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About two months ago, I received an Early Reviewers copy of Akash Kapur’s India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India, courtesy LibraryThing. I chose the book for obvious reasons: I am Indian with a keen interest in contemporary India, not as much politically as the life of the common man or woman. I did not suspect that the book would hit so close to home, literally.

Akash Kapur has a rather unique vantage point when observing and writing about Indians in India. Born in India, he moves to the United States in 1991 at the age of 16. Somewhat less impressed with his life in America, he returns to his place of birth after twelve years, only to find it, surprise, changed. Changed into America, almost. And changing still. Kapur is not your average Indian by any means. Not only is he the product of Indian and American parentage, but he was raised not in a typical Indian city (or village), but an atypical, experimental, universal township called Auroville. Situated near Pondicherry, a former French colony, Auroville has half as many French as Indian, and nearly as many German as French residents. Auroville is about 160 kilometres from Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, where some of the story is set (and where I’m from, I might add). Surrounded by village settlements, Auroville is unlike any other town in India.

When Kapur returns to India in 2003, he finds India in development mode. He senses that a small segment of people, mostly rural, mostly older, are critical about the transformation, but is himself enthusiastic about the apparent progress seeing how the young, educated workforce are able to cross social and financial bridges and live the good life, sort of the Indian version of the American dream. However, upon conversations with a medley of subjects –  rural Indians, urban Indians, and everybody in between, Kapur becomes less elated and more skeptical about India’s new shine. Development, he comes to understand is …

…a form of creative destruction. For everyone whose life was being regenerated or rejuvenated in modern India, there was someone, as well, whose life was being destroyed.

Kapur touches upon many social issues affecting contemporary, modern India – a crumbling feudal system, casteism, untouchability, homosexuality, atheism, the changing position of women in society, general lawlessness, urbanization, and booming real estate. He also expresses alarm at ecological time bombs – rampant pollution. He wonders at the irony of a “a population capable of maintaining ritualistic levels of hygiene at home, yet that dumped its garbage on the streets without compunction”. He comments on what has historically been India’s attitude towards the environment – poverty eradication seen as an imperative, and ecological activism as “luxury for the rich”. Kapur’s subjects have viewpoints all over the spectrum – strongly for, strongly against, ambivalent; and can be considered representative of at least a part of the vast and diverse population.

However, what seems most at the root of it all is the constant tension between the city and the country, between urban living and rural living, between technology, shopping malls and the fields, between real estate and agriculture. Kapur begins his book  on the East Coast Road. Once “a potholed tar road that meandered across the South Indian countryside, cutting through rice fields and coconut plantations and sleepy fishing villages”, this national highway now leads thousands of young professionals to their busy days at technology companies. I have been around when this piece of the world suddenly became visible, became a suburb, and then got absorbed into the city itself. My familiarity with this road spans from the 1990s through mid 2000s, when software and outsourcing companies started setting up shop along its length. I have traversed the East Coast Road (or at least a part of it) on my way to my first job for a few years. While employees waited in designated bus stops all along the highway, the 45-minute journey almost always led to encounters with herds of cows relaxing right in the middle of the road, and mangled remains of stray dogs having being run over by nighttime truckers. Kapur is really talking about home here.

The title India Becoming seems incomplete to me. Rather than use any of the several words for change – transformation, transition, evolution, Kapur has chosen to use the word becoming as if to imply a definite end point. America? India, a socialist nation has embraced capitalism with so much gusto that Kapur “began to feel that the country was being engulfed in its encounter with capitalism, swallowed by a great wave of consumerism and materialism that threatened to corrode the famous Indian soul”. Famous Indian Soul aside, development has been a mixed blessing. With new opportunities, higher salaries, the ability to purchase first and even second homes, cars, the power the send the kids to the best private schools, to be able to think nothing of spending a month’s salary at one of those fancy malls, to cross social boundaries that previously left some oppressed on caste/gender based grounds, progress certainly seems sweet. Kapur writes that cities, however, “nurtured the ambition but they also fed the anxiety”.

…thought came to me that Bangalore was India’s America: a chance at a new life, a beacon on a hill that attracted the young and the ambitious and the talented from across the globe.

I suspect that the same can be said of most Indian cities.

However, this large scale migration of people into the cities (where all those opportunities are) has seriously undermined the villages. In a country where a large segment of the population still relies on agriculture and allied sectors, this does not bode well. Farming is not nearly as lucrative,  but farmlands can make good money as real estate. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver writes of the antipathy between the city slickers and the clodhoppers. She quotes Wendell Berry:

 Eaters, that is, must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.

If everyone feels that farming has no future, where is all the food going to come from? If all agricultural lands are made unusable, and converted into apartment complexes with swimming pools, what is going to feed a burgeoning population? Besides pointing out, rightly, that India’s development has ignored crucial issues of sustainability and has only widened the gap between the rich and the poor, Kapur has little to say about what he sees India becoming, or what can be done to address the real issues that he writes about. Although the title hints at India’s future, the book is strongly rooted in the present.

Kapur’s prose in uneven, sometimes beautifully eloquent and at other times flat and inadequate. In general, Kapur does a better job of depicting a nation in flux than describing his subjects. Local slang can be tricky -in one episode, a man who has deliberately committed a parking violation, responds to being questioned with a haughty ‘What goes of yours?’. I am fairly sure that the original utterance was ‘tera kya jaatha hai?’, roughly translated from Hindi as ‘what is your problem?’. Kapur provides just the literal translation, which deemphasizes the arrogance in the reply and probably only makes people wonder that they do speak funny English in India.

Over the course of the book, Kapur shifts from being enthusiastic, then ambivalent, and later alarmed at the state of affairs in India. The central theme of the book is his feeling conflicted between exhilaration on one hand, and profound sadness on the other. He finally decides to quell his uneasiness, sit back and enjoy a pivotal moment in India’s future. I myself am unable to shake aside my concerns and take on the role of an eager audience. I am unable to find peace in my ambivalence and am still torn between feeling a sense of loss and pride.

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