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Review: India Becoming

Akash Kapur uses an immersive approach drawn from anthropology to present an astute pictureof a changing India. Manjula Narayan writes.

books Updated: Nov 21, 2012 18:18 IST
Manjula Narayan

India Becoming
Akash Kapur
Penguin Viking
Rs. 599 pp 262

There's something about Akash Kapur that sets you immediately at ease. Within minutes of sauntering onto the lawns of The Ambassador Hotel in Delhi, you are laughing at his anecdotes and sharing information about your life. This is unusual - you aren't given to giggling coyly at authors and divulging personal details even if you do like their work. But Kapur, who has written for The Economist, the New Yorker and the New York Times, among others, has a talent for teasing out bits of ancient gossip and half-forgotten local factoids. It's a quality that probably helped a great deal while writing India Becoming, which follows a disparate group of individuals, both rural and urban, as they negotiate life in our rapidly changing nation.

"At its core, this is a book about eight lives," says Kapur who moved back to India from the US in 2006, caught up in the optimism of the first decade of the millennium. Unlike VS Naipaul - every book of this sort has to suffer at least one mention of India: A Million Mutinies Now - who has been accused, most recently by Girish Karnad, of parachuting into lives and presenting incisive but twisted portraits, Kapur who studied social anthropology at Harvard uses an immersive approach.

"I wanted to not just interview people; I wanted to be in their lives," he says holding up Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc as a classic of deep immersive journalism. "I was clear that this was not the kind of book where you'd go and interview a guy twice and then leave; you are there to find people who are willing to let you into their lives, who talked a lot," he says. It's an arduous approach but one that has its rewards, and the rural profiles, especially, stand out for the insights they offer into what's often mistakenly viewed as an unchanging backdrop to the action of urban India.

The sections on Sathy, a zamindar from Tamil Nadu, who balances his nostalgia for the feudal past with a modern distaste for its iniquities, and Ramadas, a Dalit atheist cow broker, whose family believes his profession is responsible, in a karmic way, for the death of his older son, are sensitive and layered. "The cities felt simple. They are young and there's a constant process of reinvention. The countryside felt more complicated; newness hits it slowly," says Kapur who grew up in Auroville and so was intimately familiar with a landscape that was at once the same as and radically different from the one occupied by Sathy and Ramadas.

"All these people became part of my life and one of them said to me: 'I open up to you more than I do to the people who are closest to me'," says Kapur who jokes that his subjects came to view him like they would a shrink. "They would tell me so many personal and private things about their lives."

Some of that did not find its way into the book because he has a heightened awareness of how the written word can affect lives. "I disguised some identities," Kapur says adding that though Hari, the young gay man from Tindivanam wanted his real name to be included, he stuck with an assumed one because "I don't want to be responsible for outing him to his parents".

"I want to write a good book. But nothing I do should ruin somebody's life; it's not worth it," he says.

Despite Kapur's view that trained journalists have a better idea of how to deal with ethical issues as they come up, it's clear his study of law - he has a doctorate from Oxford - makes him sensitive to matters that few journalists ponder about. India Becoming won't run into the problems faced by Siddhartha Deb's The Beautiful And the Damned, which was slapped with a law suit and had its best chapter on Arindam Chaudhuri's IIPM excised from the Indian edition, because Kapur has avoided deep profiles of business people entirely. "They are the most difficult to do. Businessmen have a strange relationship to the media. They tend to see it as PR and understandably, they're trying to protect their businesses. To me, it was clear that I was going to say the good and the bad," he says revealing that all the people he chose to write about, including journalist, author and Bandra boy, Naresh Fernandes, and Veena, a marketing professional, captured the complexity and nuance of India as it is today.

While his method is ethical, it is also emotionally draining. Kapur admits to being devastated when he learnt Veena was suffering from cancer. Added to that were his visceral reactions to what was happening around him. The chapter featuring his near breakdown on confronting the monstrous garbage dump near his home is raw and moving and reveals that he's as attached to the land as Sathy is. "If you're in the country for six months, you'll be shocked but you won't feel: 'My God, what am I doing living here; what am I doing to my children?' When you live in a country, you have a stake in its future," he says conceding that he has moved from the naïve India Shining mindset with which he started the book towards a consciously-willed optimism because "you can't live in a place where all you focus on is what is wrong, no matter how much is wrong". You could chat endlessly with Kapur and let slip more details about your life and about the gaps in your reading list - hitherto classified information - but you're saved by the arrival of the next interviewer. You can't say you're entirely glad.