For better or for worse

Written by Anil Sasi | Updated: Dec 2 2012, 05:45am hrs
India is in transition, but portraying it with all its inherent contradictionssome obvious and some not so obviouspresents a formidable challenge in itself. Akash Kapur, in his book, India Becoming: A Journey Through A Changing Landscape, has managed to sketch a lucid visage of the transformation of the country, with broader lessons on the upside and downside of progress in modern India. Kapur is obviously a keen observer of history and current affairs and a talented storyteller, for he manages to keep readers thumbing through the pages as he takes them through a vivid journey. His skill as an author is to get people talking and to weave their stories into a debate about Indias future.

As you reach halfway down the book, it is obvious that the author is especially qualified to assess the contrasts and contradictions that have been brought to the fore with the changes taking place across the country, in the cities and in the hinterland. Kapur grew up on the outskirts of Auroville, a town where thoughts and observations are celebrated. The son of an American mother and an Indian father, he studied in boarding school in the United States at the age of 16, and later at Harvard and Oxford, only to return to his motherland 12 years later.

Kapur brings you home as you race through his book. The year is 2003 when Kapur returns to India and is optimistic of the vast changes that have taken place in the country. He finds that in urban India prejudices of religion, caste and rigid social convention have diminished, but there are other challenges

His settings for the stories of his protagonists are identifiablethey are the people he meets around his home in rural Tamil Nadu and in the cities of Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai. His book takes you to parts of India not familiar to many, where he dwells on the transforming countryside. Mostly, it takes us into the minds and hearts of Indians seeking to adapt to a society that is changing at a fast pace. Kapur has managed to make his book read like a novel. Its central protagonist Sathy is a middle-aged landowner whose family came from a powerful warrior clan-controlled village, Molasur. Today, he cannot even convince his wife to live in the village as she cannot stand the rigour of life in the hinterland and prefers to bring up the children in Bangalore where the schools are much better and she too has better job prospects. Life for Sathy is topsy-turvy. The India that he thought existed no longer doeshe finds his neighbours all succumbing to the charms of land developers, selling away their property and living on remittances sent by their children. He also witnesses the declining quality of the land his family held sacredonce fertile land, it was slowly but surely getting poisoned by chemical fertiliser. The author succinctly brings out the changes in the social fabric. Das, a Dalit, who continues to think twice about entering Sathys courtyard, is nevertheless a property dealer and able to treat Sathy as an equal. Its a miracle that Sathy comes to my house, that he and I can sit side by side like this, that we share water from the same bottle, says Das. Kapurs conflicting emotions on the Americanisation of India come to the fore. It is obvious that he vacillates between the certain liberating aspect to it, and where things have become worse than the days of his childhood.

As the book takes a look at the underbelly of modernity, it darkens. Several of his characters face the rough and tumble of life, while he himself is involved in a car crash that leaves a terrible aftertaste. From hope, the author moves to disillusionment. But the debate on Indias future, its transformationfor better or for worseremains the central theme and the reason why the book should be read.