Between two books, a revelatory social history

Read together, the books convey the broad current of an acquisitive culture that has rocked old beliefs and values

Published - June 30, 2023 12:16 am IST

‘Read together, the two books show many aspects of socio-cultural change in rural and urban India that we may not notice living our daily lives in the third decade of the 21st century’

‘Read together, the two books show many aspects of socio-cultural change in rural and urban India that we may not notice living our daily lives in the third decade of the 21st century’ | Photo Credit: AP

Academic studies of social change in India have, by and large, followed the conceptual guidance of modernisation theory. It focuses on the deeper effects of technological change, social and political movements, and increase in participation in the modern economy and education. Indian sociology produced several classics that continue to provide useful insights to university-level students. A parallel documentation of social change was attempted by journalists who travelled and gleaned from their brief interactions with ordinary people how the bigger changes in economy, technology and politics were affecting their lives. Journalism is itself a major part of modern India’s history. Though journalists are now facing new kinds of difficulties in practising their profession, they bring in the kind of news about life that academic inquiry cannot afford to offer due to its methodological constraints.

Tracking change in rural and urban India

In the mapping of social change over the last half century, two books written by journalists stand out. One is Kusum Nair’s Blossoms in the Dust: the Human Factor in Indian development. First published in 1965, it is based on Nair’s journey to villages across 14 States. The second book, Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World, by Snigdha Poonam, documents her journey and stay in provincial towns in eight north Indian States. It was published in 2018. Read together, the two books show many aspects of socio-cultural change in rural and urban India that we may not notice living our daily lives in the third decade of the 21st century.

When Kusum Nair was writing her book, the big question facing political leaders and intellectuals was how to deal with rural poverty. The memory of Gandhi’s ideas and his vision of India as a society that cared for its rural civilisation was still fresh. Nair wanted to find out how villagers in different parts of the country were responding to the state’s efforts to help them through economic and social planning. How to change beliefs and entrenched norms of behaviour was perceived as a major challenge. Programmes of ‘community development’ were focused on improving people’s access to new knowledge about sanitation and health, irrigation and manure. The Green Revolution was a decade away. The emphasis was on using available resources and information in the best possible way. Nair was looking for signs of change in old attitudes and ways of living. She found such evidence in every region, but in varying amounts. In some parts, there were ‘blossoms in the dust’; in others, there was stirring, but also a lot of inherent resistance that looked like inertia. She drew a gently dynamic portrait of a highly diverse nation, literally at a turning point — i.e., before India had to face China’s aggression. When we read Nair’s book today, it evokes nostalgia for an era when the ‘human element’ took precedence in the dream of development. Complications and compulsions arose before long.

The new landscape

The social landscape that Snigdha Poonam draws in her book is complex in every sense. As you start reading her account of a slow, patient journey through the provincial towns of northern India, you are struck by the paradoxical reality of the young from non-elite strata. They feel let down, but are ready to fight for themselves. They are ‘unsatisfied, unscrupulous, unstoppable’, says the author. These three words capture the complex make-up of the entrepreneurial spirit they display in every sphere. Their pursuit of wealth and power recognises no impediments, social or moral. They see copious examples of the advantage that this reckless approach to success offers. With little patience for moral choices, they believe that whatever works is the best. So, any and every enterprise looks fine. Coaching, fixing deals, and pushing files are all ways to create a livelihood. But the magic of call centres beats everything.

It is demanding work though not exactly social. Manufacturing spam, disinformation, dissonance, and swindling are all part of the game of success. Faced with circumstances that any observer would declare impossible, the youth that Snigdha Poonam meets are forging ahead with no inhibitions. Some opt for politics, and face tragic failure despite total commitment to democratic vision. Unlike Kusum Nair, Snigdha Poonam maintains firm impartiality throughout her long account. Despite her openness and neutrality, she cannot help giving her verdict. At the end of her book, she says that many of the young people she met do not evince a sharp dichotomy between right and wrong.

Decoding the change

Read together, the two books convey the broad current of an acquisitive culture that has mercilessly rocked old beliefs and values. Several eminent sociologists have tried to capture India’s tryst with modernity, tracing the multiple paths along which social change has occurred. Many of these portraits dwell on value shifts, but few discuss the loss of values. Perhaps one can appreciate why the subject does not receive much attention. Change in values is a part of broader economic and political processes. It also reflects demographic shifts, most importantly the growth of urbanised communities, often at the expense of rural communities. The rural-urban distinction is not easy to maintain or explain, and technical differences serve little other than an official purpose. What we learn from Kusum Nair’s epic journey through rural India in the 20th century is that the village was the locus of belonging. It served as a living, and for many an inspiring, memory.

Going through Snigdha Poonam’s reflective memoir of her meetings with provincial youth years ago, one is struck by the erosion of an ethical frame that belonging to a village might give. Some of the young men and women she meets are based in bigger-size villages, but their social constructions are of a chaotic, competitive world. She is right in making us realise that her interlocutors know what they have to deal with in their life. The subtext of her lengthy travelogue is inescapable. Economic and social change have missed the centrality of meaningful education and work. If growth of the market and infrastructure are unaccompanied by an educated imagination and the prospect of employment, the social ethos cannot sustain the norms and morality it once prized.

Krishna Kumar is a former Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). His forthcoming book is ‘Thank You, Gandhi’

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