Sunday, March 4, 2012

India Becoming by Akash Kapur

I have vivid and a bit disjointed memories of my one very short trip to India many years ago.  I visited what was then called Madras and is now called Chennai as part of a student group that was sailing the world.  Since that amazing trip, I have had many encounters with Indian Culture and have always been fascinated by the country, its people, food, religion and place in world history.

Akash Kapur was raised in Southern India near Chennai, leaves for the West for many years, and then returns with his family to live and work.  He has written a memoir/literary journal/portrait of the new modern India which seeks to explore all the beauty and beastliness of this ancient and provocative nation.

He paints many individual character portraits of men and women caught in the crosshairs of change:  a young gay man struggling with his identity, a young woman who divorces and then chooses to live with her boyfriend and not marry, another young woman who moves to the city to take advantage of all the amazing work opportunities, but chooses to retain a very traditional lifestyle regarding dating, a man from the dalit caste who defies local customs, a farmer and his wife living apart: country mouse and city mouse.  All these stories he follows over several years. 

Part II of this book is kind of character study of India itself: a painting of the price of progress.  He profiles the immense poverty that still exists in the cities that sits on the backs of the new Indian elite, the huge problem with waste and pollution that plagues even him and his family, the disorganized state of the police and the vast contempt for the rule of law, and finally the state of India once hard times hit the newly prosperous nation.

All of the stories are varied, interesting, often disturbing, and well written. I felt that he could have spent some more research time on some of his topics. He seemed to rely almost solely on anecdotes told by friends, and friends of friends, to make points about poverty and pollution.  A few facts and figures could go a long way to bolstering some of the portraits of people and problems.

All in all, a great read.  Mr Kapur reminded me somewhat of an Indian Malcolm Gladwell.  This was enjoyable.  I plan to share it widely. 

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