Akash Kapur’s new book, India Becoming, in some respects is reminiscent of Oscar Lewis’s classic work, Five Families, which used the stories of a small group of Mexican families to explore poverty in that nation. Kapur uses detailed interviews with a series of individuals to explore major transformations sweeping India: the decline of agriculture, the rise of the information economy, and urbanization. The key theme of this well-written and engaging book is the human costs that this transformation entails. Throughout the work Kapur tries to show that development destroys as it creates, so that people have to make difficult choices throughout this transformation. This is clear in multiple areas. With gender relations, women have new opportunities that they must balance against obligations, in a manner familiar to Western culture. Traditional landowners face the loss of their power, while low status Dalits (once called untouchables) embrace new opportunities, in an urban context in which wealth can matter more than birth.
One of the strengths of Kapur’s work is that he does not romanticize either the past, or India’s new order. One key Dalit figure embraces the “miraculous” freedom that social change brings him, but also acts with cruelty and violence. In the end, he is haunted by his choices. This character’s experience is typical, as many of the Indians whom Kapur interviewed found that acquiring wealth comes with a cost. Throughout the work Kapur captures the contradictions of modern India, in which new infrastructure unites the country, while waves of garbage threaten to overwash the land in dioxins and fumes. Some passages are especially emotional, such as when his driver hits and nearly kills a young man on a scooter. The two men are nearly attacked by a mob, despite the fact that they entered the local police station.
One weakness of the work is the extent to which Kapur challenges’ peoples beliefs and emotions. He has a knack for finding the painful points in people’s personal lives -their sexuality, their religion- which he then probes relentlessly despite the pain that it brings them. This interview style would not be approved by a university’s Institutional Review Board. One of the most common refrains people say is “How do you think that feels?” The work also lacks a broader historical, political and economic context to allow readers to interpret events. There is little sense of the government’s role -except in its absence- or regarding policy issues. But this is not meant to be an academic work. It is an engagingly written and thoughtful study, which could be read in a day on the beach.
Earlier on the blog, I reviewed Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe. The central theme of his work was that Europe was not a template for modernity. After reading Kapur’s book, one could have doubts about Chakrabarty’s thesis. It seems that India is undergoing the same processes -secularism, urbanization- as Western cultures. Kapur’s discussion of the declining importance of agriculture, and the urban-rural tensions that this transformation creates, are familiar from many other global contexts, including Europe. In the final section of the book, Kapur talks about the falling water tables, declining soil fertility, air pollution, and garbage that undermine the environment in modern India. The idea of modernity is difficult to define, and has fallen out of favor in Western academia as an analytical category, in part because it was associated with a Eurocentric view of the world. But in some respects Kapur’s work is a detailed study of modernity and the costs that it entails, which does seem to describe a long-familiar process. Kapur has followed his interviewees for long enough that he can capture the arc of their careers and personal lives, which become a metaphor for India itself. The stories in this ethnography will remain in reader’s memories, to show the costs of India’s remarkable upheaval.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University