JOHN DONVAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Centuries ago, Christopher Columbus set out to discover what he thought was India, but as the story goes, his perceptions were a little bit off.
Five hundred years later, writer Siddhartha Deb made a reverse trek. He went from the U.S. to India, which is his homeland. In a way, he too found himself exploring a new world, the India that stands at the heart of globalization. He actually went undercover in an Indian call center to better understand globalization's effect on the young people who were flocking to what seems like opportunity, but he discovered that this change is not affecting everyone the same way, that millions are being left behind.
We'd like to hear from you in this discussion. If you have ever lived in India, has the change been for the good or the worse? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later on in the program, we'll be looking at food stamps and fast food. But first, let's do this in-depth look at the new India. Siddhartha Deb writes about his experiences and the people he met on his journey in his new book, "The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India." He joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome to the program, Siddhartha.
SIDDHARTHA DEB: Thank you, John, for having me here.
DONVAN: So you're - in this case, I want to point out that you're actually a novelist.
DEB: That's right.
DONVAN: But this was not a work of fiction. This was more, closer - this was closer to journalism, I would say. So you went back to do journalism about the new India, why?
DEB: Well, I was interested in the changes that were happening there. Obviously, it's a lot of people experiencing change in new ways, in some sense, and I had gotten the impression that there was a very triumphalist version of this change, which is that the country is doing very well.
There was even a slogan that was coined by one of the political parties. It was called India Shining. And I was going back. I was writing feature articles. I was a freelance writer. And I was somewhat skeptical of this. It was pretty obvious that at the upper levels people were much better off materially than they had been in the past.
But certainly large numbers or swaths of people seem to be untouched or mired in the same poverty, or sometimes even worse because they could now see this incredible contrast. So I wanted to examine that. I wanted to do that by checking, by looking at the new rich. I wanted to look at people who were in the middle, people who were middle class.
I wanted to look at people who were very poor and who are the majority but invisible. And you know, I wanted to do it by, you know, getting a firsthand sense of what things are like, by talking to people, by interviewing them, by spending a lot of time with them.
It wasn't journalistic. It was more what you call immersion journalism. It involved spending sometimes weeks with people.
DONVAN: Well, and the style in which the book is written still reads like a novel. It is full of color and texture and even sights and sounds and smells.
DEB: Thank you. That was very much the intention, to write something like a nonfiction novel, if that's possible. So the facts aren't made up, they're very scrupulously researched. I've tried to be as accurate as possible, but I wanted the texture, the flavor of a novel, of people in motion in some sense.
DONVAN: Can I say that the story that you've written reads to me as a very sad story?
DEB: That would be - that's a fairly, I think, reasonable, actually, interpretation. I think it's a sad story to me too, in many ways.
DONVAN: Even among those who feel that you describe - you describe an engineer named Chuck who is building a house. He had lived in the United States, and he's now building a house in the American model. He gives you a tour. He even uses American language. This is the open-plan kitchen, this is the master bedroom.
And yet you portray him as - his desires as being somewhat hollow, as though he's not a happy man himself.
DEB: Well, I mean, I think Chuck would see himself as a happy man, and I think that's reasonable. I've tried to allow people that space. But yes, I as a narrator come in, and I do sometimes question what some of my characters are saying.
So when someone like Chuck says, you know, he did say this, that there are these incredible contrasts in India, but that's okay, we're kind of one big happy family, and I question whether that's really the case, when, you know, you have at the very top end of the country, say you have, say, something like 66 billionaires.
And these numbers might be slightly old, but there are probably a few more billionaires since I last checked. But 66 billionaires who seem to have something like 30 percent of the country's wealth.
On the other end, you have like 800 million people, over 800 million people living on less than $2 a day. When you have a country where 40 percent of the children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition, it seems to me that these contrasts aren't really healthy. They're not just differences. They are really like living different worlds within the same country.
So yes, I actually come in as a narrator, and I question when, say, Chuck is a character, he sees his life as striving and successful. And I think that's reasonable, again, but I also question the fact that this house, this special zone in which the house is constructed, is being built on what is a demolished village, and I have very hard questions.
I think this is very troubling, what is happening to the country, and even the people who are doing materially - yes, I think there might be a certain hollowness. I don't know that having more things necessarily makes you happier, by which I'm not suggesting that people shouldn't have, you know, things.
DONVAN: You speak so much about geography in this book. As you say, Chuck's house is in a special zone. And a couple of times, you actually use the same language in different parts of the book. You talk about an area near where he lives, and you talk about software complexes built along the outer ring road, their cool gleaming exteriors shimmering like mirages amid the rubble and scrubland of an area where city and village meet in an uneasy convergence.
On another page you talk about a company called Fuller Life – again, the word uneasy - the location evoking the uneasy juxtaposition of the old and the new that is so characteristic of contemporary Bangalore. And you seem to be very much in the book, you keep walking across that line, back and forth between the old and the new, between the shiny and the shabby, and you're very uncomfortable, it seems, by what's meeting there.
DEB: Yes, that's very well-put. I mean I imagine that change is always kind of painful and troubling, especially change on a large scale. I do question that, you know, some of the changes that have been happening in India, whether it's been done with any kind of thought to the hundreds of millions left behind, I think that I have - that's where the uneasiness comes from, as if the rubble(ph) has nothing of value to offer to India, as if the fact that half-a-billion people make a living from agriculture, is just something old and outdated.
And, you know, as if software - I mean software engineering, this only employs a little over a million people. We do have to ask as a society what is going to happen to the large majority who don't - who are not software engineers and who probably don't want to become software engineers and who won't be able to become software engineers?
I think that's not been asked in any way, and I think again we're talking whether it's rubble or this urbanization, it's very breakneck, it's often very ugly. It often displaces villagers, you know, highways cutting through villages, cutting a village into two without providing an underpass for villagers to go from one side to another.
DONVAN: Excellent scene where you're picking your way across a superhighway.
DEB: Exactly, I had to walk across the highway between Bangalore and Hyderabad on foot. I crossed the highway with the villagers because, you know, there's no underpass.
DONVAN: We're speaking with Siddhartha Deb, who is author of "The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India." And we've asked you to call in, particularly if you have experience having lived in India. And I want to go Ankesh(ph), who is in West Michigan. Talk to us, Ankesh, about what we're talking about here.
ANKESH: Okay, my name is Ankesh (unintelligible) I agree to some extent, but I know I have lived in India, born and brought up until 2000, came here in 2000. I think I've gone to India like seven or eight times so far, at least once (unintelligible) year. There has been big changes, like the globalization at the higher level has actually impacted at a lower level a lot.
Slowly the growth has trickled down to the common man in terms of better infrastructure, better employment opportunities, better business opportunities.
So the contrast is there. That's not going to go away in like a decade, but it has come down. The gap between the rich and the poor is not going up. It's started coming down.
DONVAN: So Ankesh, you're saying that the trend is in the right direction as far as you're concerned?
ANKESH: Yeah, the rate with which that gap is narrowing down is not acceptable. It's very slow, but you can see - you see the difference. If you go to places like Delhi or Mumbai, where I usually go, you will see a big contrast between poor and, you know, the rich. But when you move in from the metro cities, you can see that, yes, the life has improved.
In the last 10 years, the number of cell phone users in India is many more than anywhere in the world.
DONVAN: All right, Ankesh, thank you for those insights, and I want to have Siddhartha have a chance to respond to them. Thanks for your call.
DEB: Yeah, I mean I think the numbers don't bear those out, the idea that the contrasts have reduced. Actually, I don't think there's any doubt but at the upper level the rich have become much richer and that within the middle classes people are actually making more money and are consuming more.
Often the number of cell phones is a very favorite figure. It's very interesting, I did (unintelligible) they did have cell phones, but they didn't feel that they had become empowered in any major way because of having cell phones. I mean it is convenience.
And when I was speaking to the migrant workers in a factory where I spent some time, they actually, many of them didn't have cell phones. More - one of the more things they were concerned with is they didn't have ration cards that they could use to buy subsidized food.
So some of the fundamental, you know, struggles are over things like food, water, land and maybe mobility in some sense, education. And that hasn't changed. And the numbers are not good. The numbers that come in from various sources.
Just recently, a minister in central India, in Delhi, suggested that, you know, anyone making more than 32 rupees a day in Delhi should be considered above the poverty line. Thirty-two rupees is like 80 cents or 70 cents. He was laughed at roundly. I mean, you can see this New York Times story where the reporter is going around asking people in Delhi how much they can - you know, how many meals can you eat on 32 rupees a day.
And people laugh. You can make maybe one meal a day on that. So this - you know, you do see in the cities, you see cell phones, you see televisions, you see more consumer goods, but large numbers of people are living in abysmal conditions.
DONVAN: As they were before, however.
DEB: As they were before.
DONVAN: Let's talk about that when we come back. We're talking with Siddhartha Deb. His book, again, is titled "The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India." And if you've ever lived in India, we want to ask you to give us a call. Tell us whether you feel the change has been for good or not. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. Siddhartha Deb opens his new book, "In The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India" with a description of himself as a child growing up there, and then moves on to a chapter in which he explores the life of the very, very wealthy.
And the interesting thing about that chapter one, Siddhartha, is that it doesn't appear in the Indian version of this book. Why not?
DEB: That's absolutely right. It's the only edition in the world that the chapter doesn't appear in, which I think itself is very telling, that, you know, the rich and the powerful are not happy with any kind of scrutiny.
It's a fairly nuanced (unintelligible) to a very wealthy person. He's a entrepreneur. He owns a large chain of business schools. He's a producer of some Bollywood films and very flamboyant, very energetic. He's a management guru. His name is Arindam Chaudhuri.
And I spent a significant amount of time with him, talking to him, and I have a critical, but nuanced portrait, which was excerpted in an Indian magazine, after which, what happened was that his company filed a defamation lawsuit, but not in Delhi, which is where his company is based and where the magazine is based, as well.
They filed it thousands of miles away in a very small court, and the court issued an injunction without allowing us to respond. And the suit was filed against the magazine, my publishers, Penguin, me and Google India for some very strange reason, accusing us of all working for his rival companies.
And as a result, it just wasn't possible legally to publish the chapter in the Indian edition until it's resolved, which may take years.
DONVAN: So the book is thinner.
DEB: Yeah, the book is thinner and censored, but I guess the strange thing that has happened is that people have been buying the book in India, and then they download illegal versions of the chapter that float around on the Internet, which has nothing to do with me or my publishers.
DONVAN: We're talking with Siddhartha Deb, the author of "The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India." If you've ever lived in India, we want to ask you to tell us whether you think this shift to a modern global economy has been for the good or not. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com, and you can visit the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
In the chapter that has been censored, you have a very, very - you bare your soul, I think, for a very, very interesting paragraph or two in which you've been rubbing shoulders with the very, very wealthy. You talk about their ability to incite jealousy and the desire to aspire to who these people are by their own show of wealth. And then you look at yourself in a shop window, and you, for a moment, you feel the same jealousy.
You say: I wondered why I didn't have a suit, designer glasses and car keys. I wondered why I wasn't making money at this time in India, when money-making opportunities seemed to be everywhere for the asking. I was an aspirer, finally oblivious to anything but my own inchoate desires, filled with a sense of victimization, as well as a trembling awareness of opportunities that it was perhaps not too late to capitalize on.
So you were bitten - at least in that moment, you were bitten by the get-rich thing that you, in most of the rest of the book, have a great deal of skepticism about.
DEB: Yeah. I wanted to humanize. I am sympathetic to people aspiring to more material wealth, and I'm critical at the same time. I think it is possible to be sympathetic and critical at the same time of certain things.
I mean, essentially, what we are seeing is that a certain section within India wants to catch up with the West. And they want to catch up in the West at some very obvious levels, at material wealth, big armies and, you know, big shopping malls.
And, in a way, I can understand why. I mean, it's a great culture. It's a very old civilization that's been deeply humiliated through a great part of the modern era, partly because of colonialism. It has felt itself sort of out of the loop, and so people want to catch up. And I'm sympathetic to that.
But that doesn't stop me from being - and, you know, in the same way, within India, there's a segment of people who are doing very well. And yes, there's something wonderful to, you know, wearing a nice suit and, you know, wearing designer glasses, carrying a laptop, feeling like a certain kind of citizen of the world. This is the phrase that would often come to me from the well-to-do.
But, you know, there are all kinds of citizens of the world, and we can't forget about everybody else who...
DONVAN: But you do say a few paragraphs later that the moment passed, and you got over this episode of envy and greed. Let's bring in Chris from McKinleyville, California. Chris, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
CHRIS: Good afternoon, folks. I lived in India a long time ago and have been back twice, and I'd have to say that globalization has helped, mercurially, a lot of Indians. But until land reform and land rights issues are honestly dealt with, I think a vast majority of Indians are going to be left behind.
DONVAN: Siddhartha, care to comment?
DEB: Well, I'm not sure what you mean by land reforms or land rights, actually. I don't mean that in a critical spirit. I just don't understand that part of it.
CHRIS: Personal land use, personal land rights, land ownership has - is a lot of times held in village title, and the village elders, a lot of times, get to decide what is done with the land. And that was - a whole land reform - the whole concept of land reform and land ownership is a hot-button topic all over India.
DEB: Yes, that's very true. I mean, the land issues in rural areas, that's a colonial legacy where, you know, the British instituted somewhat different set of systems because they were interested in extracting revenue, and they often created some rather bizarre ownership patterns.
But within India itself, you know, in rural areas, it varies widely. It depends on which states we are talking about. There's a lot of variation. And in states where there's relatively low education, relatively low in terms of equality, where there's much more of a caste class, gender hierarchy, essentially, you tend to see landholdings in, you know, in very small - landlords holding a lot of land.
In states where there's been some kind of education, more sense of rights, there's been something more of a reformation and basically more people have rights to the land. At the same time, a lot of people are basically - a large category of people in rural India are what - that we call landless laborers. They don't really own anything. They work on other people's lands.
So it's really coming down to a question of what does it mean to be a citizen, and are these people equal in the same sense. And constitutionally, they are. The constitution is pretty - it's a pretty remarkable document. But it's not enforced. You know, when you go the police and - you are not as equal as somebody who owns land.
DONVAN: You know, Siddhartha, to that point - and Chris, thank you for your call. You - there's another way in which you describe these people that you're describing right now. You use the word - I just happened to notice this. You use the word worn or worn out several times in the book, both to describe the slippers of people who are walking around looking for work, but even the people themselves.
You describe a woman who - say - she looked older, but more worn down, and you describe the workers at a steel plant so effectively. You say the men appeared shabby, and their bodies looked worn out by the work, shorn of flab, without being muscular.
And does worn-out mean? Worn-out means not of use anymore, not having a place, and to be thrown out. And is that what you're trying to communicate? Is the experience of people who are in this category, of not being part of the surge upward, that they can't ever get a piece of it?
DEB: Yes, I think it's terrifying to say, to contemplate that it's true of such a majority of people, that if they haven't been educated, if they are not already working, say, in companies, in private companies doing kind of not manual labor, not physical labor, but, you know, paper waste work, then if they're not part of what they call the knowledge economy, then they are useless, in some sense. And that's terrifying to contemplate.
DONVAN: Let's go to Tommy in Northville, Michigan. Tommy, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.
DONVAN: You're free to speak. Go ahead.
TOMMY: Okay. I have been in this country for 25 years, and I have been traveling back and forth over the past 25 years, and the greatest change I see is in the political structure, which feels a lot more empowerment of the people. Earlier on, they had a socialistic system, where everything was controlled by the government, including businesses, the so-called License Raj, and people had no motivation to aspire to do better because they were in a government job, and you got your promotion based upon your years of experience or seniority.
But now, people don't look to the government as the primary source of employment. They look to the private sector. They look at starting their own jobs, and the...
DONVAN: But Tommy, is it your sense that the average Indian is making use of those opportunities?
TOMMY: Yes. They are much better off. Earlier on, they were, depending upon the state you live in, either there were (unintelligible) or there was a distant class of people, which led to the rise of communism.
DONVAN: Siddhartha, what about that? It's a...
DEB: Well, there are still extremely large numbers of bonded laborers in India. We're talking about one of the biggest - one of the industries in which there's something called bonded laborers is called the brick kiln industries. These are very small-scale. The fact is the majority of the people are untouched, in some sense, by opportunities, which is why, again, a majority of the people are interested in government jobs, because it's a very large employer.
There is a great degree of inefficiency connected to the government, but that's not entirely an accurate picture, either. The License Raj is something that's bandied around quite a bit. Essentially, when India became independent, Indian industrialists, big Indian industrialists like the Tatas and the builders(ph), were among the very people who wanted a very centralized government structure. They wanted the government to participate. And essentially what happened through 40 years - it wasn't a completely closed economy. It allowed Indian industries to grow. It allowed engineering colleges that were heavily subsidized by the government, which produced those engineers who've gone on to the world. And then it produced the kind of middle class that became confident enough to compete with, you know, the West basically.
But now that that's been done, it's been happened for the middle class. It's happened for 150 million people or so. We don't want that to happen for the rest of the people. And one of the things I've not talked about is affirmative action in terms of cost, that is extending benefits to people who have been oppressed hugely. Now, when you - one of the reasons that they want a government job is because the government jobs have affirmative action working for them, and they are different, you know, there are different percentage depending on which state you're in.
Private jobs, there's no such thing. And so private jobs naturally go to people who are capable of taking advantage, upper caste, urban, educated. I'm not saying they don't deserve to have these jobs.
DONVAN: But you are saying, in a sense, that socialism created the basis from which this burst of capitalism launched.
DEB: Exactly. And it wasn't even socialism. It's more like a mixed thing. It was in a part social - there was plenty of private enterprise. Before Coca-Cola - when Coca-Cola got thrown out of India in the '70s, you know, when I was growing up in India in my 20s, we had Indian sort of drinks like, you know, they were fakes. But that's partly what allowed - that great copying was what allowed a certain kind of talent to emerge. In fact, when you go to India today and you go to the smaller towns or you go to the, you know, the edges of the cities, the bulk of what's being sold are not Western-branded goods. They are knockoffs. They are fakes.
DONVAN: Tommy, thank you for your call. Let's bring in Sheryl(ph) from Houston, Texas. Sheryl, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.
SHERYL: Hi. Yes, I just flew in actually from India, and I was looking for the NPR station and came upon your program today, which is...
DONVAN: Good timing.
SHERYL: ...seemly interesting to me. I was in Bangalore, India, for about seven years. And I'm married to someone that was originally from there, and we moved back from the U.S. So I have a perspective from, you know, living there in the ground right now, and I can tell you that the food and the cost of everything for my maids, my driver, it just goes up and up and up. And, you know, I think that they - even though we pay them well - I think we pay them, you know, above average. They're probably getting 13, 14,000 rupees a month from us, each of them and paying — because we're paying for their schooling, their health care and their salary and their living accommodation so they have something, you know, decent to live in. You know, it's just - they can just keep (unintelligible) themselves. They can't really save long term.
So I guess we're helping them save with educating their children and giving them good health care and everything. But I think that, you know, the cost for them just keeps going up and up. Another thing positive I would say right now is that there is a lot more money there, and I do see people - some people with money wanting to do something good. And the company that I work for is Indian-owned, and they have a good health care clinic, and they provide free health care in the afternoon for people. So I think I'd like to see more of that there.
DONVAN: So, Sheryl, you're basically saying islands of progress. And I think, Siddhartha, you acknowledged that in your book.
DEB: Oh, yeah, I think I agree with that. You know, the cost of living that Sheryl pointed out, the cost of food, nobody wants to talk about that. I mean, I'm very glad she brought it up. It's gone up tremendously. And again, if you are middle class and above, if you have a certain kind of - you're above a certain level, it doesn't affect people that much. But at the bottom of the ladder, which is where the majority of people are, the bulk of the income is spent on food, the $2-a-day people. The bulk of it goes on food. So food prices go up, it affects them disproportionately compared to other people.
DONVAN: "The Beautiful and the Damned' is the name of the book by Siddhartha Deb. We're discussing his portrait of the new India. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Siddhartha Deb, the title "The Beautiful and the Damned," obviously lifted from Scott Fitzgerald's saga of the Jazz Age, and I'm absolutely - because I know you're a novelist as well, that's no accident. So what's the point you're trying to make?
DEB: Well, it's bit of an India Gilded Age with cell phones and I think, you know, the Gilded Age with the Internet throw in. So everything is visible. So there's that same flamboyance, that same kind of energy that you see in the upper classes but the same kind of, you know, absolute lack of caring, lack of awareness over what's happening for the majority who are kind of pushed off to the sidelines, who are invisible. And I think those contrasts are what I am trying to push, and I'm trying to push a debate about those contrasts, about this materialism, which is both attractive and tawdry at the same time.
DONVAN: Dedkin(ph) in New York is joining us on TALK OF THE NATION. Hello, Dedkin.
DEDKIN: Hi. My husband and I lived in Bangalore for several years, so we're certainly not - we're not experts, but I think the main impression we take away is that India has always had this huge dichotomy between the rich and the poor, and has always had a massive number of people living on - just scraping by, like you say. And I just wonder why, you know, why is this talk of globalization, the thing that really gets us to finally address this thing that has been an issue for so long and...
DONVAN: That's a terrific question, yeah. Siddhartha, what about that? I mean, in a sense, what you're describing is new, but it's not new.
DEB: Well, what I find interesting is, you know, a number of the people have said they lived in Bangalore. And Bangalore is - that's very interesting. Bangalore is much more globalized - globalized in a particular way. No, I think what has changed is that there were these contrasts growing up, the were famous there, these contrasts between the rich and the poor. I think there was a sense of a shared future and that something had to be done about people who were less fortunate.
Sometimes that impulse came from people because they were socialist or communist. Sometimes it came because they were religious and because they felt that they were connected. There was a sense of, you know, a duty. That has disappeared. And now there is a sense of, you know, the people who've done well deserve to do well, and the devil take the rest, basically. There's - that's what is new. And there's also a lot of criticism of the government. And I'm very critical of the government myself, but I end up defending it because, often, the critiques of the government, that the government is inefficient doesn't - it becomes a kind of hidden away. It's almost like the Tea Party kind of - you know, an Indian Tea Party version of saying the government is very bad.
But the government - the legislators, the bureaucrats - they are elected by a large majority of Indians. And one other thing about India is the poor vote in massive numbers. I do not think they're represented very well often, but it is still some form of representation. And I don't want to dismiss that so quickly by attacking the government.
DONVAN: As ever, a land of contradictions. Thank you very much, Siddhartha Deb. Your book is called "The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India." Thanks so much for joining us on TALK OF THE NATION.
DEB: Thank you, John.
DONVAN: Coming up, should food stamps be used at fast-food restaurants? Sherrie Tussler argues that nobody else can tell us what to put on our plates, and she joins us next. I'm John Donvan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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