Monday, September 5, 2011

Review: The Beautiful and the Damned


The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India
Siddhartha Deb
Viking/ Penguin
Rs 499; Pp 224
ISBN : 9780670085965

About the book 

In 2004, after six years in New York, Siddhartha Deb returned to India to look for a job. He discovered that sweeping change had overtaken the country. With the globalization of its economy, the relaxation of trade rules, the growth in technology and the shrinking down of the state, a new India was being born. Deb realized he had found his job: to explore this vast, complex and bewildering nation and try to make sense of what was underway.

The Beautiful and the Damned is the triumphant outcome. It is an original and innovative work that combines personal narrative, travelogue, reportage, penetrating analysis and the stories of many individuals across a vast range of geographical and social circumstances.

Deb talks to the great and good and those in charge, but listens as intently to the worker at the call centre remaking herself from her provincial moorings and the migrant sweatshop worker trying to make his way in the city. By listening to the stories of the people he meets and works alongside Deb shows how people caught in the midstream of these changes actually experience them.

Visiting the metropolises, small towns and villages, as well as both gated suburban communities and camps for displaced peasants, Deb offers a panoramic view of the changes in landscape and urban geography, creating an epic narrative of the people who make up the world’s second most populous nation.

With a novelist’s vision, Siddhartha Deb’s extraordinary book paints a portrait of India through the story of its people: aspiring and deluded, desperate and hopeful, beautiful and damned.

New India, old angle Business Standard
Relying on preconceived notions, Siddhartha Deb misses the real story.

The book you are about to read does not have a first chapter: you will find that the text jumps from the end of the introduction to the second chapter,” declares Siddhartha Deb in the author’s note of this book. It’s a pity, because those who read the first chapter, which was also published in the February 2011 issue of Caravan magazine, would agree that it is the most engaging of the five chapters that portray life in the “new” India. Because of an injunction order for defamation obtained by its subject, this chapter (“The Great Gatsby: A Rich Man in India”) on self-styled management guru Arindam Chaudhuri was pulled out of the book. The surviving four essays, unfortunately, are more a reflection of an armchair leftist’s world view than a real assessment of the India we live in today.

Deb takes you through the rural heartland and bustling cities where he encounters the protagonists of his emerging-India story. They are engineers, farmers, call centre employees, migrant labourers, communists, a right-wing extremist and a waitress in New Delhi. Chance encounters with mobile phone thieves, middle-class aspirers and policemen on encounter squads complete the picture. Through these characters, Deb seeks to give us a glimpse of a country afflicted by class struggle and a highly “tiered” society with “gated communities” for the elite and no room for the poor. The narrative touches on deprivation and surplus, SEZs and farmers’ suicides, alienation and the “high consumption” side of globalisation.

Full review here Hindustan Times

There’s a tremendous hole in The Beautiful And The Damned: Life in the New India, by Siddhartha Deb. One whole chapter is missing. So after the author’s note and the introduction, we turn straight to chapter 2 on page 72. According to the publisher’s note, chapter 1, ‘The Great Gatsby: A Rich Man in India’ “has been removed in accordance with an injunction order passed by the Civil Court, Silchar in a suit for defamation”. The suit was filed by one Kishorendu Gupta and the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM).

Fair enough. There is a case, and if Deb and his Indian publishers choose to argue it, the case will come up in court at some point in this country’s future. Meanwhile, as Deb says tiredly over the phone from New York, “It’s interesting that in a book that looks at the real stories behind the ‘new’ India, it’s the single chapter about the rich and powerful that had to be pulled.”

The Leak Sprung In The Engine Room Outlook

A nuanced probe under new India’s upper stories unearths the usual deprivation and a foundation crumbling away

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.

India's good, bad and ugly Gulf News

Modernisation is a violent process. Settled forms of existence are uprooted, ancient beliefs are abandoned and familiar hardships give way to unknown dangers. But risks also bring opportunities. India's post-independence settlement was paternalistic socialism — the state discouraged vulgar capitalism and the people remained untouched by material ambitions — that is, they stayed poor. Few got rich except gangsters and politicians.

In the past 20 years, though, there has been an explosion of free-market capitalism. Foreign companies such as Coca-Cola, once banned, are now welcomed. The growth of call centres, computer technology and car manufacturing has seen the country become the world's third-largest economy. The "million mutinies" V.S. Naipaul saw stirring in his 1990 book about India are now a billion and counting. In The Beautiful and the Damned, Siddhartha Deb has taken up Naipaul's mantle.

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