‘I wanted to tell people’s stories’

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.

Copyright ©2012 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

4 thoughts on “‘I wanted to tell people’s stories’

  1. Haven’t read the piece fully. But an initial cursory glance reminds me of Siddhartha Deb’s book, The Beautiful and the damned, which was also about the alternative narrative to India Shined. P.S. The edited link leads to your old story with director Vasanth


  2. “What is India becoming?”

    That’s quite obvious – following Amerikka on the grand path to progress? and development? by merrily destroying her natural resources. Which in turn makes the case for GM food.
    Quite insidious, how the modern definition of economy cleverly feeds its own belly by laying the groundwork for science & tech to take over.

    The next big wave after GM food is….geo-engineering – genetically altering the climate so that the planet learns to live with our ever polluting ways.

    The future is the stuff of sci-fi – dark days and nights with the sun blotted out to prevent global warming , and people existing in tech bubbles.

    For the nth time, I wonder what is the whole point?
    And on the flip side, the negatives in the way of this so-called progress like corruption, illiteracy, superstition, naxalism, etc are actually slowing down an otherwise rapidly industrializing country. Which is good.

    Imagine a nation of docile, brainwashed (by science) & believers in tech – who dont bat an eye when their food goes GM, or their rivers are interlinked – sure we would come out tops, beat the US and become the world #1 – but for what end goal and at what cost?
    I am really sorry that we are destroying ourselves.

    We like to take pride in emulating Gandhian values, but we conveniently ignore his views on industrialization and his vision of a village-centric India where one lived within walking distance of growing his/her food.
    This whole “growing organic food in urban areas” fad is so silly – plants are equally affected by the darn pollution as humans are.

    Anyway, the India of today is the America that was 30-40 years back.
    I would say we still need to “wake up” and be educated in the things that matter outside of the consumerist craze sweeping the country right now.

    Right now, we are eager to imitate and be praised by the goras, by emulating the same faulty paths that they took with the industrial revolution. And then scrambling to cover our asses as they are doing, by trying to take refuge under the umbrella of modern science & technology.

    What is the real gold of the future?
    1. Pure air,
    2. Pure natural food
    3. Pure water
    4. Greenery


  3. Hi BR,

    I often wonder what is the most satisfying feeling a person gets when he/she writes about something. The person stated above started writing this book six years ago and persisted throughout, what could be his driving force ? Writing seems to me as a process of catharsis if done at an unhurried pace with no incentive. Marginally few writers could make it sound professionally lucrative. A person who starts writing to encash his skills to translate real life situations to words is bound to fizzle out after some time due to lack of passion. A few authors might have a compulsive need to write, perhaps to vent out their pent up energy (may be, i might not have reached that threshold now). And if someone writes on a topic like “India shining not as much as India becoming”, it seems to me as a quest to understand his/her own self. Why would someone be interested in covering lives of a variety of people ? In my opinion (not so humble one), it is a journey where he/she gets to understand life better. He/she wants to present that to the world and then assess whether people concur with his narration or identify with it (which can be gauged by the popularity of his book). He/she might feel triumphant if it turns out to be a success, cementing his outlook about life. But if it fails to garner attention, it might force him/her to introspect again about the very premise upon which his/her thought process is hinged on.

    Ramblings apart, nice post as usual..


  4. Narender Mehra: I think the most satisfying thing about writing is the writing itself. You have a vision of a book or an essay. You do the research. You order the points. You write the first sentence, then the second sentence, and then by the third sentence you’re lost and when you return, you’ve completed three paras. And then you start wondering about the fourth para. In other words, the work is its own reward.

    Because the rest of it is not under your control. Like you say, it’s not especially lucrative. You cannot predict reactions. Something you don’t especially value highly yourself will get 100 comments. A piece you think has come out fantastically will barely get any response. You just have to take the good stuff with the bad and keep writing. Because the writing is the only thing, and if you don’t enjoy that and if you write with the expectation of sales or readership, then you’re in for a tough time.

    (It’s not that I am beyond expecting rewards for my writing, wither in terms of money or readers or whatever. Far from it. But over time you realise that the writing is all that you can really control, and if you like the process, then that’s why you write.)


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