Akash Kapur speaks to SRAVASTI DATTA on why he doesn’t believe in “isms” and the pros and cons of development in India over the last 20 years
Akash Kapur’s India Becoming: AJourney Through A Changing Landscapetraces an India in transition. For his research, Kapur, who lives in Pondicherry, concentrated only on South India. He makes no claims that his book is a “universal, Indian experience”; he wanted to write about an India he is familiar with.
In India Becoming, Kapur traces the lives of people in urban as well as rural India: from small farmers, big land holders, cow brokers to IT professionals and call centre employees. He places their lives within a larger socio-economic context, remaining true to his voice — non-judgemental and balanced.
Kapur, a graduate from Harvard University and a Rhodes Scholar, returned to India a little over a decade ago. Buoyed initially by the changes he saw in his country, Kapur realised that development, though necessary, came at a cost. He found the ancient way of life in rural India crumbling and a modern society emerging whose future was both uncertain and promising. He was at the Bangalore Literature Festival recently. Here are excerpts from the interview.
How did you select the people you have written about?
There was no system. It was pretty much serendipity. What I wanted to capture is living through this process of change. I wanted people who had some insight. The other criteria were that people had to be willing to spend a lot of time with me. I spent five years following these people, going deep into their lives and becoming part of their lives. They allowed me into their lives. Not everyone is capable of allowing someone into their lives.
How would you define development?
Development is a process of creative destruction. It throws up new problems. Environmental degradation, for example, has always been a problem, but it has become much more of a problem over the last ten years, as a result of development. Similarly, if you look at some of our governance issues, it has been worsened by the new money floating around. I don’t think that development is this material created for only a select few, it has also addressed poverty, created new opportunities, dealt with some aspects of the caste system, but it has created other problems too.
Critics have praised you for deliberately staying out of the narrative….
Some people don’t like that, some people want me to have stronger views. Part of the point of writing a book for an author is to be honest, not to take stands because it will sell better because readers want to hear a particular line. For me, you could call it a middle-of-the-road thing, you could call it a confused thing, you can call it whatever you want, but that’s the line I was trying to take. So, some reviewers liked that a lot, they said the best part of this book is that it is ambivalent and it doesn’t pass judgement, others said it should have more views. My own view on that as a writer is to write honestly how you feel, if I had written a book that came out very strongly, I would be dishonest.
With what intention did you write the book?
I didn’t want to be judgemental. If you take some of the characters, especially the younger ones, those who live quite a materialistic lifestyle, it’s very easy to come down on them and be judgemental in a moralistic way. I don’t think we should do that. I know these people, they are decent and thoughtful; they aren’t frivolous. I wanted to understand their lives, who they are and where they are coming from. Everyone has an inner life, everyone is complicated and their motives are complicated and so that’s what I wanted to capture. I am trying to capture life and I don’t think that you can slot the people I have written about into ideological boxes.
Are you against “isms”?
“Isms” is not my thing. There’s an epigram which has Anton Chekhov’s quote: “Life doesn’t agree with philosophy”. One of the problems with our discourse on development in this country is that it happens on ideological grounds. People just argue their case for development from their ideological camps rather than looking at the situation. Who can make the case looking at Capitalism over the last 20 years that it is either an unmitigated good or unmitigated bad? Of course, it’s been both. So, if you are coming at it from a Leftist/Socialist point of view you can rail all you want, but you have to acknowledge what Capitalism has done to this country.
If you are a right wing, free market guy you can defend Capitalism and reforms, but you have to acknowledge the harm it’s caused at the same time.
Are you happy with the changes you see?
You have to remember where we were twenty years ago. We were coming out of the 1970s and 1980s; it was a very exciting time. People sometimes ask me, really Akash are you really as naïve as you sound? and the truth is I was. I grew up in the ‘70s, they were beautiful times, but economically it was a slow period, stultified times with not many opportunities. Along with gains come losses. The “India shining” moment is over. There was a reason why we had an India shining belief, it wasn’t pure naïveté; it was also a genuine excitement of what was happening.
India Becoming has been published by Penguin and is priced at Rs. 599