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Book Review
AFA5 Are We Asian Yet?

This review is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 5: Are We Asian Yet?. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.

Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing the World
Snigdha Poonam
Hurst Publishers

Some years ago, I worked as a teacher and mentor to young Indians who had been admitted into the inaugural Young India Fellowship program, a group of men and women handpicked from across the country who had elected to take on an untested liberal-arts fellowship rather than more traditional postgraduate options. They were a disparate bunch: an environmentalist from rural Orissa, a lawyer from New Delhi, a South Indian engineer, even the daughter of a rickshaw puller. What bound them together was their intelligence and their drive: all wanted to make something of themselves in this new, confident India that was so different from that of their parents’ generation.

My job was to help finesse their writing and speaking skills. Each had ambition and focus in spades, and I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them, inhaling their enthusiasm and quick wit. My one-on-one sessions were sometimes illuminating in other ways, such as witnessing how quickly the rural daughter shed her demure country skin and acquired the shiny-haired hauteur of Delhi girls. Or when an aspiring lawyer from a gem-trading family tried to bribe me to write an essay in his name for the annual Ayn Rand Foundation Institute’s student essay contest. “There’s a prize of up to $2000,” he implored, turning his palms skyward. “I get the title, but you keep the money.”

To him, the transaction was perfectly, entirely rational. He spent our hour-long session debating my refusal, in a way that made me think he was using it as an opportunity to hone his courtroom skills. “Here in India, this is how we do things. We all want things to get ahead. Some of us want money” – here, he pointed at me – “and some of us want prestige and recognition. This is just an essay, yes, but why can’t we approach it the way we approach a business deal? You get something, I get something. We all benefit.”

I was reminded of this encounter while reading Snigdha Poonam’s Dreamers. The Delhi newspaper journalist spent years trawling cities and small towns, the internet and social media to get a glimpse of how India’s youth is faring. What she found was a group of people pursuing different paths but bound by common themes: ambition, nationalism and anger.

“This is a generation of Indians hanging between extremes,” writes Poonam. “They are hitting adulthood with the cultural values of their grandparents – socially conservative, sexually timid, god-fearing – but the life goals of American teenagers: money and fame. They have the bleakest chance at a real opportunity – one million Indians enter the job market every month; perhaps 0.01 percent find steady jobs – but the fanciest possible ideas about success.”

The core of Dreamers is this gulf between the ambitions of Indian youth and the stark reality of the job market.

India right now is in the grip of a demographic opportunity/crisis. The median age is twenty-five, and 600 million Indians – half the country’s population – are younger than that. Six hundred million: just let that figure sink in. It is almost twice the population of the United States, almost ten times the population of the United Kingdom, and twenty-four times the population of Australia. No other country in the world has a greater number of young people. A youth bulge like this can be advantageous for an economy if handled correctly. However, without the necessary investment in job creation, it can also mean millions of unemployed youth, idle and disaffected – and increasingly angry. It looks like this latter scenario could take hold in India. The Modi government is working hard to create jobs, but to address this situation, it faces the seemingly insurmountable task of creating one million new jobs a month.

Significant investment is also needed in education. According to 2012 statistics, India needs to create 1000 universities and 50,000 colleges by 2022 to meet the demand for tertiary education. Even then, graduates are hardly job-ready, with less than half considered to be employable straight out of university. (Because of this, many organisations provide on-the-job training to graduates, and pass the costs on to their new employees, forcing them to sign illegal bonds that require them to pay back a high percentage of their wages if they leave the company within a year or two – something my students complained about bitterly.)

The book traverses the breadth of the interior of North India, from dusty second-tier cities to dusty towns to a prestigious colonial-era university. Poonam spends much of her time in Ranchi, where she grew up, a small city of around one million people in north-eastern India, the capital of the resource-rich state of Jharkhand. She also travels to Indore, Meerut and Allahabad, all cities with markers of second-tier aspiration and modernity: “airport, apartment complexes, token chain-brand hotel, token shopping mall”, and so too traffic, pollution, crime and sewage.

Globalisation is a central theme of the book. The opening chapter presents a compelling representation of this: a profile of WittyFeed, a BuzzFeed-style viral content company headquartered in the central Indian city of Indore. Founded in 2014, it now gets about 250 million page views per month. Those who work there have rarely travelled outside North India, but pride themselves on having cracked the code of what makes Americans click, engendering a newfound confidence of their grasp of the inner workings of distant minds.

Anger emerges as another theme. Poonam focuses on interviews with a handful of twenty-somethings, including a low-caste milkman turned English teacher, a regional radio DJ and an aspiring right-wing politician with views rooted in Hindu ideology. Only one, a student activist politician, is a woman. The rest are men, a reflection of the gender composition seen on your average North Indian regional streetscape, where, unlike in other parts of India, women from the middle and upper classes are rarely seen (those who can afford it stay at home, and travel by car when they do venture out).

Poonam’s status as a Ranchi-born, Delhi-dwelling Hindi speaker confers upon her a special position that allows her access to such stories. She is inside but outside; one of “us” but now from a different world. Her book does what so many others that purport to draw the definitive picture of contemporary India do not: it tells the story from the inside out. She does this by finding stories from deep within the inner reaches of India, both geographically and figuratively. She finds young men whose sole purpose in life, as they tell it, is to beat up couples on Valentine’s Day, considering the concept of romantic love an affront to traditional Hindu values. Another man is a cow protector who, along with carloads of compatriots, trawls the highways at night looking for people – Muslims – working in the cattle trade, to beat them up – or worse.

As Poonam writes of one character: “Arjun Kumar is what think pieces explaining the Trump and Brexit verdicts term a loser of globalization, one of the millions of leftover youths whose anger is transforming world politics. It’s like the world swept past him while he was arranging chairs in the Bajrang Dal office. Kumar is not sure he will find a job he’d like or find a girl who’d like him. On an elemental level, he doesn’t know if he matters to the world. There’s only one way left for him to make that happen: punish everyone who’s moved ahead of him in that queue.”

What ties all the characters – in particular, the young men – is their deep desire for izzat: honour, prestige, reputation. In this generation, the desire for izzat is primordial, binding together the traditions from their feudal village past with the shining, privileged future they know to be out there for them if they just hustle hard enough.

I can recognise this craving in my bribe-wielding student. He might already have money, a degree of status and be on the way to some power, but he is still on the hustle. And if that means faking an Ayn Rand essay on the road to izzat, then so be it. Poonam’s book might be subtitled “how young Indians are changing the world”, but this is perhaps an ironic take, as many of Poonam’s scenarios describe pitiable circumstances and characters who are striving against the odds yet hurling themselves against an impenetrable wall, built of personal circumstances and global factors. Yet Indians are resilient, and while Poonam’s dreamers might be better described as “the disappointed”, their unbridled hope and enthusiasm is laudable. If India could just create those twelve million jobs each year, it might allow the hopes and dreams of its young people to continue to flicker.

Aarti Betigeri


AFA5 Are We Asian Yet?

This is a book review from Australian Foreign Affairs 5: Are We Asian Yet?. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.