Reading India Becoming, by Akash Kapur, is often depressing. It ought to be.
The writer - like many other non-resident Indians - came back to India at the height of the economic boom in 2003, ending his decade-long stay in the US. He wanted to be a party to the Indian growth story. But, soon enough, he was gripped by a cross-current of emotions.
On one hand, he was overwhelmed by the country’s changing social and cultural landscape, triggered by the economic reforms in 1991.
The new economic regime brought positive changes to the lives of Dalits such as Das; empowered women such as Veena, Selvi and Banu; allowed village boys like Hari to make it to the BPOs in big cities.
For many it was an opportunity to break away from the rigours of a traditional society, where individual aspirations were often sacrificed for the ‘common’ good. Men and women are, for instance, no longer afraid of plunging into a live-in relationship or exploring their sexual identity.
However, the changes come at a cost. Veena and Banu undergo emotional roller-coasters. Selvi suffers from social insecurity. Reckless consumerism leads Hari to financial distress.
On the social and economic front, agriculture became increasingly vulnerable to the real-estate boom. While the trendy and fashionable in Mumbai flaunt costly jewellery, many more in a nearby slum make a living on the city waste. While the nation boasts a consumption-driven growth, its forests and seashores are heaped with plastics and other rejects.
Other than Mumbai, Kapur largely restricted his study to a handful of men and women in and around Chennai, Bangalore and Pondicherry. He saw the changing order through their eyes, and collated their stories to create a wider impression.
Sathy, for example, describes the break-up of the social and economic order in villages, as also the prospect of a food crisis in the days to come.
The reader also has glimpses of wider issues such as the phasing out of traditional sources of livelihood, forcing communities to search for new options, or the increasing social tension in villages due to a sudden rush of easy money.
In a way, India Becoming belongs to a genre of non-fiction writing that is critical of the predominant global economic order and seen as instrumental to the rise of Asia as an economic powerhouse.
But there is a difference in its approach. Instead of delving deep into the issues that haunted the population over the past decade, the author made repeated journeys into the lives and experiences of a select few, closer home, in search of issues.
That is the strength, as well as weakness of the book. On the brighter side, it makes the narrative gripping. On the other hand, issues such as casteism are either mixed up or over-simplified in an effort to fit them into a post-reforms landscape.