Tag Archives: Non-fiction

Home of horrors

Jnavayanaoe Sacco and Chris Hedges combine efforts to draw a poignant, disturbing picture of post-capitalist America ♦

Black and white truth has little place in the slippery grey of liberal opinion. Poverty porn or slum tourism are easy dismissals of writing on the human fallout of consumer capitalism. And plenty of people make a fetish of poverty for personal or political gain. But some artists bring the dying places of the world to life in their work with such searing conviction that it burns through the smog. Like cartoonist and journalist Joe Sacco, whose work is a reminder that moral uncertainty is all too often a veil of self-deception – that if looking at poverty can be exploitative, we’re still not justified in averting our eyes.

If in urban India we’re quite used to looking away from our own inequalities, oppression in the US is practically a sight unseen by the rest of the world. The new South Asian edition of Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, a 2012 collaboration between Sacco and Pulitzer-winning journalist Chris Hedges, could change that. Published by Delhi’s Navayana, which engages with caste and other forms of inequality, the book reports on the American communities hard-hit by globalisation, the so-called “sacrifice zones” of unchecked capitalism. The book is split into five chapters, four of which consist mostly of Hedges’ written reportage from America’s deepest circles of hell: the Native American reservation of Pine Ridge, South Dakota; the violent city of Camden, New Jersey; Welch, in an area of West Virginia devastated by coal mining; and Immokalee, Florida, an agricultural region reliant on undocumented immigrant labour. Sacco’s illustrations are interspersed: sound-bite portraits and a few short story-length histories of representative individuals.

The stories are relentlessly horrific. There’s senseless murder, forced prostitution, alcoholism, pill addiction, obesity, homelessness, genocide fuelled by suicide, and more grit than some readers might be able to stomach. “Take a look at the American dream,” says the manager of a tent town in Camden. “In today’s society, no one is exempt… Everybody is one paycheck away from being here.”

Both Sacco and Hedges let such characters do a lot of the talking, but Hedges is also an opinionated presence in these pages and he makes no apologies for it. At times he gets almost biblical, which might invigorate or irritate, depending on the reader. “To stand on the sidelines and say ‘I am innocent’ is to bear the mark of Cain,” Hedges proclaims.

Founding editor of Navayana, S Anand is a believer. “This charge of being biased and pedantic… frankly it is tiresome,” he wrote over email. “The crisis they [Hedges and Sacco] are documenting is vulgar. The hard-hitting documentary style is effective.” Anand and Sacco had been on each other’s radars even before the latter blurbed Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability, a graphic novel inspired by Ambedkar’s life and illustrated by two Pardhan-Gond artists. (Sacco also addressed caste in his reporting from Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh.) The cartoonist was instrumental in getting Navayana the South Asian rights.

The edition, Anand said, is aimed at English-speaking upper and middle class members who believe in “following the American model… a blind imitation of a crass consumerist capitalistic ethic”. And while it complicates the idea of America, the bookinevitably stirs up comparisons between poverty in “developed” versus “developing” nations.

“One of the key reasons I did this book is to try and create a template for similar books in India,” said Anand, who, besides cowriting Bhimayana, also published A Gardener in the Wasteland, a graphic interpretation of Jotiba Phule’s Gulamgiri. “I want to publish such a book on Koodankulam for instance, a sacrifice zone in the making,” he said. “There’s no dearth of issues; there’s a dearth of writers and artists. Sadly, in India, the graphic novel form is considered merely cool, quirky, fashionable. It’s like a boys’ club. That [it] can be political is granted, but is rarely attempted.”

Days of Destruction… isn’t perfect – some of the academic interludes sit awkwardly within personal narratives; occasionally there are abrupt switches from one character to another, past to present or fact to opinion. What Hedges is especially good at, though, is underscoring how downtrodden people turn against each other, and how oppressors encourage this to their advantage.

In the spirit of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Hedges and Sacco are also good at looking for resistance. These “bright spots” range from union history to community organising groups such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, to intelligent, outspoken individuals who defy the stereotype of hapless sacrificial victims. The final chapter is devoted to the Occupy movement, which the authors see as evidence that discontent with capitalism is spreading to those who are well-placed to protest it. Whatever Occupy’s potential to inspire revolt may be; the chapter is a valuable, clear-eyed, insider dissection of the movement. Anand pointed out that “many of the poor in India have no choice but to ‘occupy’ or squat. These acts are not seen, unfortunately, as political… Only when the middle class of the US, mostly whites, staged Occupy did it become newsworthy.” Still, Occupy is an important example for elites anywhere whose sense of justice can often outpace a willingness to acknowledge, as Anand put it, “their endorsement of a capitalistic ethic; their own culpability through consumption”. And in an age of global industry, creating links between oppression and revolt in different parts of the world is an important endeavor in itself. Cutting through the smokescreen of “neutral” reporting, Days of Destruction… is a reminder that “Any act of rebellion keeps alive the embers… It passes on another narrative.” And radical dissent can start as simply as exercising one’s right to unselfish action.

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Nayavana ₹595.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, October 2013.

Published: October 11, 2013

Cracks in the pavement

Setting out to rediscover Calcutta, Amit Chaudhuri rejuvenates the genre of city writing ♦

calcuttaCities have been the incubators of literature since at least the time of Plato in Athens, or of Kabir in Kashi. In turn, they have also played muse, inspiring an entire metropolis of fiction and non-fiction that attempts to describe them. There are towering landmarks of writing about the city: the poetry of Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin’s philosophy and architectural criticism, Edith Wharton’s novels of manners, the entire semi-journalistic oeuvre of writing modern New York, and other literary edifices on large and miniature scales.

Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta: Two Years in the City is an ornate yet understated, brickby- brick addition to this literary landscape. With the slightly indulgent self-assurance of an author with several acclaimed books under his belt, Chaudhuri sets out to look for the cracks in the patina of the Calcutta of his childhood imagination (a portrait he’s already painted in some of his novels). The authorflâneur walks the physical city, but also strolls down the avenues of thought that branch off from his observations and encounters. These range from the Chandan Hotel roadside eatery – a “kind of aberration from the street I knew”, he called it in an interview with Time Out – to meetings with politicians, Italian chefs, aging bhadralok, beggars and others. Like Iswar Gupta, who Bankimchandra Chatterjee is quoted as calling the “poet of what’s at hand”, Chaudhuri magnifies concrete details: the prawn cocktail at Mocambo, the Chinsura oils in Aveek Sarkar’s dining room. A meditation on Calcutta’s ubiquitous green French windows, for example, carries him through an entire chapter.

Chaudhuri’s style of spinning the particular and the personal into complex musings on society and history is resolutely modern. In his long sentences and looping chapters that cast forth on a topic, then reel it back, he reflects Calcutta (“India’s most tolerant, multicultural, multireligious metropolis,” he writes) as a quintessentially “modern” city. Chaudhuri’s concept of modernity is inspired by Baudelaire’s “The Painter of Modern Life”, and he writes, “By ‘modern’ I don’t mean ‘new’ or ‘developed’, but a selfrenewing way of seeing, of inhabiting space, of apprehending life.”

Through the city, Chaudhuri stalks and sketches the legacy of this self-renewing way of seeing, blending dissections of genre with contemplations on urban change. There’s a nicely confusing passage in the chapter “A Visit”, as he travels north to the old town, in which the direction of his thoughts and his physical trajectory merge: “Tagore began to perform a similar innovation with the Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, and with that same Upanishadic tradition, from the 1890s onward: to regard them not just as ‘our great tradition’, as dead heritage, but as essential to fashioning the modern poem and literature.

“We’ve lost our way. Where exactly is Shobhabazar? We’re in Shyambazar, lurching forward steadily in the congestion – Dada, in which direction is the Naba Jiban Nursing Home? And, excuse me, Dada, did the Bengal Renaissance really happen? Could you point out its signs?”

Amit Chaudhuri

Amit Chaudhuri

Yet Chaudhuri’s endeavor in this book is not to restore, with the filler of nostalgia, the cracks in that old Calcutta, “one of the great casualties”, he writes, with the “death-knell” of modernity in the 1980s. Focusing loosely on the two years leading up to the 2011 West Bengal elections, if Chaudhuri does dwell on the literary, architectural and human vestiges of the city’s past, it’s because these are the peeling edges of the cracks he wishes to peer into – to rediscover his city in the age of globalization. “In this book, I decided there’s a reconfiguration taking place in my imagination through all these places that I’m visiting or interacting with,” Chaudhuri told us, “starting from the anecdote about the homeless woman at Sealdah Station.” The anecdote is a small encounter between this woman with no address and the poet Utpal Basu, himself an old Calcutta figure, who relates the story to Chaudhuri with the assertion that “These are our citizens” – spurring a recognition, Chaudhuri said, of “initial disconnect” and then a desire to “explore the nature of that connection” between the new, fractured, globalizing Calcutta and the city he once understood.

This exploration has some similarities with that other modernist sympathiser Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City, though it is less dramatic and less personalWhile Pamuk wrote himself at the centre of his book, Chaudhuri too is a character in his narrative. Male, entitled – a modern humanist intelligence – Chaudhuri doesn’t shy away from inhabiting his own point of view, including when it makes him appear slightly hapless in the face of the globalised, capital-driven world. “It has a kind of inadvertent comedy, which I didn’t want to leave out,” he admitted in our conversation, “as long as you resist something you’re connected to, there’s something kind of comical about that.”

Though its humourous moments leaven Calcutta’s ponderous aspects, it’s the flashes of insight about shifting culture – those glimpses of the new in the cracks of the old – that really bring the book to life. Unlike countless recent titles about the “new India”, Chaudhuri doesn’t exactly tackle the surging unknowns head-on; but in delineating their boundaries with modernity, he comes up with some fruitful ways of looking at “this weird enchantment – the fairy-tale stillness of a globalisation that has no real resources.” Globalisation, Chaudhuri said, “has provincialised great territories, great parts of the world.” He sets off this Anglophone, homogenizing phenomenon against the backdrop of bhadralok culture, which he argues was both provincial (in its linguistic and cultural Bengaliness) and cosmopolitan (in its liberal harvesting of international art and writing).

While mourning the passing on of the “perennially new” people of modern Calcutta in a eulogy with deliberately mixed allusions (“they were like some kind of new genre that had emerged in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century – like a film by Ghatak or Renoir, or a painting by Paul Klee, or a poem by Jibanananda Das, or a song by Cole Porter or Himangshu Dutta”), Chaudhuri also recognises “the difficulty of evolving as an artist, of reigning yourself to the fact that the styles and visions most previous to you have lost their place and urgency, of accepting that what you once thought was uninteresting is now full of possibility!” He goes on to note, “This is a little parable about cities and genres; how, while some of them lose their imaginative centrality, others take their place.”

Calcutta’s place in the genre of city writing is yoked to Chaudhuri’s unhurried temperament and walking pace – the street is “a place to loiter in”. As cities change, the flâneur finds himself loitering within the commerce-driven, flattened landscape of a mall. Meanwhile, for the intellectual elite and the bourgeoisie at least, the contours of urban experience are defined less by physical proximity or historic roots than by the identities and friendships that are lived online. Though Chaudhuri explained that “I wanted to be moving constantly between one thing and another… let’s say from an object, like a French window, to my being there, to the history of the city,” his intellect ambles meditatively between these things. As cities spawn new genres that focus, package, then flit away from their subject – that are media-rich but often hit-and-run in their engagement – there seems to be less time for a book like Calcutta. This only makes it an all the more special reminder of the power of unhurried writing and the self-renewing potential of returning again and again to a subject one thinks one knows.

Chaudhuri quotes Elizabeth Bishop’s “Questions of Travel” in his epigraph, and in doing so unconsciously echoes Tagore’s My Reminiscences from a hundred years ago: “So in the streets of Calcutta I sometimes imagine myself a foreigner, and only then do I discover how much is to be seen, which is lost so long as its full value in attention is not paid. It is the hunger to really see which drives people to travel to strange places.” And also, which sometimes brings them home again.

Calcutta: Two Years in the City, Penguin India, ₹599.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, March 2013.

Published: March 15, 2013

Seeing like a Feminist

Nivedita Menon sets her sights on a broader audience ♦

feministDon’t attract attention, don’t get yourself raped. Do get married and definitely make babies. In the face of all these patriarchal rules, we want justice and it’s pretty much a given that we want it now. Feminist scholar and activist Nivedita Menon wouldn’t necessarily dismiss the sentiment, but her new book, written for a non-academic audience, is something of a reality check in the midst of all the calls for treating the so-called fairer sex more squarely.

There’s a recognition running through Seeing like a Feminist that the fruits of true justice take their own sweet time to grow out of the bitter earth of oppression. Menon, who is a professor of political thought at JNU, told us there was “no urgency at all” in writing the book. She added that while its appearance in the wake of heightened awareness of gender violence “happens to look like it’s come out at a particular time when its relevance seems very great… [the book] distils everything I’ve been writing for 15 years.”

If that makes it sound like Seeing like a Feminist is a musty, fusty fatalistic bout of shouldershrugging, absolutely nothing could be further from the truth. Menon cuts through layers of legal debate, social norms of marriage and motherhood and economic questions of property and capital, employing a feminist version of X-ray vision that cuts right through the constructions of sex and gender in India and abroad. In language that is incisive, readable, reasoned and yet impassioned, Menon argues for action that “destabilizes” conventions rather than seeking “resolution” to conflict. “Destabilizing is sometimes through self-conscious political movement,” conceded Menon, “but I think overall it is a transformation of the ground level of common sense. And that happens definitively but also almost imperceptibly.” So while the Delhi protests were not “really about destabilisation [but] a very quintessential democratic civil disobedience,” Menon argues that real change in society comes from “the kinds of ways queer people live; women and men who don’t choose to marry, or marry and do different kinds of things with that marriage; when workers organise; domestic servants organise.”

Taking in issues related to family, the body, desire, sexual violence, questions of gender and agency versus victimhood, Menon handily demonstrates how conventional appeals to the law are often less successful than destabilising actions and economic or social empowerment. “I see feminist politics as subversive and the law is really about order,” Menon said. Calling herself an “extreme critic of turning to the law”, she alluded to the controversial antirape ordinance, pointing out that “Every time a law is formulated out of a movement, it is inevitably a distortion of the feminist ethics.” Our views on equality are often warped by our basic perceptions of reality. Seeing like a Feminist goes a long way in correcting this vision.

Seeing like a Feminist, Zubaan Books, ₹299.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, February 2013.

Published: February 4, 2013

Eternal returns

William Dalrymple on researching Return of a King, his history of the First Afghan War ♦

returnkingIn Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, William Dalrymple’s third book set during the decline of Mughal rule, the Scottish historian and adoptive Dilliwala chronicles the first British military foray into the land of Khurasan, between 1839 and 1842. To tell the story of this failed expedition and the British-backed reinstatement of Shah Shuja, the last Sadozai Durrani ruler, Dalrymple not only drew from several neglected Afghan sources but also retraced the routes of various campaigns and retreats – thus bringing to life the arduous terrain and colourful cast of the conflict in an engaging, anecdotal style (the book also includes a wealth of archival images, miniature paintings and useful maps). Besides sharing some of his travel photos with Time Out, Dalrymple discussed his trip – and the far-ranging implications of the First Afghan War – in an email interview.

Given your interest in languages, what was it like to travel in an area with so many different ones, from different backgrounds, intermixing? Can you recall any anecdotes in Afghanistan where a knowledge of any particular language played a crucial part in the outcome of your trip (or even just provided amusement along the way)?
Given that so many Afghans were refugees in Pakistan, and many more love Bollywood, Hindi is surprisingly widely understood across the country. But Dari, the Afghan dialect of Farsi, is the key language, and most of the new sources I’ve used in this project – two epic poems, the autobiography of Shah Shuja, three court histories and the letters of various resistance leaders – are in Dari or Farsi. The Durrani court at this period was Persian both in court culture and language.

While physically tracing back over the routes you were researching must have been incredible, your list of sources – some of them never used before – indicates that a good many of your adventures must have taken place within the dusty reading rooms of the archives of Delhi, Lahore, Kabul and London. Can you describe a particular wonderful moment of discovery within the stacks?
The first big discovery I made, and the one which convinced me there was a book here, was the archive of the first Great Game spymaster, Sir Claude Wade, which I unearthed in the Punjab Archives which lie in Anarkali’s tomb in Lahore, the most romantically situated archive in the world. Wade was the first to train up Indian agents to send him intelligence from beyond the Hindu Kush and he built up a whole network of “intelligencers” across the region. I found new Afghan sources in Herat, Kandahar and even in the Persian collection of the National Archives in Delhi, but the biggest haul was from Kabul. Here, a young Afghan Fulbright Scholar took me to a bookshop in Jowy Sheer where the bookseller, Hayatullah Habibi, had bought up many of the princely libraries in the the 1970s and ‘80s. In a few hours, I had in my hands nine major printed Persian accounts of the First Afghan War, all well-known to Dari-speaking Afghan scholars but entirely unused by historians working in English.

Courtesy William Dalrymple, from his travels

Courtesy William Dalrymple, from his travels

In the book, you talk about how people you met and Afghan sources you read tended to mythologise the First Afghan War and use this story to paint the current American occupation of the country. As a foreigner travelling in these parts, how do you think your efforts to retell this history were perceived?
The First Afghan War is largely forgotten in Britain, but is remembered by every Afghan. It is their freedom struggle, their Waterloo, their Trafalgar, their Battle of Britain, all rolled into one. It is the defining conflict that the Afghan remember as the source of their independence – that they alone in this region never succumbed to colonial rule. The diplomatic district, Wazir Akbar Khan, the Chanakyapuri of Kabul, is named after the Afghan prince who murdered the British envoy while he was negotiating the surrender terms.

Conversely, you argue that Western powers still haven’t taken to heart the story and lessons of their first military foray into the region. Do you think this is in part due to the kinds of histories that have been written about the struggle for a English-speaking audience? In the context of Western historiography, what’s your hope for the political power of Return of a King?
The First Afghan War is a conflict with remarkable parallels to the current mess. Around the time I was finishing The Last Mughal, I became aware that events in Afghanistan were beginning to closely resemble what had happened there in the 1830s and 1840s and that to some extent, history was repeating itself. The closer I looked, the more the West’s first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan seemed to contain distinct echoes of the neo-colonial adventures of our own day. For the First Afghan War was waged on the basis of doctored intelligence about a virtually nonexistent threat: information about a single Russian envoy to Kabul was exaggerated and manipulated by a group of ambitious and ideologically driven hawks to create a scare – in this case, about a phantom Russian invasion. As John MacNeill, the Russophobe British ambassador, wrote from Tehran in 1838: “We should declare that he who is not with us is against us… We must secure Afghanistan.” Thus was brought about an unnecessary, expensive and entirely avoidable war.

The failures then contain many instructive lessons for us today. Indeed, the whole conflict today proves Burke’s famous dictum: those who do not know history are destined forever to repeat it.

Courtesy William Dalrymple, from his travels in Afghanistan

Courtesy William Dalrymple, from his travels in Afghanistan

It’s been almost 20 years since the publication of City of Djinns and your exploration of the strong Sufi tradition of South Asia in Delhi. What was your impression of the legacy and potential power of this mystical strain in Afghanistan today?
The Taliban tried to crush the Sufis, and in many shrine-tombs in Afghanistan you find barriers they erected to stop people circling the saints’ mazars. But such deep-rooted habits, and such profound philosophies, are difficult to crush, and I saw thriving Sufi dargahs all over Afghanistan, and an especially powerful wajd ceremony at the great Timurid shrine of Gazar Gah outside Herat.

What was the most hair-raising moment during your travels?
As my car entered the airport perimeter in Kandahar we received a sniper shot in the rear window. Luckily the car was armoured and the bullet didn’t penetrate the second layer of glass. I also witnessed an IED go off just below Kandahar at the shrine of Baba Wali – just beside the compound where Bin Laden plotted 9/11.

And the most exhilarating or wonderful point of your trip?
Visiting the shrines and ruins of Herat. The city is the Agra of Afghanistan, containing the ruins of the great buildings constructed by Shah Rukh, the son of Timur, and Gohar Shad, one of the great women of Islamic history. Anywhere else in the world these spectacular buildings would be swamped with tourists. But today you have them to yourself.

In many ways, the history of the First Afghan War is a knot with many threads tied to other very interesting stories – the tale of the Koh-i-Noor, the rise of the Sikh Empire, and the 1857 Uprising. Has researching this book inspired you to embark on any new projects, or are you thinking of working on something completely different next?
This is the third of my trilogy set between the fall of the Mughals and the rise of the British and it is bookended by White Mughals and The Last Mughal. Next, I’d like to do a book which uses my training as an art historian – a sort of updated, art historical version of AL Basham’s classic, The Wonder that was India. I’d love to do something really ambitious and sweeping – a wide-ranging cultural history. I know the landscape I want to explore but haven’t yet found my map through it. So lots of reading and museumvisiting lie ahead of me – and I’m much looking forward to it.

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, Bloomsbury, ₹799.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, December 2012.

Published: December 4, 2012

The Butterfly Generation

Palash Krishna Mehrotra on India’s flitty young things ♦

butterflyForm shouldn’t always mirror content. Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s musings on “the Passions and Follies of India’s Technicolour Youth” flit from subject to subject in short chapters, resting a moment on the bloom of homosexual rights (“Gay ho!”, eight pages), then on the thorny issue of morality policing (“V-Day”, seven pages), and off again to the rotten core of domestic arrangements (“Servants of India”, nine pages). Billed as “part memoir, part travelogue and part social commentary” (and also, unabashedly “one of the finest, most original works of non-fiction from India in years”), The Butterfly Generation is an attempt at diving, Gonzo style, into the world of Indians who grew up (or failed to do so) during the Liberalisation era. Mehrotra comes up with a cocktail of drug-and-sex anecdotes, deep thoughts and music reporting – and a fresh helping of the obsession with defining India that publishers seem to be unstintingly piling on their plates of late.

Like many of his fellow columnists and journalists who have published books, Mehrotra is an engaging, adept writer. He also has the intellectual advantage of literary parentage – his father is poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. This, his first full-length piece of non-fiction, has some fine linguistic craftsmanship. Mehrotra is particularly good at the ironic turn of phrase and well-timed notes of sarcasm and humour. He also has a knack for collecting bizarre stories and fascinating characters (Captain Andy, a pilot; Nandu, an auto-rickshaw driver with a penchant for porn). The problem is one of unfocused ambition: the pages flutter from college ragging to ecstasy parties, from smack-addicted call centre employees to stand-up comedians.

Possibly inspired by that other Rolling Stone contributor Hunter S Thompson, Mehrotra embarks on a project of literary journalism – he even mentions Gay Talese’s genre-defining piece on Frank Sinatra in passing. The book is divided into three sections: profiles, essays on social phenomena, and longer pieces on music and pop culture. Mehrotra does better in some of the longer chapters, in which he evokes his childhood in Allahabad, the joy of discovering rock music, and the influence of MTV. A contributing editor to the Indian Rolling Stone, Mehrotra began his career writing music criticism, and this book might have been far more compelling as an in-depth exploration of Indian rock and pop. The chapters on metal bands and other musicians are intriguing, but perhaps still too cursory for anyone somewhat familiar with the scene. As for the rest of the Technicolour social milieu, it’s a fair assumption that most of this book’s readers will recognise more than a few of the characters, whether or not they’re hidden behind perfunctory pseudonyms.

The book ends abruptly in the opprobrium of money and materialism. Mehrotra barely hints at what the future might hold for the butterfly generation – a metaphor that gets little attention beyond its bold typeface across the cover. This motif, at least, deserved a more concentrated effort. Or not.

The Butterfly Generation, Rain Tree, ₹450.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, February 2012.

Published: February 4, 2012

Damn nation

 Siddartha Deb finds life less than shiny in the new India ♦

the-beautiful-and-the-damnedIn The Beautiful and Damned, F Scott Fitzgerald’s profligate main characters embody the two adjectives in the title. The novel – an attempt to critique the excesses of America’s jazz age – ended up as a rather self-indulgent byproduct of it instead. Fitzgerald’s narrative only superficially encounters the oppressed classes, on whose labour the froth of that era floated.

Siddhartha Deb added an article to that title for his first non-fiction book, The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India, and the alteration is significant. Here, the adjectives describe two discrete groups: the beautiful who, like Fitzgerald’s characters, are the face of India’s wealth; and the damned – those pinned to the peripheries of modernity by corrupt systems and the spread of capitalism.

The Beautiful… is a smooth, under-300 page read, dressed in a tastefully kitsch cover, and well-suited as a catalyst for conversation. Through a reflective introduction and five chapters, each profiling a different individual or group who represents a larger swathe of society, Deb concludes that a culture-wide acceptance of aspiration sustains the lopsided economy that separates the beautiful from the damned.

Deb opens with the story of Arindam Chaudhuri, the private management school mogul. A version of this chapter appeared in the February 2011 issue of Caravan magazine, which, along with the author, Penguin India and Google India, was sued for defamation by Chaudhuri’s institution. That chapter, conspicuously absent from the Indian edition, is still being circulated on the Internet, where it has spawned a lively debate. “I like to think it’s become a bit of a multimedia project, Deb told Time Out. “The missing chapter is [the plaintiffs’] contribution. It’s a collaborative exercise.” While he felt that the Indian edition was “kind of an amputed version,” he’s Deb is glad that “in a way, it’s part of the debate that’s opening up”.

Deb had less provocative intentions when he took on the book. It began as a “wildly overambitious” way to secure a publishing advance, to cope with the financial demands of being a new father. Through five years of research, writing, and winnowing down, he settled on “five kinds of characters, who provided sufficient contrast to brush against each other.” Besides Chaudhuri, Deb explores engineers and identity crisis in IT-fuelled Bangalore in “Ghosts in the Machine”. He reports from the “navel” of India, writing in deft, evocative prose of the dusty farmlands of Telengana in “Red Sorghum”, and of steel factories stoked by the human fuel of migrant labour in “The Factory”. Finally, “The Girl from F&B”, follows a Manipuri waitress in an upscale Delhi restaurant.

As reportage, the chapters from the geographic heart of India are the strongest. Deb said he wanted to go beyond narrative journalism, to add “the layer of a novel”. Each chapter is prefaced by a series of outlining phrases, which bring to mind old-fashioned travelogues, or a novel published in installments. While writing, Deb watched The Wire – “a modern version of a nineteenth-century Dickensian serialised novel”. Other inspirations included George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell’s book includes the expenditure lists of unemployed miners, and Deb “was stunned by the fact that he could make weekly accounts so interesting”.

Apart from his engagement with similar accounting (digestible statistics punctuate and anchor the text), what makes Deb’s book so likeable is the narrator’s unhidden presence. The Beautiful… is a trustworthy account of a series of conversations with characters, each sketched with a novelist’s attachment (“I don’t think there’s a character I dislike”). Deb, who has published two novels, lays bare his alienation from events, and admits to sometimes viewing harsh reality in fictional terms. During his travels, he sees a limbless man approach an official to complain about government-issued footwear for lepers: “It was an absurd yet poignant detail, making Nizamabad… feel suddenly like a magical-realist setting, a feeling that was enhanced as we… saw nearly 100 children appear from nowhere… in the courtyard and shouting slogans.”

Though Deb doesn’t feel disconnected from India (he retains citizenship), as a US resident he is able to detach from this “vast, fascinating and grotesquely unequal country”. Appropriately, a main reason for staying abroad – his young son – ties him to his characters in the most fundamental way. For despite their wrenching poverty or blinding wealth, the common denominator among new Indians is still an old truth: the people around you, especially family, always take precedence over idealism or the common good. The Beautiful… isn’t an attempt to reverse this psychology – it’s a firm reminder that the personal and the universal go hand in hand. “I want people to know that we’ve been in a fever dream about becoming a superpower,” he said. “And if we don’t treat each other well, it won’t last.

The Beautiful and the Damned, Penguin, ₹499.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, August 2011.

Published: August 4, 2011