The Beautiful and the Damned sounds good as a title but is misleading. One of the great merits of Siddhartha Deb’s portraits is their nuance. They are portraits of those he met while travelling across India, investigating the changes he found when he returned after six years in New York. He doesn’t write in black and white. He realises that in almost all cases various shades of grey are the nearest we can get to a true portrayal of anyone’s life.
This is not of course to say that Deb glosses over the insecurity, the danger, the poor pay, the backbreaking work of those oppressed by the changed India he found. But he portrays them as fellow human beings, not objects of pity. At the same time he doesn’t portray, for example, those who employ migrant workers as utterly heartless exploiters. There is even a lightness of touch to his description of a labour contractor.
All this makes it even more remarkable that a court in distant Silchar, hearing a defamation suit, found one chapter of this book so lacking in nuance that the judge took the extreme step of granting an injunction, preventing the chapter being published. Furthermore, the judgement was passed without giving the publisher or the author the opportunity to defend themselves. So chapter one is missing from the Indian version of the book, although the full version will be available in other countries and the missing chapter is easily available on the net. Siddhartha Deb sees this injunction as an example of intimidation by “the powerful and wealthy”.
Intimidation is common in the stories Deb tells and the characters he brings so vividly to life add up to a critique of the India Story which the powerful and wealthy have managed to sell to their fellow Indians and to the world. He does meet some of those who have prospered but he also tells the stories of those for whom the new India still means a life of unrelenting struggle, with no security, and no hope of change. Those migrant workers—farmers whose lives were destroyed by the collapse of the Red Sorghum market, a young girl from the Northeast exhausted by the long hours she works serving customers in one of Delhi’s most expensive restaurants, and many others—all are an indictment of the new India.
But there is something more going on here. Deb, as I read him, discovers the fundamental fault in the construction of the new India. It is a superstructure erected on top of the crumbling edifice of the old ineffective India—corrupt, inefficient, and tied up in red tape. Deb doesn’t spell that out but leaves readers to draw the conclusion themselves. For instance, by telling the story of the police officer who favours a factory owner by filing a false rape case against a worker, thus preventing the formation of a trade union. Or the collector who can’t prevent the illegal activities leading to the crisis in the Red Sorghum market that bankrupts farmers. And the inspectors who pocket bribes to ignore the deplorable living conditions of migrant workers in a steel plant.
Old India also negates the advantages of the new structures which have been built and undermines the systems which have been put in place. The steel plant manager says a new highway, a symbol of modernity, has made the corruption worse because it’s so much easier for the rent-seeking inspectors to reach the factory. Earlier, the conditions made them hesitate before deciding to come calling. In the Red Sorghum scandal, the freedom of the market, meant to be one of the founding principles of the new India, is distorted by the chaos of the old India, syndicates, price-fixing, thugs, even riots and arson. The hi-tech Andhra Pradesh Chandrababu Naidu thought he had created is shown by the Satyam scandal to be “about land while pretending to be about software”. The answer to everything in Andhra, provided at considerable cost to the tax-payer by the international consultants McKinsey, is consigned to the wastepaper basket.
Everywhere Deb goes he finds evidence that much more than market reforms are needed if the new India is to be based on solid foundations. He presents that evidence in the most persuasive way, not by theorising or pontificating, but by letting the lives of those he meets while investigating the new India tell their own stories. This is a thoroughly readable book which should be read by anyone who believes India is already set on the path to economic superpower status.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
Writing story of India is a fabulous money making business.Both westerner and Indians jump in this bandwagon ,start to travel here and there collect most wonderful, odd,whimsical fantastic stories which are interested to western readers,, From British era Anglophobe writer constantly writing this kind stories there was and is big market in western world. These writers are really speaking white man` s nigger.Naipaul is also established himself as a writer scornfully writing on India.I had not seen single book which wrote full understanding the India culture, history,Pattern of writing same. carbon copy of same book repeating again and again.After all this money making business.
Sounds like a pretty good book. It's neither harsh on modern India, nor glorifying of it. But it seems to portray the day-to-day realities of many ordinary working people, which is commendable. The reference to the girl from the North East who was exhausted after serving customers for hours, is somewhat disturbing.
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