While jury is still out on the merits of India’s dramatic transition over the past two decades riding a wave of economic growth, seldom does the sense of a looming ecological disaster escape anyone living here.

“If the air is bad, it is bad for all, even the richest,” says Akash Kapur, author of ‘India Becoming’ which captures the change that has come over the country by training its focus on a handful of real-life people in modern southern India’s rural and urban milieu.

“If it was sheer pessimism that marked the 1970s India, the country exuded extreme optimism and self-confidence at the turn of the millennium… The high point of optimism was the May 2004 ‘India Shining’ elections and it went on for a few years. We’ve been through that cycle and are now much less talking about becoming a super power than five years ago. We are already in gloomier times…. And an environmental crisis is unavoidable. Look at the amount of plastic on our streets. There’s visual representation of the impending disaster on all the picnic spots on [Chennai’s] East-Coast Road,” he told The Hindu during an interaction on Monday.

In town for a talk, Mr. Kapur says he was as confounded and bewildered by the happenings as anybody else when he moved back from the United States in 2003.

Though he wished to live in a city, he realised that Indian cities were a mess and sought to settle down in his native Auroville, which boasts a green cover. Mr. Kapur soon found himself engaging people from various walks in long conversations. Eventually, he made rapport with them and they opened up, speaking about their lives, concerns and goals.

“It was a six-year-long process and I squeezed in lot of stuff from their evolving lives captured overtime, as if in an accordion, to tell their ‘life stories’,” he says. His background in anthropology helped him record their stories sympathetically, which has rendered the narrative a non-judgmental, objective and forthright tone.

India’s development saga, says the author, has been a mixed bag.

Bold declarations of ‘India Shining’ notwithstanding, it took him by surprise to see his ambivalence about the growth story being shared by the people he spoke with.

“Which is why the title, ‘India Becoming’, as we have not reached the endpoint yet. It is too early to give a verdict,” he says.

The pace of change has transformed lives so dramatically that people are still grappling with ways to accommodate it. He feels that there should be more debate on development trade-offs with focus on what makes people contented.

Mr. Kapur thinks that the country’s ills are systemic. Lack of good governance, for instance. While governance mandates everyone including the people to play a role, there’s little public participation in it, he points out.

But all is not lost. A gradual awakening is under way and it is ‘healthy’ that shunning euphoria, people have begun to question perceived wrongs.

“There’s a calming down and it feels good to see people starting to speak up on issues including atrocities on women.”

Mr. Kapur is mulling a second tome (he doesn’t rule out a work of fiction) and says he’s eager to get a Malayalam rendering of ‘India Becoming’.

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