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.