Just over a decade ago, I rolled off the plane at Delhi, itching to meet a man I didn’t know. By the mid-2000s, reports were piling up about India’s new middle class. How numerous they were; how successful; how spend-happy; how vulgar. They were the future, claimed the Western press. They were throwbacks, sniffed family friends. They certainly intrigued me. Now I had a stopover in the capital and a friend of a friend had arranged for me to spend the evening with one of these exotic novelties.
To reach Vikas (not his real name), I had to take a cab out of Delhi into another mini-city. You may never have heard of Gurgaon, but you have almost certainly talked to it. As one of the call-centre hubs of the world, its office cubicles are stuffed with young graduates staying up late into the night to field your queries about that lost credit card or this overpayment on a gas bill.
We drove deep into a sprawling housing estate called Malibu Towne. The roads were un-subcontinentally clear and peppered with signs that referred to the Pacific. Yet no trace of California came off Vikas. His English was more effective than my Hindi but still his wife had to act as our interpreter.
Born in a village in the Punjab, he’d come to Delhi with nothing. After a few years struggling, he’d landed a job as an aviation engineer with one of the domestic airlines now booming on the subcontinent. This story of self-madeness was reflected in the home, which was mainly decorated with poster-sized photos of him, his wife and child. Unusually for an Indian household, no parents or grandparents were on reverential display; only the life he’d achieved.
Yet everything about Vikas’s world was new. Until well into the 1990s, there was no domestic flight sector worth speaking of – just one state-owned company, Indian Airlines, whose air stewards greeted passengers with disappointed frowns. This gated community, where it was forever Baywatch o’clock, was only 10 years old. Even Gurgaon township (now officially Gurugram), with its central strip so full of shops that locals dubbed it Mall Road, had as recently as the 1980s been mere farmland.
Our evening wound up at China White. In London that was a bar outside which tabloid snappers hung around, while inside Premier League footballers racked up large tabs and showbiz diary exclusives. Here in Gurgaon, it was a family “hangout”. As Vikas and his wife gingerly picked their way through the mocktail list, reading aloud the ingredients like they were entries in the OED, it became clear that they had yet to claim their new world as their home.
These were the years when men like Vikas were posterboys for the liberalised economy, when government ministers boasted of “India Shining” and newspapers began scouring Fortune magazine rich lists for Indian entrants. Vikas’s successes formed part of the dream India promised itself could come true for everybody.
One simple way to understand today’s India is that that dream hasn’t materialised – yet it keeps being offered up. That explains the electoral rage that helped propel Narendra Modi to power; it also captures how the prime minister promises that achhe din (good days) are just around the corner.
This unbridgeable gulf is the subject of Snigdha Poonam’s book. As she notes, in 2016 9.2 million young Indians sat entrance exams for 18,252 railway positions, while 19,000 competed for 114 public sector jobs in one small town. “Thousands of college graduates, some armed with engineering and MBA degrees,” applied to be a sweeper.
A likeably modest writer, Poonam has nevertheless written a brave and unusual debut. India is a huge country that attracts grand theories, yet Dreamers is a collection of miniatures – essays about a handful of young Indians. In a publishing industry short on venues for long-form reporting in English, that is her specialism. And where other writers often squint at their indigenous subjects as if they were samples under a microscope, Poonam writes with a closeness that can be uncomfortable.
Like her interviewees, she comes from mofussil, or provincial, north India: “They saw me as half-outsider, half-insider. It wasn’t a great place to occupy.” Interviewees demand she buys them train tickets, even pay their car insurance. She hangs around with aggressive young men until the hours grow small, and the text reeks of perspiration and stale cooking oil. The reader can just imagine the safety precautions taken.
All those years of hanging around have yielded a study rich in broken dreams. We meet Mohammed Azhar, who grew up in a two-bed house with nine brothers and sisters, and believes, “I have everything one needs to be a star”. Tall and handsome, he learns to model by watching catwalk shows on YouTube and turns a corner of his bedroom into an exercise zone. Yet he is ripped off by fashion-event organisers, by film producers, by stockbrokers. Savings disappear, debts mount up and he goes slowly under. He ends up in Mumbai, not getting called back to auditions and peddling cheap bangles to get by.
This is the dreamers’ landscape: get-rich-quick schemes, loans and the crap self-help paperbacks that now engulf once-decent bookshops. The bright ones work out they also need English to get ahead.
Nearly two centuries ago, the British politician Thomas Macaulay urged the creation of “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”. India now has 100 million speakers of English, most of whom are not using it to leaf through Edward Gibbon but to land a better job. Poonam meets Moin Khan, who was a 17-year-old milkman until he learned of free English coaching. In class, he fretted that the students from “respectable” families could “smell the cowdung on him”. To practise speaking the language, he rang random call centres and in broken English told the headsetted strangers “everything that came to my mind – my friends, my family, my dreams”.
Khan wanted a call-centre job but his English wasn’t up to scratch – so, 10 years later, he teaches the language from 7am to 11pm. His students hope that a few months’ practice will deliver them the financial stability of a decent job. An intelligent man, Khan disdains his own wares: “In India, we are still obsessed with English-medium school, English-medium college… We are embarrassed about everything Indian – our culture, our traditions.”
Still, it pays. Khan has become a seller in India’s vast spoken-English pyramid scheme – and Poonam catches him at just the moment he looks down in pity at the suckers below. This becomes a running theme. Failing as a model, Azhar tries putting on runway shows – taking commissions from wannabe models. To start her career, Sona Kapoor gets into a Delhi call centre – where she rings up other Indians asking if they want a change of job, then scams money off them for fictitious vocational training. She shrugs: “You think the people who run these call centres are making so much money every day, you might as well make some of it while you are here.”
What happens when 600 million young Indians realise they’ve been conned? They will join “the losers of globalisation”, argues Poonam, the “leftover youths whose
anger is transforming world politics”. She cites the rage-filled, vein-bulging nihilism that imposed Trump on America and Brexit on Britain. This stretches both too far and not far enough. Too far, because much of this anger pre-dates globalisation and runs alongside it. I remember upper-caste young Hindu men, of much the same type who take up chapters of Dreamers, massing on the streets in 1990, when the government decided to implement positive discrimination in
public sector jobs for those from lower castes. For decades, India’s weak state (one that collects proportionately less tax even than Russia) and its paradoxically large bureaucracy has been unable to deliver on the promises it has made to citizens.
Up until the mid-1990s, right-wingers could look at India and tut over how much better it would do if only it would embrace globalised capital. Well, now it has – and Poonam would be right to bid us look at the disturbing results: more unequal growth than America and even angrier politics; an economy characterised by rip-off middlemen and Ponzi mania – which can’t just be laughed at from a Britain run by a finance class and addicted to ever-rising house prices. In its depiction of the triumph of deceit over industriousness, and the fury brewing in small towns, Dreamers will make you worry about the future of India. But it should also leave you wondering about the prospects for capitalism, in what is now one of the world’s largest capitalist economies.
Aditya Chakrabortty is senior economics correspondent for the Guardian
Dreamers: How Young Indians are Changing the World
Hurst, 224pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 07 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war