culture having seemingly replaced older codes. Jabbar, a Bhopal activist, is a paragon of high-context India, his office crowded with working-class and poor people, yet he has gone almost unnoticed by people in power. His counterpart Sathyu has an internationally recognized organization with a website and visitors from Greenpeace and Bard College; he is building an eco-friendly medical clinic. Yet in his office, “the gas victims seemed to appear only on posters on the walls. . . . You could have efficiency or popular support, international alliances or deep local roots, it seemed, but not both.”
A high-context society, with its rich and varied social ties, can offer its poor a modicum of social protection; its erosion renders their futures, if possible, even more bleak. It is this process Deb captures in meeting after meeting. “In such a landscape, the poor—all those left behind by the creation of a low-context society—were like ghosts.”
The author seldom strikes a false note, with transitions among autobiography, journalism, and history handled deftly. He combines a measured voice and sometimes quiet wit with psychological insight, noting the empty platitudes an instructor feeds to a class of “dutiful” middle-class management students (“‘Leadership is about changing your colors like a chameleon to suit the situation’”) and interpreting the arrogance of a boss doing push-ups in front of his employees (“He was rewarded with embarrassed laughter, which is probably what he wanted”). His eye, too, is as good as a camera. “The bench was made of a plank balanced on bricks, perhaps one of the most common sights in India.”
Most importantly, Deb gets at the quality of the loss that India is undergoing, at what price is paid by a country that builds a hotel containing “‘a separate spa village complex’ . . . which meant that a fake village would replace the real village that had existed here.” The feeling recurs throughout the book in certain words: Incongruous. Fake identity. Displacement. Contradictions. Glittering surfaces. Deference, desire, and nervousness. ‘They don’t know who they are.’ Insecure and uprooted. Lost, unfit somehow. And he is quietly nostalgic for the India that is disappearing, as in the “rough utilitarianism” of a village not yet encroached upon by consumerism: “Here, there would be no escape from the self in objects or in technology . . . no shopping aisles where I could wander, picking out items that momentarily created an image of a better life. There was no escape here except through human relationships.” If India continues to remake itself at its current pace, such places may find themselves becoming ersatz villages. Or ghost towns.
Jenny Blair is a writer and MD in Vermont. She co-edits the literary magazine Brink and is a two-time winner of the National Headliner Award.
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