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.