The good and the bad of modern India from Akash Kapur

Reuters, Tuesday 19 Jun 2012

Cryptic title of Akash Kapur's book, 'India Becoming,' begs question: becoming what?

India Becoming

Raised in India but educated from age 16 in the United States, Akash Kapur has earned degrees from Harvard and Oxford. He moved back to India in 2003, an optimistic time when the country's modernisation was accelerating.

An economic boom has had many positive effects, but at a cost, such as a damaged environment and violence. Many people find it hard to navigate a path between modernity and tradition.

Kapur sketches several friends finding that balance: a young man with a well-paying job who delays coming out as gay to his family; an aging landowner, his authority eroded by real estate greed; a young single woman who works in a call centre.

Kapur spoke with Reuters about development, the symbolic importance of a forest near his house outside Puducherry, formerly known as Pondicherry, and why he hates cities:

Q: Why did you focus on south India?

"There are not that many books about south India, which is where I live. A lot of media coverage has been about cities. Watching rural life, you're learning about the wider country because 70 per cent of the population lives in the countryside. It's a fact that's easy to forget. You see this struggle between old and new, which plays out in a much more complex or nuanced way than it does in the cities. Cities are inherently melting pots of young cosmopolitan people. It's much easier to be modern and kind of new and Westernized in the cities. In that countryside that's a much more complicated process."

Q: Is it hard for people to find their footing?

A: "What really struck me is the sheer rapidity of change people are dealing with. You're not just talking about people whose parents led different lives, or even people whose childhoods were different than their adulthoods. You're talking about people who literally, over the course of five years, seven years, have watched their world dramatically change. It's almost like the immigrant process, people coming to a country and going through the psychological process of dislocation. I felt I was watching that even in villages that are thousands of years old."

Q: You describe Mumbai as "immersed in the frivolity of global capitalism." It sounds like you don't like it much?

A: "Mumbai is an amazing place to visit for a long weekend. It's fun, it's dynamic, and then after three or four days my throat starts getting itchy, then it starts constricting and I have to get out of there because the air is so bad. The frivolity of capitalism has its charms. My main complaint is that cities are incredibly polluted and crowded and physically unlivable places."

Q: Is development, on balance, mostly good or mostly bad?

A: "It's really hard to simplify. Maybe that makes me confused. I'll go through periods where I think it's wonderful. That's the nature of development in general. It's more intense in India.

"There's a jog I take in the forest behind my house. It's beautiful and then you come up on this gash in the forest, this real estate project. In many ways that's horrible. But in other ways, what's going up there is an engineering college for women in the villages and these women have grown up with illiterate mothers who never dreamed their daughters would have engineering degrees. Those are the kind of things you see everywhere."

Q: The recent headlines are about India slowing down. Where do you see it in the next few years?

A: "The slowdown is real. The panic is exaggerated. India has huge, amazing potential it will continue to tap, but at the same time it has huge problems that will keep holding it back. India seems to inspire these all-or-nothing narratives. For most of my childhood it was the land of poverty and decrepitude, then for a few years is was the India shining story. Now we're back to the India crashing story, which is funny when you live in India.

"What I don't want (readers) to take away is the perspective that either Indian development is a wonderful thing, or that it's a terrible thing. I think they're linked."

Q: What's on your bookshelf of great books about India?

A: "You have to read (V.S.) Naipaul's trilogy on India, particularly the last one 'A Million Mutinies Now.' Suketu Mehta's 'Maximum City,' is absolutely brilliant and unleashed Indian nonfiction. One more non-fiction is 'The Idea of India' by Sunil Khilnani.

"As far as fiction, obviously 'Midnight's Children' is a classic. There's a book that people don't know but that I absolutely love, 'English August' (by Upamanyu Chatterjee). It has a brilliant sense of humor. It captures the reality of government bureaucracy in rural India."

Q: Have the Naipaul books aged well?

A: "I do think so. It's fashionable to be down on Naipaul these days but the quality of his prose is unsurpassed. Yes, he generalizes. What he saw (before economic reforms) proved to be incredibly accurate. He saw a country that was waking up, unleashing itself, but that was going to come against these latent darker sides. That was incredibly prescient."

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