When Harvard-trained social anthropologist Akash Kapur decided to narrate the remarkable process of historical change in India, he did so through stories of a bevy of individuals including a farmer, a BPO employee, a cow broker and a rag picker.
Kapur grew up and now lives in the countryside outside Puducherry. India Becoming: A Journey through a Changing Landscape is the result of his effort to understand the changing landscape of India, transformed by rapid economic growth, which he first encountered on his return from the US in 2003.
‘I grew up in the countryside outside Pondicherry, so the villages and small towns of India, and especially South India, was the landscape that I knew best. I also knew that it was a landscape generally under-represented in contemporary writing about India,’ he says.
‘But really, the main reason I wanted to write about small towns is because I felt like I understood that world, and because I felt like the process of transformation playing out in India was particularly complex and nuanced in that world,’ Kapur says.
He says the title ‘India Becoming’ captures the ‘sense of a nation that is still undergoing a process of transition - a nation on the move, becoming something, but we don’t know yet just what’.
According to the writer, the key and only indisputable fact of modern India is that it is a nation undergoing a dramatic process of change.
‘That change is still playing out; we have by no means reached an end point yet.’
While writing the book, Kapur followed the lives of the characters for several years almost feeling like a journalist.
‘I think it’s important for writers to have a life outside the writing - to do other things, to engage with the world in other ways. Otherwise, what will we write about? We have to know the world in order to write about it.’
He chose the characters of India Becoming through a process of serendipity.
‘There wasn’t much of a system. I wasn’t so much seeking to find characters who could be demographically representative of India. I was looking for characters whose lives embodied the nations process of change - who were living that process and hopefully aware of it and thinking about it,’ he says.
‘Also, because of the nature of my research, which really required me to spend many years following people around and getting into their lives, it was important to find people who were open and willing to spend a lot of time with me. Not everyone was, for very understandable reasons.’
Kapur thinks the concept of India Shining is simplistic, though not wholly untrue. To him, it only captures one side of the modern Indian condition.
‘It isn’t false or wrong, exactly; but it is incomplete.
I do think there is an aspect to modern India that is shining - the nation has made so much progress, both materially and psychologically, over the last two decades. There is so much more optimism and sense of possibility than when I was growing up. So that aspect of India is shining.
‘The trouble is that there is so much in India that is decidedly not shining - and many of the problems we face (corruption, inequality) are in some ways linked to the progress we’ve made. Our environmental problems, for example, are in many ways direct results of all the development weve undergone,’ he says.