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April 10, 2018

The Dreamers: Explorations in Nonfiction Writing On India

Text by Parmesh Shahani

Parmesh Shahani encounters some audacious voices of young Indians in a new book

I simply couldn’t put down journalist Snigdha Poonam’s timely debut Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World when I received a preview copy. I knew that I had to invite her to our Culture Lab for a conversation. As it panned out, we got to host the book’s official India launch.

I have been a huge fan of Indian non-fiction ever since I read Pankaj Mishra’s Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India in college. His sardonic account of our newly post-liberalised country whetted my appetite for narratives that explored facets of modern India through the lives of its ordinary individuals.

I went on to devour books like William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives that explored religion and belief systems, Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of The New India, with its banned chapter on Arindam Chaudhuri and his Great Gatsby-esque ambition, Shefalee Vasudev’s incisive Powder Room, and Sonia Faleiro’s gritty Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars, that detailed the lives of Mumbai’s bar dancers.

Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers left a deep impression on me, with its intensely detailed account of the lives and hopes of the inhabitants of Annawadi, a slum located behind one of Mumbai’s suburban five-star hotels. My own book Gay Bombay, an ethnography, was a much more modest attempt to add to the rich body of Indian non-fiction, with its account of internet-mediated queer desire and identity in urban India.

I am glad that the range of nonfiction writing on India has increased over the years. These micro narratives of everyday lives written in long form, either through personal memoirs or simply by observation, bring to us the close-to-the-ground realities that the ‘India Shining’ or #AccheDin kind of campaigns gloss over. Our world is unequal. Daily life is a struggle. How to make sense of it all?

In her book, Snigdha, who is known for her long essays in publications like Caravan and The Guardian, immerses herself into the world of six young Indians located in smaller cities like Ranchi, Indore and Ahmedabad, who are doing just that. Struggling, and figuring things out.

At her book launch, she spoke honestly about her fears for our country’s future. Our demographic dividend, which was touted as something that would catapult India into a global power, might soon turn into a demographic disaster. This is because, as she noted, even though more than half of our country’s population is under the age of 25, less than 17 per cent of our graduates are employable. Only 2.3 per cent of the Indian workforce has undergone any kind of formal skill training, as compared to 96 per cent in South Korea, and we will need to educate about 100 million young people over the next 10 years, and build at least a thousand new universities and 50,000 new colleges to catch up. Something on this scale has never happened before in history.

The reality is grim even for those who have had the luxury of education. For instance, our country created only 0.4 million jobs in the organised sector in 2016-’17, according to data from the labour ministry, for the 10 million graduates that year. What happens to the others? How do so many Indians cope with the scarcity all around?

In Dreamers, Snigdha managed to get access to the worlds of a few of of these individuals. One of the first characters we meet in the book is Vinay Singhal from Indore, who runs a company called WittyFeed that creates viral digital content viewed by millions of people worldwide. Another is motivational speaker Moin Khan from Ranchi, who teaches spoken English to hundreds of aspirants. My favourite is Richa Singh, the first woman to contend for the post of the president of the student union of Allahabad University in 128 years. There are others, like a group of gau rakshaks from Haryana, and Arjun Kumar, a Bajrang Dal activist from Meerut, who wanted to beat up couples on Valentine’s Day. I am not going to tell you anything more except that I highly recommend that you read the book and find out more.

At our launch, Snigdha was joined by Varun Grover, National Film Award winning lyricist and comedian, and Swadesi, a hip-hop group comprising young emcees, producers, DJs and graffiti artists who are bringing about change through their art. They rap in five different languages about the inequality they see all around them, especially towards the homeless, the Adivasis and the dispossessed. Listen to their song Tu insaan hai ya plastic? online if you can. It is their response to the massive tree cutting in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony for a new metro storage shed. The metro shed will reduce the forest’s amazing biodiversity by 3,500 trees, and displace 240 Adivasi families living there. Swadesi is one of many groups who are protesting against it.

Speaking of biodiversity, our country’s elephants are also facing some rather dire circumstances. Last month, it was my pleasure to witness one small act of resistance. The ever-charming Farah Siddiqui had persuaded 101 celebrities — everyone from Shah Rukh Khan to Sabyasachi Mukherjee — to paint an elephant each for an auction, the proceeds of which will help create 101 elephant corridors — pathways that they depend upon to get from one feeding ground to the next. All 101 painted elephants stood together proudly at the Gateway of India at the launch of the initiative, and it was fun to subsequently follow the elephant parade at locations across the city such as the Worli Sea Face and the many different malls. The malls were key, I thought. If we want to get young India interested in issues that matter, we should be capturing their attention at places they hang out at, na? Well done, Farah!

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