India is not so much shining as becoming, we learn from Akash Kapur’s debut novel
“This is a book about ordinary people living ordinary lives in extraordinary times,” said Akash Kapur, author of India Becoming, at the book’s launch at Sheraton Park Hotel and Towers in the city recently. Following the lives of his subjects for five years, Kapur, in his debut novel, narrates their personal stories, of ups and downs, in post-liberalised India. Having written for various publications in India and abroad, Kapur, a social anthropologist from Harvard, trains his eyes on small-town India, particularly the often-neglected South, and in elegant and compelling prose, captures the ambivalence of the times, the country and the people.
Welcoming the gathering, Kuldeep Dhawan, general manager, Sheraton Park Hotel and Towers, unwrapped a copy of the book, after which Akash Kapur spoke about getting started on India Becoming, six years ago, when India was, indeed, shining. But while the economic reforms produced some spectacular progress, there was a darker side to the rapid development and change; yet, the human element was often overlooked in books that dealt with just the big picture. And so, Kapur chose to delve into the nuances and complexities of issues, the people stories, wisely steering away from making the book, just for the sake of it, broadly demographic of India. Instead, he made it representative of the people whose experience mirrored the gains and losses that the country too saw at the same time.
India Becoming however, Kapur said, was not just about interviewing his subjects — a farmer, a cow-dealer, a BPO worker, among others — and getting quotes from them. “It wasn’t easy. You have to be a good listener, be patient and earn their trust. Sometimes, you end up travelling to another town, and after eight hours, you get only one para out of it. The book also required people who were willing to let me into their lives.” But once things fell in place, Kapur was “immersed completely” in their lives. “There were moments when people forgot I was there.”
But writing about real people, following their arc of life over several years, threw its own set of challenges. Sifting through the humungous transcripts and finding a narrative that was interesting and one that flowed was certainly one; opting to keep some identities under wraps was another. Kapur mentioned a gay character in the book, who was happy (for Kapur) to reveal his identity. “But”, Kapur explained, “since I knew he had not yet (fully) come out in the open, I masked his identity. I really did not want to be the person who outs it.” On the other hand, a cow broker, whose identity the author had masked, asked to be revealed. “When the New Yorker carried his story, they had a telephonic chat with him to ascertain if the facts in the piece are right. He said everything was okay, but he had just one request — could his name please be mentioned… so I had to!” quipped Kapur.
The author, in conversation with Mukund Padmanabhan, senior associate editor, The Hindu, agrees that the narrative voice is non-intrusive and there’s a non-judgemental quality to the work. Touching upon the dichotomy that exists in the way books (about India) are received at home and abroad, Kapur narrated an incident of one such book that was dissed in India, but which went on to garner wonderful reviews abroad. Moving on to reforms, Kapur said that he’s neither anti-development, nor is he against capitalism. “This”, he said, “is not a policy book; it does not contain policy prescriptions. Rather, it talks about the complexities, the dual nature of realities. I think the book has every optimism. The only point I’m making is that there’s another side to development, and it can be a lot less pleasant.” How can development be measured only in economic terms? If the air in the country is killing you, he asked bluntly, how does it matter how much money you have?
The launch was jointly hosted by Penguin Books India and Sheraton Park Hotel & Towers. Kamini Mahadevan of Penguin Books India earlier introduced the author, commending him for the trust he built up with his subjects and his luminous prose.