IN THE third of the four sections of The Beautiful and the Damned — The Factory — the author speculates on why a young migrant describes his chronic illness merely as ‘pain’: “Given the lives that migrant workers lived, someone like Pradip had no choice but to abandon the nuances of illness for a broad, catch-all word. The same was true when it came to the story of his life, which was often empty of descriptive detail and rendered in thick strokes.” Two hundred pages in, one worries about Deb’s ability to interview people. Compassionate and earnest though he is, he does not hesitate from assuming the poor man is unable to describe his life with colour or metaphor. Perhaps, honey, he was just not that into you.
Deb’s essays set out to tell the truth about New India and work hard at it — over five years, taking on everything from the bizarrely litigious Arindam Chaudhuri to Andhra Pradesh farmers to Bengaluru software engineers to Delhi waitresses. Long interviews, close observations and accidental encounters all feed his explorations. This is the kind of ambitious project non-fiction readers long for. Alas, it isn’t enough to just leave Delhi to become Ibn Battuta. Indian readers are not as cloistered in their socio-economic class as our writers, and you are likely to be baffled by Deb’s stating of the obvious. Why is it that when we’ve just got rid of the italics-strewn madness of Indian fiction, we’ve to now deal with the determinedly sulky alienation of our non-fiction?
Deb largely animates his subjects with that old party trick of ‘discovering India’ — easy juxtaposition and easier paradox. He skates over religion, sex, love, prejudice, rage, terror leaving you with ghosts. You’re also likely to be annoyed by Deb’s easy assumptions. He believes a Maoist union organiser when he says his Infosys employee daughter is fine with his radical politics. (He doesn’t ask her opinion.) In Bengaluru, when he annoys software engineer and poet SS Prasad, his contrary-minded subject says he doesn’t know what global warming is. Deb believes him. That this quixotic man who integrates poems in binary code onto computer chips and hopes they’ll be found by a future archaeologist doesn’t know what global warming is.
Deb is a little surprised that a Bengaluru auto-rickshaw driver knows how to use the iPhone he finds. He forgets his earlier expositions on the greasy pole of social mobility in New India — that you can be in a computer course today and be a bus conductor tomorrow. This is a particularly vexing class blindness since this chapter is an exploration of how technology has changed us. (Also: Wouldn’t Ibn Battuta have heard of an electronics grey market?)
The book is logjammed with formulations such as Priyanka Gandhi, “the heiress apparent of the Congress Party, a woman descended from a long line of prime ministers, part Indian and part Italian”. Or “He was a Dalit, or an untouchable in the taxonomy of the caste system”. Or “Bhagat Singh, the Indian socialist hanged by the British”. Or “the sacred texts of the Vedas”.
You have to struggle through the fog of defamiliarisation Deb deploys. Here’s a small but distracting example. Deb is waiting for the district collector of Nizamabad in his home office. He writes: “It was a large room, with rows of empty chairs facing the collector’s desk, as if he was in the habit of giving lectures or performances from the desk.” I paused here for several minutes. Is Deb making a small joke? It couldn’t be that he doesn’t know why a government officer would have a bunch of chairs facing him. Has he never witnessed the trapeze act of simultaneous audience-granting babus do across India? The reader is as lost as she’d be if she tried to ‘get’ India by reading the meticulous petticoat wearing Victorian chronicles.
DEB IS such a prim participant observer that when he’s moved to nostalgia by a pillion ride in a rainy small town, you feel more bad for him than for poor, battered India: “There were no cafes where I could hide my loneliness behind a cup of coffee and an open laptop… There was no escape here except through human relationships.” But mostly, he restrains from any sentiment. His is the joyless tone that’s often mistaken for detachment. Pity, because as wracked and broken by tragedy as India is, what it isn’t is morose. Suddenly, you realise how the ‘thick description’ of academic writing, the baffling memoirs of IAS officers and the amused knowingness of dyed-in-the wool journalist P Sainath have been more fruitful engagements with the subaltern’s interiority than this book. Perhaps because they didn’t take themselves so seriously.
Being tight-lipped and dispassionate might assure the reader of your good intentions, but as Bernard Williams said: “Amateurism is not heroism.” Deb will send you running back to the louche Suketu Mehta with his wonderful ability to bring the wooden puppet into glorious, perverse 3D. Here is a Suketu Mehta bargirl — no listless, moping figure — “And the girl rolls up all the windows of the taxi and opens the door of the cage and all the birds fly out and fill the small dark taxi with their energy and their music. She laughs with delight and asks her man to play a game with her: Catch the birds. They reach out with their hands to grab the birds, who are small and quick, and they have to wave their arms wildly about even to touch them. As the girl and her ardent suitor reach out to catch a bird, they sometimes, accidentally, can’t help touching each other… Half an hour later, the door of the taxi opens and half a dozen or a dozen dead birds are thrown out on the road. If there are any remaining alive, they fly out over the great dark sea, free at last.”
Nisha Susan is Features Editor with Tehelka.