INDIA BECOMING- BY AKASH KAPUR
PUBLISHED BY PENGUIN- PRICE RS.599
(This review was published in a recent issue of Businessworld)
Akash Kapur has written one of the best books about India changing. About change that is brought about by the pursuit of material progress or ‘development’, the synonym for progress. Being part of the process, we do not have time to step back and see what changes have happened. We have to depend on memory, and the phrase ‘good old days’ takes on new meaning. Akash Kapur left India for a brief interlude of ten years or so. Ten momentous years, in which Indians have stepped on the pedal of ambition and aspirations. He left presumably somewhere in the early nineties and returned in 2003 to a nation driven by sheer material wants that define development and progress. On his return from the Promised Land, he finds an India that has changed beyond recognition. Is this change a good thing or a bad thing? Do we have any choice in whether to be part of it or to step aside? Is all change disruptive? Do we have a right to pass moral judgements on aspirations of others? Many questions arise, but the answers are neither straight nor simple.
This book is highly readable. The author has chosen eight characters who take us through the various dimensions of change that progress has brought about. Each of the characters is well sketched and comes alive to such an extent that you are compelled to think along with them and take sides. The author engages us at a personal and intellectual level, leaving the choice of judgement to the reader. Some accept and adapt to the change, some try to and some will not. I will not talk about any character, though the main character is a zamindar who cannot adjust to his loss of ‘standing’ and is the character who binds the book together.
The author’s home town happens to be Auroville, near Pondicherry. This helps in bringing a cast of characters from the hinterland of Tamilnadu who move to Chennai and Bengaluru with their eyes focused on shores beyond. Most of the characters are part of the technology revolution that has spawned nearly a million jobs across thousands of BPOs and KPOs and brought about opportunities in the related fields of training and other services essential to make people fit in to the BPOs and KPOs.
The change that is obvious also has its dark side in what we are doing to the environment as well as changes in moral values that some may not accept very readily. Social mores are redefined as what were once abnormal preferences kept in the closet, come out in to the open.
Interestingly all this change has relevance only to those of us who have straddled this change. Having seen one India before the change, there are problems in adapting to what India is now ‘becoming’. Perhaps, a couple of decades down the road, no one will be questioning the change, since memory will not include what India was.
There are some fascinating vignettes from rural India that include the traditional Pongal ceremony as well as a lovely sketch of the ‘cattle’ bazaar that changes contours over time. Or the sense of ‘values’ that someone carries with her to the urban jungle and also how urban freedom can hurt if not handled well.
The dark side of progress peculiar to India has been captured very well. As India urbanizes, huts give way to concrete structures there is no one who seems to care about the environment or about the infrastructure. The total lack of any town planning or concern for the next generation also comes through, in the pages of this book.
The hope, the fight, the worries and the despair all come through as the characters are followed by the author for a period of just over six years spanning the boom and the gloom from 2003 through 2010 or so. The tumultuous years of change (and progress) bring about transformation in the landscape, destroy professions and create new ones. Each of us adapts differently and has to adapt only if we have memories of life before the change set in. The book is a page turner.
Today, progress on the material front is the only race that the world is focused on and no one seems to want to be left behind. Of course, if one comes through financially well off, it leaves him/her with the option of introspection about the progress. Obviously, it is easy to discuss about the quality of food when one has a full stomach. When one is in need of food, there is no time to debate about the quality of food. A thought provoking book and a ‘must read’ for each one of us.
The Constitution of India took a little over two years from independence to get enacted. The constitution gives a lot of rights to lot of people in the name of democracy and equality. Many of them involve robbing Peter to pay Paul, but it has been hammered in to the psyches of people & it has become fashionable to speak for the ‘have-nots’ in a manner as if the ‘haves’ are responsible.
Today, after so many years of breathing the polluted air of an India created by the British, I have never felt more bloody minded. I choose to call the republic day functions as the annual ‘charade’. The political leaders mouth the same homilies year after year using a different combination of words and not an alphabet in it is from the heart.
Even after so many years, we still do not have a national leader and it is unlikely that we will ever have. As someone said, whatever language one can speak in, at least half of this country cannot understand. When we cannot speak a common language, it is impossible to think of ourselves as one people. And even if I think of everyone as one nation, some political leader makes me unwelcome in order to steal his moment under the sun.
Today, the country formed by the British is getting fragmented and divided on language, caste and religion. We have collectively lost our sense of humour and take offence at anything and everything. The political leaders drive wedges and widen this divide in the name of secularism. Education still remains a pipe dream and what is left is unaffordable and accessible to too few. Secularism has become an abused word and has taken on the meaning of appeasing a few to win their votes.
Within seven decades a time has come when the young and the restless want to live in other countries and not come back. I do not blame them. This country has been made uninhabitable by politicians who have only personal agendas in which the people of India do not fit in, except to be exploited.
The politician thinks he will stay on another five years if he gives some crumbs to the people. And these crumbs come from whole loaves stolen from people who bake the bread by the sweat of their brows. I hate to see the government taking away the bread I bake. After all, each one of us uses the infrastructure of this country in equal measure and I do not see why I should pay more than someone else. Why should I be made to feel guilty if I have more than someone else?
This fractured nation will not find peace with itself as factions use hatred to keep up their egos in play. As discontent spreads, the first casualty is law and order. A corrupt administration has no hope of ever enforcing law and order. The courts are made helpless as litigants keep the courts tied up in property battles. And the fight between politicians and the Supreme Court is turning nasty and soon the politicians will quash the power of the Courts as their existences get threatened.
In the name of social equality, the capable and the meritorious are being penalised. Atlas is shrugging. Something has got to give. It is a difficult nation to live in.