Thiruchitrambalam Koot Road is the kind of place that would have once been called a farming town. And D. Ayyanar is the kind of young man who, a generation ago, could only have imagined himself as a farmer. He sits by the side of the road on a Thursday afternoon, selling pumpkins amidst the din and dust of commerce. The streets of this busy Tamil Nadu town, at the intersection of several village roads and National Highway 66, are lined with cellphone stores, jewellery showrooms and computer training centres. The vegetable market, once crowded and expansive, has been reduced to a few sparsely stocked stalls. It’s nearly impossible to find traces of the town’s agricultural past.
Ayyanar, age 18, is from a neighbouring village. His father is a farmer, and his grandfather was, too. As a child, he often worked the family’s one-acre plot with his parents. But now, he tells me, he has no intention of going into farming. He’s studying engineering. He plans to move to the city, go to college, and ultimately start his own construction business.
Ayyanar lists the things he intends to buy when he has some money: a computer, a fridge, a washing machine, a laptop, a motorcycle. I ask him what his goals are and, wiping the sweat from his brow, he says: “You should not be able to say that there is anything I do not have in my house.”
Two decades into India’s tryst with economic liberalisation, and we have grown accustomed to stories like Ayyanar’s. We are no longer surprised by a generation of young men (and, increasingly, women) who reject the professions of their ancestors, who are unabashed about their ambitions, and who flaunt their material desires without even a hint of the inhibitions of an earlier generation. Purists decry the materialism and narcissism of this new generation; others celebrate its self-confidence and ambition.
Either way, in a nation of 600 million citizens aged under 25, almost 60 per cent of India’s total population, the attitudes and outlook of the youth have become decidedly mainstream. Their optimism and self-assuredness, their faith in the future, have come to stand, metonymically, for a nation that is itself regularly rated, in surveys and opinion polls, as among the most optimistic and self-assured in the world.
What shall we call this new generation—a generation that has come of age post-Ambassador Cars and Campa Cola, that has never known the shortages and enforced austerity of 300 per cent import tariffs and licence raj? Salman Rushdie famously gave a name to independent India’s first generation. “Midnight’s Children”, as he called them, were an idealistic cohort, brought up on stories of hardship and sacrifice. Their idealism was forced into a constant—and often hard—reckoning with post-independence realities of poverty, violent separatism, and political and bureaucratic venality.
There is no doubt that today’s generation (“midnight’s grandchildren”, as some have called them) have it much easier. They have had to sacrifice little. They have come of age in an era of shopping malls and multiplexes, amidst an atmosphere of plenty and unbridled (some might say excessive) positivity. Palash Krishna Mehrotra, a journalist and author who is writing a book on today’s young, calls them a “butterfly generation”. He says that they possess a certain “lightness of being”—an assuredness that allows them to move with ease between identities and languages, between tradition and modernity.
Manjeet Kripalani, founder and executive director of Gateway House, a Mumbai-based think-tank, calls them “liberalisation’s children”. In a cover story she wrote on India’s youth for Businessweek in 1999, she wrote of a generation that was “more materialist, more (shaped) by globally informed opinions”, and more “ambitious, technology-oriented, and confident”. She cited a survey conducted by Coca Cola in which Indian youth, across cities and villages, said their main ambition was to “become rich”.
All these characterisations ring true, even more than a decade later. It is hard today to escape the steady stream of magazine covers, the drumbeat of consumer research, that capture the materialism and self-belief of the young. Sometimes, when I visit a busy shopping mall or a new restaurant in the cities, I find myself—wistfully, perhaps a little enviously—comparing this generation to my own.
Our times were simpler, in a way, less burdened by the trappings of capitalism and the expectations created by a booming economy. But they were also less exciting, and certainly less full of potential. The India of the 1970s and the 1980s, when I grew up, was not a country that expected to be an economic superpower. The companies marketing to my generation weren’t acquiring luxury brands in Europe and America; the global business elite weren’t wooing us at college recruitment centres.
All these achievements—and many more: an economy growing at near double-digits, millions of people lifted from poverty—are real. Still, despite the undeniable progress, I can’t help feeling sometimes that, in all the hype about this new generation, amidst all the excited surveys and breathless lifestyle coverage, we often reduce it to a certain caricature. By now, stories like Ayyanar’s have been told so many times, and in so many versions, that they have come to seem a little rehearsed. In many ways, the stories we tell ourselves about the new India (stories that are not exactly false, but perhaps a little embellished) have come to stand in for reality itself.
We have constructed the narrative of a go-get-it and successful youth because we like the idea of a successful nation. We have exaggerated the youth’s break with tradition, their cosmopolitanism and modernity, because we want reassurance that India is a 21st century power. The reality of modern India is, as always, a little more complicated. We do a disservice to the young (and, indeed, to the nation) in denying that complexity, in relying on caricatures and building simplistic notions of what it means to be ambitious or successful today.
It is good to remember, on this two-decade anniversary of the nation’s reforms, that a generation is generally said to last about 20 years. In this hyper-sped-up world that we inhabit, it is probably fair to assume that that cycle has been compressed; and, by that standard, many of today’s youth can be said to inhabit a second post-liberalisation generation.
For this generation—“liberalisation’s grandchildren”, as they should perhaps be called—the encounter with modernity and capitalism is a lot more nuanced than it seemed in the years immediately following the advent of reforms. Those years were marked by a certain euphoria, a sense of exultation and release from the drabness of post-independence socialism. But now some of that euphoria has worn out; it has become clear that India’s rapid growth and development, while wonderful, are also a little more ambivalent than anticipated.
Today’s generation knows that wealth and success can take many forms: it is the entrepreneurial prowess and innovation of India’s world-class businesses, but it is also the corruption of an oligarchic political and business class that has bent reforms to its own interests. Rapid growth, too, has many faces. It is the story of immeasurably widened horizons, of self-made young men and women who have risen further than their fathers could have ever dreamed; but economic growth is also spawning new forms of inequality and social exclusion, and terrible environmental depredation.
It is through this morally ambiguous landscape that today’s youth must travel, building careers and relationships and families. The postcard version of their lives that we read about and see on television is a fantasy; it denies the complexity and equivocal nature of their world, and, in doing so, infantilises them, treats them as though they are oblivious children who can only party and shop and self-centredly push their way through the rat race. I venture to suggest that our young are in fact far more savvy—more mature, and more attuned to the realities, both good and bad, of modern India.
I had occasion to reflect on all of this recently when I paid a visit to a farming village up the road from Thiruchitrambalam Koot Road. The village’s name was Molasur; it was accessed by a narrow tar path, about a kilometre in from a country road that had recently been turned into a national highway. I visited Molasur the same afternoon I spoke with Ayyanar. I sat on a verandah with four young men, aged between 13 and 18.
I spoke to those boys for over an hour. They talked about their lives, and I heard many of the stories you would expect to hear—stories, like Ayyanar’s, about ambition and self-confidence, about a determination to succeed and acquire wealth. Each of the boys had grown up in an agricultural family; each was planning to quit agriculture. Each said he wanted to move to the city; each wanted to start a business of his own.
“If you do it yourself, you’ll make more profit,” said M. Sudhakar, age 17.
V. Suriyaprakash, age 13, suggested that the fields bordering the village could be replaced by hospitals and medical centres. He wanted to be a doctor. He planned to set up his own clinic.
But as we spoke more, as the afternoon turned into evening and the boys relaxed a little, opened up, the conversation turned darker. They began speaking about corruption, about Anna Hazare and the nation’s telecom scam. They talked about the environmental problems their village was facing, about the rice mill that was emitting smoke over their homes and fields. Always present in our conversation, the backdrop to nearly everything said, was the crisis in rural agriculture that is decimating villages like Molasur throughout the country. The boys acknowledged—some a little sadly, some with resignation—that agriculture in their area probably wouldn’t survive more than a few years.
I can’t say I felt fully encouraged as I drove away from Molasur that evening. To be sure, there was much in our conversation to reinforce the idea of a confident and optimistic youth. But there was much, also, to remind me of all the difficulties the nation faces. “We’ll have to struggle, we’ll have to work so hard to overcome everything,” Sudhakar had said, shortly before I left Molasur. “But maybe, if we work very hard, we can manage.”
I thought about what he said, and at first all I focused on were the difficulties. But then I thought more, and it struck me that in his measured confidence, in his self-assurance that was balanced with an understanding of the obstacles, lay real grounds for optimism. Sudhakar, like his three friends, did not live in a fantasy world. Their best hope—and the nation’s hopes—lay in their willingness to face up to reality.
(Kapur’s non-fiction book, India Becoming, will be out next year. He’s a former ‘Letter from India’ columnist for IHT.)