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The New Contours
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Akash Kapur left India for a brief interlude of 10 years or so. Ten momentous years, during which Indians have stepped on the pedal of ambition and aspirations. He left in the early 1990s and returned in 2003 to a nation driven by sheer material wants that define development — and progress. On his return from the ‘Promised Land’, Kapur found an India that had changed beyond recognition. Is this change for the better? Do we have any choice in whether to be part of it or to step aside? Is all change disruptive? Do we have the right to pass moral judgements on aspirations of others? Many questions arise, but the answers are neither straight nor simple.
Following this thread, Kapur has written one of the best books about India changing. India Becoming is about change that is brought about by the pursuit of material progress or ‘development’. Kapur has chosen eight characters who take us through the various dimensions of change that progress has brought about.
Each character 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 judgement to the reader. Some accept and adapt to the change, some try to, and some fail. For instance, the main character, a zamindar, is one who cannot come to terms with his loss of ‘standing’. He is the one who binds the book together.
The author’s hometown happens to be Auroville, near Puducherry. This helps in bringing a cast of characters from the hinterland of Tamil Nadu who move to Chennai and Bangalore with their eyes focused on shores beyond. Most of the characters are part of the information technolofy 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 similar services.
The apparent change also has a dark side — what we are doing to the environment, and changes in moral values that some may not accept very readily. Social mores are being redefined based on what were once abnormal preferences kept in the closet, and are out in the open. Interestingly, all this change has relevance only to those of us who have straddled this transformation. 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 urbanises, there are very few who care about the environment or about infrastructure. The lack of 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.
Kapur’s provocative views prompt one to be introspective. 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 her with the option of introspection about the progress. That said, it is easy to discuss the quality of food when one has a full stomach.
Balakrishnan is a Chennai-based writer
(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 07-01-2013)