There are many virtues of Akash Kapur’s beautifully sketched portrait of modern India. The greatest of them is ambivalence. Kapur is ambivalent about the trade-offs between the disappearing certainties of India’s countryside and the roller-coaster possibilities of its cities. He is ambivalent about changes that have released people from social bondage but have uncorked thuggery, greed and vacuous consumerism. He is ambivalent about whether to be swept up by India’s startling growth or fearful of the searing inequalities and environmental degradation on which it appears to be based.
Kapur’s portrait resides in the stories of his “characters”, the people he meets around his home in rural Tamil Nadu and in the booming cities of Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai. The book inhabits parts of India we do not explore often enough, the India of the south and of the transforming countryside. Mostly, it takes us into the minds and hearts of Indians seeking to adapt to a society changing at disconcerting speed.
The book reads like a novel. Its central “character”, whose story is teased out over several years, is Sathy. A zamindar, or landowner, Sathy is coming to terms with the fact that the India of his imagination no longer exists. In his mind, he is a figure of respect in a corner of rural India that works because people know their duties. But no one seems to know their role or their place any more, a fact underlined only last week when the voters of Uttar Pradesh rejected Rahul Gandhi, scion of the once all-conquering Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
The certainties of Sathy’s life are gone. His wife cannot stand the village’s rigidities and takes the couple’s children to Bangalore where the schools and her job prospects are better. Ramadas, an atheist cow broker, earns money and self-respect by engaging in the “sinful” business of selling cows for slaughter. Das, a Dalit, or untouchable, still hesitates outside Sathy’s door out of respect for elders who fear his “pollution”. But Das’s prospects and social standing have improved immeasurably. He becomes a property developer, asserts his rights and treats Sathy as an equal. “My life is a miracle,” he says. “It’s a miracle that Sathy comes to my house, that he and I can sit side by side like this, that we share water from the same bottle.”
The book starts optimistically. Returning from the US in 2003, Kapur is intoxicated by the idea of an India stirring from its slumbers, sweeping aside stifling social convention and centuries of poverty. Though the countryside is changing too, the book mostly explores the opportunities generated by urbanisation. In the cities, people are freed from the shackles of caste, religion and family expectation.
Veena gets divorced, almost unthinkable a generation ago, and embarks on a breakneck climb up the corporate ladder. She lives with her boyfriend and talks openly about her sex life. “If you’re hungry, you will eat. If you want a man, you will sleep.” Hari uses the anonymity of Chennai to come to terms with his homosexuality. He buys what he desires on credit and imbibes the city’s “it’s all about the money honey” culture. Kapur finds the “Americanisation” of India liberating as well as crass. The soul of the country, or at least its centre of gravity, has shifted from Gandhi’s villages to these cities of possibility. “The future was in places like Bangalore – in cities that heaved with ambition and entrepreneurship and opportunity.”
But the book darkens. Kapur is involved in a car crash that lets loose a wave of violence in the absence of proper rule of law. He is appalled by the poverty of ragpickers sorting through the detritus of modernisation for 60 cents a day. He is angered by the dioxins that choke his own children. His characters go through rough times. Hari loses his job and falls into debt. Veena’s life comes crashing down. Ramadas gives up cow broking and seeks a quick rupee in real estate.
Kapur becomes disillusioned, fearful that India is losing more than it is gaining, choking on its own hypocrisy and exploitation. “I wasn’t convinced anymore that any amount of money, any increase in salaries or GDP or the number of cars or billionaires, was worth the damage.”
The novelistic approach allows for these changes of mood and perspective. Kapur’s skill is to get people talking and to weave their stories into a necessarily messy debate about India’s future. There is loss as well as anticipation. People are beggared and despoiled even as others claw out of the mud.
In the final pages Kapur is partially reconciled to India’s duality, to the “delicate dance between destruction and creativity”. India’s becoming is, in the end, both tragic and uplifting.