The Beautiful And The Damned: Life In The New India
There’s a tremendous hole in The Beautiful And The Damned: Life in the New India, by Siddhartha Deb. One whole chapter is missing. So after the author’s note and the introduction, we turn straight to chapter 2 on page 72. According to the publisher’s note, chapter 1, ‘The Great Gatsby: A Rich Man in India’ “has been removed in accordance with an injunction order passed by the Civil Court, Silchar in a suit for defamation”. The suit was filed by one Kishorendu Gupta and the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM).
Fair enough. There is a case, and if Deb and his Indian publishers choose to argue it, the case will come up in court at some point in this country’s future. Meanwhile, as Deb says tiredly over the phone from New York, “It’s interesting that in a book that looks at the real stories behind the ‘new’ India, it’s the single chapter about the rich and powerful that had to be pulled.”
It is interesting. There hasn’t been a squeak from industry-wallahs about the chapter on migrant workers. Information technology engineers haven’t blitzed the Net with hate comments over the chapter about IT engineers and what they give to India. The people behind the system that drives farmers to suicide haven’t reacted to that chapter at all. And women haven’t taken to the streets to protest against the chapter on the place of women in the new India. No one has reacted with anger to the often harsh truths that have emerged from Deb’s attempt to really see and understand the new India — except for the rich man.
“It feels like intimidation,” Deb says. “I can’t hire a lawyer to fight my case. But if I did, I would win. I’m a reporter, I have my notes.”
The trouble is, the controversy over the missing chapter has done a disservice to the book. When you read it, you’re always thinking about chapter 1 — the book tends to get sidelined. That’s a pity because Deb’s take on the new India is well-written, meticulously researched, and minus ideology. He wanted to make it a kind of non-fiction novel, Deb says, and in that he’s almost succeeded. Every chapter seems to flow logically from the preceding one. And the book is about people — Deb calls them characters — not issues.
“I didn’t want the book to be simply journalistic — or highly opinionated,” says Deb. “I took the research very scrupulously, but the person who’s narrating the stories is not objective. He has his own point of view.”
The Indian edition, however, is sometimes frustrating because we have no first chapter. Going into the lives of the middle class, the poor and the struggling without the balance of the rich and the newly rich, the book seems lopsided. But the writing isn’t all depressing and miserable (though, as the kind of person who reads the books page of an English language newspaper in urban India, it makes you want to hit the people behind the ‘system’ really hard and repeatedly for the misery they create. The ‘system’ seems so ineradicably ingrained). The book is just about life, as different kinds of people in India live it.
If there’s one thing that doesn’t work for this book, it’s the timing. When Deb started writing it, it was 2005 and Indian life appeared to be beautiful. It is now 2011 and no one thinks Indian life is beautiful: not the powerful — they’ve got the middle class on their tail. Not the middle class — they know they’ve got lots of tough battles to fight. Not the poor — they never thought life was beautiful. The stories that weren’t being reported in 2005 are being reported in 2011. India not shining is not news to us.
But then, this is not a book of reporting. It’s a story of India.A well-researched account takes stock of New India, and is not marred by ideology.