‘I wanted to tell people’s stories’

Posted on November 3, 2012


Akash Kapur talks to Baradwaj Rangan about writing a book whose India isn’t so much shining as becoming.

In the unhurried pages of India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India, we meet the farmer Sathy, the BPO employee Hari, the call-centre worker Selvi, the cow broker Ramadas, the gypsy rag picker Raghu, the marketing professional Veena, and Sathy’s wife Banu, who runs a consulting business from a shed behind her house in Bangalore, far away from her husband. We also keep running into the author, Puducherry native Akash Kapur, the looming “I” in this India narrative. “I don’t think it was a conscious decision to put myself in the book,” he says, sitting outside the office in his sprawling home in the township of Auroville. Beyond us lies a lawn, which tapers off into a forest. It is unusually warm for an October afternoon. It is also unusually silent. We could be the last two people on earth, which is a feeling you don’t often get in a country of over a billion.

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Kapur, who just turned 38, left India over two decades ago. He spent two years in a boarding school in the US, followed by four years of college, a year spent partly in Eastern Europe and partly back home, then three years in England pursuing a doctorate, after which he worked for a little over a year in the US, before packing his bags and returning for good in 2003. “I grew up here,” Kapur says. “This was home, and I always wanted to come back. The opportunities there didn’t make up for the sense of alienation. But here, the opportunities come with tons of pitfalls, and that’s kind of what I’m trying to get at in the book.” He came back with what he now considers naïve enthusiasm. He had been back on short holidays to visit his parents – an American schoolteacher mother and a Punjabi businessman father, both of whom still live in Puducherry – but that, he says, “is very different from coming back for good and have your kids grow up here and sort of stake your future on this place. Things get more complicated.”

He did not return to write this book, though. “In fact,” he says, “when I moved back, I thought I wouldn’t write any more. I’d been living in New York. One of the worst things for a writer is to live in the belly of the beast – too close to the publishing industry. It’s hard to break out of what’s popular at that moment, and you begin writing for your peers. But when I came here to Auroville, there was so much happening, and the writing also became a vehicle for me to go around meeting people.”

These people are mostly from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and the question of representativeness is unavoidable. During a book tour in the US, someone at the World Bank asked Kapur how he knew that his characters were representative of all of India. “But that wasn’t the point,” Kapur says. “I wanted to tell people’s stories, so I wanted people who were more complex and multifaceted than representative per se.” At the beginning, Kapur knew Sathy, who was introduced by a family friend. “He helped me access more people in and around his village. Had I gone alone, they’d have viewed me suspiciously.” Kapur, who grew up with English, Tamil, Hindi and French, admits that his Tamil is not flawless and that he had help at times. “But I understood a lot of what they said. The only time it was an issue was when I talked to these gypsy rag pickers, who spoke a dialect that was really hard to understand.”

The cow broker came in accidentally, when Kapur was hanging out with Sathy. “He took me to this guy and he turned out to be a complex and interesting character who was also very thoughtful and introspective. Others I would just meet. I would ask friends if they knew anyone interesting, with a lot of stories.” Kapur got an email recently asking why there was no Muslim in the book. “But I didn’t want to have token people,” he says. “I did want a gender balance – that was a conscious decision. But there were many people who fell out of the book. I’d met them once or twice but it didn’t work out for various reasons. People had to be prepared for an absorbed process. It wasn’t about showing up a couple of times to be interviewed – and not everyone’s comfortable with that, which is fair enough.” His goal was to capture people’s moods and the timbre of their lives, which is why he wasn’t too concerned about embellishments. “I’m sure there was some,” he says. “But it would be hard for someone to make up blatant lies because I knew people who knew these people.”

When Kapur started writing the book six years ago, the dominant narrative – both within the country and without – was that of India Shining. But time has brought with it some tarnish. “I was engaged in this quest,” says Kapur. “It was me trying to understand the India that I had come back to. I had this ambivalent take on what was going on, when everyone else seemed so positive about India – and I was struck that the people I spoke to, during the course of this book, shared that ambivalence.” This is a word that keeps cropping up in our conversation – when we discuss the title, for instance. It comes from Einstein, who said that America was a country that was always becoming, never being. “When I moved back, that was the sense people had about this country, that it no longer has the sense of stasis it had when I was young. That’s where the title started. But now it captures the ambivalence much more: What is India becoming?”

That is a question Kapur does not attempt to answer. By the end, there are no points tied up in neat bows, no peremptory summations. “That’s how I feel about life,” says Kapur. “The focus was on the complexity within these lives and the ambivalence.” That word again. “It would have been dishonest to tie it up with an overarching thesis.” Finally, he talks about the current ambivalence in the publishing world about books on India, which have mushroomed apparently at a rate on par with the population. Everyone seems to be writing the Great Indian Non-fiction. But Kapur was clear that, despite the vastness of his book’s title, he was only interested in “x number of lives in India. In any work of non-fiction, there’s the tension between the particular and the general. The core of the book is my interaction with these people and my discovery of India through these people. That’s what you have to be honest to, and not about being true to the title.”

As the book took shape, Kapur’s sense of engagement became stronger. “I started off just wanting to understand these people, and as I understood these people better, I had spent more time here and my own doubts were coming to the front.” As was his wife’s. In a later chapter, when the family travels to the US on a break, she says, “Couldn’t we move back? At least for a little while.” It’s tempting to read this personal revelation as the author’s atonement for subjecting his family to what could be termed a social experiment. Kapur says, “It was a decision we both made. She had lived in India when she was young, so she sort of knew what she was getting into, although none of us really knew what we were getting into. I don’t know if there’s guilt. There’s second-guessing – you wonder if you made the right decision. But we’re very happy to raise our children here.”

When not writing books, Kapur edits and writes reports for a think tank in the US. He is vague about the details – “some media policy, digital divide kind of consulting.” It is clear that he is comfortably off, even if he embodies, at this moment, the kind of scruffy casualness that comes when you know your interviewer hasn’t brought along a photographer – a blue-striped linen shirt thrown over lightly faded jeans, a day-old stubble, a round-dial watch strapped on the inside of the wrist.  It’s hard not to wonder about the privileged people writing these India narratives and if there isn’t a truer story waiting to be told by, say, Sathy himself. “I disagree with the word truer,” says Kapur. “I think there’s a different narrative that can come from him. It’s intrinsic to the profession of writing around the world that the people writing are more privileged than the people they are writing about. I don’t try to hide that. I don’t present myself as a farmer writing about fellow farmers.”

“Does it mean that there are aspects of their lives I’m not getting? Absolutely. But does that mean that everything I write should be discounted? I don’t think so. But that’s really for the reader to judge. I think there is something to be said for writing from the outside, whether you’re writing about a country or about a person. I studied anthropology and one of the things I’m interested in is this notion of life stories, where you have an ethnography that’s actually just a transcript of an interview and the anthropologist tries not to insert himself as much as possible. There are places in the book I was trying to do that, where I was trying to give the person free rein to just speak. Right at the end of the Sathy chapter, we’re on a piece of land, and he just goes off on a tangent about what the land used to be, with gypsies and the jackals that used to run around. People wanted to trim that bit, but I really just wanted to sit there and let him speak.”

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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