Seven characters in search of a new India

The book cover

David Foster Wallace, in “This is Water…” narrates this tale of two young fish swimming in a lake. An elderly fish comes along and asks, ‘How’s the water, boys?’ The young fish look at each other and swim away as they ask, ‘What the hell is water?’ The moral of the story is that our most obvious, hardest, and perhaps “ever present” realities of life are often the most difficult to talk about. I thought of this story of fish as a parable as I read Snigdha Poonam’s “Dreamers: how young Indians are changing the world (C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd. — 2018”, the book I review here. She is a journalist with the Hindustan Times newspaper and this is a book that explores the reality of a “new”, emergent India that often baffles us with her complexity. To live within the ‘water’ and write about it is an arduous task. Snigdha’s impassive storytelling is so fluid as if you see a stream of consciousness flows across the pages. This is the aspect I loved in the book.

So in this book, Snigdha Poonam has narrated the lives of several (I intially was drawn to seven of them, but it turns out that number is more) young men and women in India from small towns or tier-II cities in India (cities that are not megapolises such as Kolkata, Delhi, and Mumbai) and pursued their dreams. They were unhappy with a system that had stifled their opportunities for growth or at least for one of them, her fight was against a patriarchal system and she broke a glass ceiling to be the first woman student union president in history of the university.

I will pick up journeys of seven characters in the book tied to a central theme: in a new era, Indians who are emerging may be big dreamers, but many of them have little preparations to show for it. This is an India that will add an emerging workforce of over 100 million people with under 20% immediate job-readiness. Read this report from Pearson VUE:

Then there are dreamers …

Who are these dreamers? How do they plan to take on an emergent economy in India that continue to open up new possibilities? Where is it all headed? To dive into that reality, let’s get to the lives of seven character that Snigdha Poonam narrates in her book.

The journey in the book begins with Vinay Singhal, an entrepreneur from a village in the north Indian state of Haryana who started up a content-farm in Indore, a tier-II city in central India. The Internet-content-farm named “Wittyfeed”, ran a business of harvesting and writing listicles and trivia stories feeding through Facebook to millions of subscribers and earned revenues through advertisements. The CEO, Vinay Singhal dreamed of ‘dominating the world’. Singhal was a young opinionated man who was little-read and worshipped his heroes of life Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Donald Trump and Narendra Modi: he believed, like his idol Elon Musk, that humanity would either need to find a place in the multi-planetary existence, or perish, and technology would save the day. He certainly had a dream and ambition to be part of the big show when his time would arrive. You may wonder and ask if he ever asked himself whether the work of feeding to people’s fancy would ever cut it.

Moin Khan began his life as a milkman in a village near the norther Indian town of Ranchi. Khan had studied for an undergraduate degree that was on paper and passed examinations. He realised that the only way he could find a job would be to at a call centre and for that, he needed to convince his employers he could converse in English. He did not speak English; so he enrolled for free in an English speaking course someone offered as part of an English tutoring school in his native village. Eventually Moin Khan worked his way up in the English tutoring school where he entered as a student and ended up being a motivational speaker and English language tutor. As with Vinay Singhal, he held strong opinions about most things. Note Poonam’s poignance where she nails the apparent contradiction in Moin Khan, “… The problem he said, was not only the superiority of the English language in our eyes, but also the superiority of the English-speaking world. ‘We are embarrassed about everything Indian — our culture, our traditions. We think anything produced by America is good. …’ I didn’t point out the fact that he makes his money selling the American way of speaking English. I knew what he would have said: he wouldn’t be doing what he does if he didn’t have to. He knows he is as much a winner as he’s a loser: the same goes for India by that logic.”

Pankaj Prasad began his life as a “stringer” for a local newspaper whose job was to trail government officials around and report stories in the local newspaper he worked for. India underwent a transition in power in the national elections in 2014 and a nationalist, Hindu-supremacist party came to power in India. When Snigdha found Prasad again after the elections, he was now a middleman, a ‘fixer’ of sorts. In the words of Poonam, “He represented the new ingenuity of the provincial young man. He believed, first of all, that he was born to be important.” This self-importance would manifest in many ways, some entrepreneurial, some in his dominance over hapless villagers he would lord over. What enabled Prasad to move ‘up’ in life was India’s insanely complex bureaucratic structure that eventually encourages interlopers to operate freely; a bureaucratic system that never overturned the colonial structures in governance. For example, for every application to the government even for social welfare certificates, a citizen has to jump the hoops of filling in application forms and affixing photographs. In a country beset with illiteracy, it creates opportunities for middleman between the people and the government to prosper. Pankaj Prasad became that middleman in the process filling in people’s forms, taking photographs that must be affixed to their filled in forms, and arranging for their entitlement cards and so on. We find him in the end of the his story as an important man who never had to leave his village for earning money: instead piling on one government scheme after another, he found wealth to build a house, a car, creature comforts and even a small office for himself. He double-dipped on government funds and sought money from his clients and was found out and fined, but this was a small price to pay for him. After all, argued Pankaj Prasad, the big officials took bribes as well, why couldn’t he?

In a new India that opened up economy and where technology was ubiquitous yet users were not, Vinay Singhal, Moin Khan, and Pankaj Prasad found their fortunes. Even as digital services became ubiquitous, but the old bureaucracy of India insisted in filling their forms and sticking to ‘due processes’. The world reached out to India to recruit ‘English speaking’ call centre operators who would take the calls while the world slept and would deliver at a fraction of price that the companies would have to pay. The impact on India was the emergence of people like Vinay Singhal who saw the web a way to monetise by ‘going viral’; Moin Khan found a shortcut to teach spoken English that would create a gateway for people to find jobs, and Pankaj Prasad played his hand where Indian bureaucracy made life complex for people they meant to serve. This stands in contrast with the tales of the next two characters in the book.

Poonam describes the next two characters, Vikas Thakur and Richa Singh as angry young men and women, but they are as opposite as can be. Vikas Thakur is an alpha male, and a member of a Hindu supremacist gang. He is enraged as he believes that Hinduism and his idea of Hindustan is under attack by the Muslims. So he takes upon himself to punish the ‘others’: the target in this case are cattle traders and ‘beef eaters’ and truckers who ferry cattle between his home state Haryana and the neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state. He becomes a ‘gau rakshak’ (protector of the cow, the sacred animal of the Hindus), and organises gangs to torment the lives of those who transport the sacred animal. He lives in a Gurukul (think of it as a religious hostel) with like minded gang members and routinely goes out to expeditions to take on the truckers who transport cattle across state boundaries.

Richa Singh’s life is in contrast. She is a student leader who ‘stormed’ a male bastion of a prestigious north Indian university and became its first female president standing as an independent candidate, shunning any political party for that matter. She had several run-ins with the other male members of the student council of her college. She opposed the entry of the state Chief Minister known for his Hindu supremacist racial views to the College and boycotted the functions. In the end, she forsakes her studies, joins a political party, and runs unsuccessfully for local elections. Her anger was directed against an oppressive male dominant supremacist society that has come to dominate much of North Indian politics, but in the end, we see that she too, became part of it.

The final characters in the book are young men and women, who in search for jobs come to big city from small towns only to be cheated of their dreams. They are those who want to hog the limelight but eventually cannot reconcile with the system. Mohammad Azhar grew up in a small-town dreaming to be a model and dreaming to find a place in the make-believe world of Bollywood. After several twists and turns in his life, eventually he settles for a life in one of Mumbai’s slums looking for success and looking to find a job in the gulf countries, anywhere. There are others like him of course, and Mohammad Azhar is the Indian of the new age who are lured by the glitter of the glamour and eventually find themselves in the lurch.

Hundreds of nameless faceless people beat the streets of megapolises of India — Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai — looking for a job in the call centres but eventually end up as scammers. Our final character in this trail is a nineteen year-old teenager Pawan Poojary who joins a company that scams Americans overseas. Knowing well what he does, Pawan plays the game for a while, but eventually could not take it any longer. He resigns from the company and becomes a whistleblower. People like Poojary come looking for opportunities in big cities, dazzled by the glitz of high life, only to discover in the end the hollowness of that existence and fakery of it.

So what do these characters have in common? What do they tell us, and through them, Snigdha’s theory about an India that will emerge before us in the next few decades? For one, these characters in the book represent millions of young millenial Indians, generation Z, who will join the workforce of the world, yet they are poorly equipped to take on the world they covet. Many of them do not have a formal education, and even if they do, the education leave them much to be desired. Yet the world around them and India in particular continue to change. In their quest for their future in a changing economy and world around them, they soon learn to let go of their scruples and morality. I left reading the book with a sadness, a sense of loss and tragedy, yet this is not how it seemed at first.

When I started reading “Dreamers”, the characters appeared to be comical if not bizarre. How could someone like Vinay Singhal set up a web scraping listicle service and hope that his company will rule the world? Why would someone with no formal education in philosophy or English language would ever dare to peddle his own version of teaching and learning English and deliver motivational speeches and not feel guilty about it? Why would someone like Pawan Poojary knowingly join a company that he knew would scam people overseas and confess enjoy doing it? Where are their conscience? Then, as Snigdha Poonam observes, “The personal benefit over public good isn’t owned by them, however. It’s at the core of India’s value system”. Perhaps she is right, perhaps she is not, but then this book present a sad, if not a telling statement on the psyche of young men and women of modern generation in small town India.

But is this the story of “dreamers”? If they dreamed, what India did they dream of? What was their vision? For all the characters in the narrative, the dream was only to live for themselves, not to change the world, not to challenge the status quo. In the end, Snigdha Poonam presents a tapestry of the reality of lives for young Indians small town India and what they make of it. India remains a country of perpetual contradictions. A country that on one hand has embraced modernity but yet to dismantle a colonial past where government or sarkar and elites of the land sit on the high table, denying entry to the plebs among them. That disenfranchisement of the general mass over the decades has led to an undeniable anti-elitism that has taken hold of the politics and contemporary society. This is an India where dilettantes have unsettled the elite to claim their spot on the high tables of public life. Remarkably and subtly, in this book Snigdha Poonam manages to tell that story of an unfolding India.

Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Also in:

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