by Akash Kapur
Review by GEOFFREY C. WARD
Kapur is especially qualified to assess the contrasts and contradictions all that change has brought. The son of an American mother and an Indian father, he was raised on the outskirts of Auroville, a utopian international community in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Sent away to boarding school in the United States at 16, he studied at Harvard and Oxford, then returned to South India 12 years later, in 2003. His lively “Letter From India” appeared for several years in The International Herald Tribune and the online edition of The New York Times.
At first, he was dazzled. While the friends he’d left behind in America fretted about holding on to their jobs, it seemed to him that every other young person he met in India was eager to quit his or hers to become an entrepreneur. The Indian economy was then growing at about 8 percent, led by the expanding service and I.T. industries, and the country’s mood was “giddy, exuberant,” “ardently capitalist,” and aspirational. “For the first time — the first time in my life, but arguably in India’s history, too,” he writes, “people dared to imagine an existence for themselves that was unburdened by the past and tradition. India, I felt, had started to dream.”
But, over time, as he settled permanently back into the countryside, married and had two sons, he found himself at least as appalled by the new India as he was admiring. For all the restaurants and yoga centers, colleges and gated communities that now lined the newly blacktopped country roads he’d known as a boy — and despite two decades of new money and new opportunities — poverty stubbornly persists. More than 300 million of India’s 1.2 billion people still live on less than a dollar a day, he tells us; more people have cellphones than access to a toilet. And heedless growth steadily despoils the environment; nearly half of India’s land is eroded; at least 70 percent of its surface water is polluted and, according to one recent study, India’s air is now the most toxic on earth — a fact vividly brought home to Kapur and his family one spring when the smoky reek of thousands of tons of smoldering untreated garbage dumped outside the town of Pondicherry seeped into his home and sickened one of his children.
His conclusions about all this are rarely surprising and often reiterative: we are told too many times that change comes at a cost; that “unrelenting optimism” is “delusional”; that “India could often feel like two nations.” But Kapur is determinedly fair-minded, neither an apologist nor a scold, and he is a wonderfully empathetic listener, willing patiently to visit and revisit a large cast of men and women over several years to learn how they are benefiting from — and being battered by — the change going on all around them.
He is on familiar ground when following the careers of middle-class young people who’ve left behind the small towns and ancient customs that had given shape to their lives in order to build wholly new ones in the brand-new big-city world of shopping malls and office towers. Hari, a gay I.T. worker in Chennai, finally comes out to his friends but can’t bring himself to confide in his parents. Selvi, a call-center worker in the same city, disappointed to find that most of the Americans with whom she speaks each night are “rude and also quite stupid,” suddenly finds herself accused by neighbors and relatives of being a loose woman simply because one of her flatmates is found to have been involved in a love affair.