A new memoir from the National Book Award-winning author of "Middle Passage." He writes about the art and craft of writing and what he calls "the truth-telling power of fiction."
As one of the world’s most rapidly growing economies, India has been hailed as a model for developing countries. But with progress comes destruction and disruption. Despite the booming economy in urban areas, millions of Indians still live in poverty, an estimated seventy percent of the country’s surface water is polluted, and crime is on the increase. Many of those working for India’s high tech companies are embracing consumerism. As companies like Starbucks and Amazon enter the Indian marketplace, some fear the country is losing its identity and becoming too Americanized. Akash Kapur was raised in India but educated in the U.S. from the age of 16. The son of an Indian father and American mother, Kapur moved back to his birth country permanently in 2003, as its economy was growing. He has written about the incredible change economic growth has brought to India and also some of the less desirable consequences. Kapur describes modern India and the price of economic growth.
- Akash Kapur author, former "Letter From India" columnist for The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times Online.
In his new book “India Becoming,” Akash Kapur describes the transformation of the country of his birth. Born to an Indian father and an American mother, Kapur grew up in both countries. He’s studied and worked in the U.S. before deciding to settle back in India, but he writes “I was coming home, but in many ways, it was to a home I didn’t recognize anymore.”
Moving To India
After living in the U.S. for about 12 years, Akash Kapur decided to move back to his native India because it “was just a country that felt so full of opportunities. It felt so exiting. “It felt like the Wild West, like a place where a young man kind of went to chase his fortunes,” he said. Kapur moved back to India in the winter of 2003, and found a country that was very different than the one he grew up in.
Kapur feels that over the past 15 or 20 years, America and India have become much closer. When he was growing up, the two countries “really felt kind of on opposite sides of the world in every way,” he said. Now there’s much more of a reconciliation, he said, and he feels more comfortable traveling back and forth. The end of the Cold War had a lot to do with the thawing of relations between the U.S. and India, and Kapur also believes that the IT industries that outsourced to India have also built stronger ties between the nations.
Women in India who are interested in building careers often struggle, Kapur said, with the fact that they don’t have many role models because all of their own mothers were stay-at-home mothers. “They’re the first women in their families to get educations, to go out and try to get careers,” he said. Kapur’s own mother, an American from Minnesota, moved to India in the late 1960s or early 1970s and had a difficult time keeping in touch with her family in the U.S. because of how cut-off India felt from the U.S., he said. Phone calls had to be scheduled in advance, and even then, the connection often wouldn’t go through.
The Caste System
Kapur said the Caste System is still very much alive and well in India. There’s still caste oppression and caste discrimination in India. The so-called “untouchables,” or “Dalits,” are excluded from the social system and denied a lot of benefits by society. Some of the Dalits that Kapur writes about are examples of a “sort of gradual breakdown” of the caste system and have been able to find jobs, make money, and live in new houses. “They’ve pushed and fought for social rights that they have now that they didn’t have when they were kids. So Some of their stories are quite moving,” he said.
You can read the full transcript here.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In his new book "India Becoming," Akash Kapur describes the transformation of the country of his birth. Born to an Indian father and an American mother, Kapur grew up in both countries. He's studied and worked in the U.S. before deciding to settle back in India, but he writes "I was coming home, but in many ways, it was to a home I didn't recognize anymore."
MS. DIANE REHMAkash Kapur joins us in the studio. You can as well, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you. It's good to have you here.
MR. AKASH KAPURHi, thanks for having me.
REHMI know you were living in New York City when you were here in the States. When did you move back to India?
KAPURI moved back to India in the winter of 2003. I had been away for about 11 or 12 years at that time.
REHMAnd tell me what prompted the move?
KAPURI tell you there were a couple of things that prompted the move. I mean, I was living in New York and I started seeing all these people that I'd known from India come over and visit me. And the way they talked about India, I mean, it was just obvious to me that India had changed a lot as a country from the time when I was living there.
KAPURIt was just a country that felt so full of opportunities. It felt so exciting. You know, one of the ways I put it is, a little bit, it felt like the Wild West, like a place where a young man kind of went to chase his fortunes.
REHMSo you decided to give up a job, to give up everything you had here?
KAPURYeah, I was really eager to get back to India. I mean, this was also the early 2000s in America and so America felt a little bit bogged down. And, you know, it was sort of the Iraq war was going on, the economy was sputtering and it just felt like there was so much more happening. And I don't mean just in terms of sort of, you know, economic opportunities or business opportunities, that too, but it just felt like there was just so much more ferment and cultural excitement and the process of transformation was so interesting. There was so much to witness and be part of in India at that point.
REHMAnd yet you moved to the countryside?
KAPURYeah, and that was kind of an indirect move because, you know, I moved with my wife and originally we very much planned to move to the cities. I mean, we were living in New York. We liked city life. But the thing is, as I write in the book, you know, Indian cities are kind of unlivable. They're extremely polluted. They're crowded. They're noisy. And so I had grown up in the countryside and I really, you know, I never really thought I would move back there, but then we just sort of landed there and it seemed like one thing led to another and we stayed there.
REHMDescribe the area in which you live.
KAPURYeah, well, the area in which we live today is very different than it was when I grew up. You know, when I grew up, it really felt kind of like the edge of the world. It was surrounded by agricultural communities, thatched huts in the villages. You really felt far away from things. And so one of the first things I noticed when I moved back was just that, you know, the physical landscape had been so transformed and the place had just been so developed and built up.
KAPURAnd the thatched huts had given way to concrete homes. The fields were giving away to housing complexes and it was just much more plugged into the world than it had been.
REHMDid that please you?
KAPURI had, you know, I went through a sort of process of transition and the book in that sense is a little bit of a journey. Initially, I was very excited by it all. It just felt like things were happening and the country was moving because, you know, it had been very poor and underdeveloped and so it was great to come back and see all this development. And it felt optimistic and the future felt sort of full of opportunities.
KAPUROver time, things got a little bit more complicated and today, I feel a little bit more ambivalent about it because I've seen that with those opportunities and with the prosperity also come certain costs.
REHMGive me an example.
KAPURWell, you know, in the book, I write about a few of them. One of them is the environmental cost of rapid development and progress and that's become really apparent to me and, I think, has become a much worse problem over the last, you know, five or six years.
KAPURIn the country, I write about garbage. I write about beaches eroding. I write about forests being cut down. The other, you know, thing that's really happened is that agriculture in the area has died or is dying. These were traditional agricultural communities. Land values have increased. It makes more sense for farmers now to sell out and do real estate development so the decline of agriculture.
KAPURI write about lawlessness, violence that arises when traditional social orders break down.
REHMAnd what does all of this development say about the gap between rich and poor?
KAPURI think, I mean, you know, there's a lot of argument about whether it's led to greater inequality. And I think, to some extent, it has led to greater inequality, but there is also an element of rising tide lifting all boats. And so, you know, I don't want to sound like -- I mean, I'm not an anti-development person. I see amazing prosperity in the villages around me.
KAPURThe book is full of examples of amazing upliftment, people whose lives have been utterly transformed, who are living lives that are just so much better in so many ways than their parents could have ever imagined. So I think it's a complicated process. I think you do have new forms of inequality, but I think you also have new forms of prosperity.
REHMAkash Kapur, his new book is titled "India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India." The state you live in was hit by a post-Christmas tsunami in 2004. How badly?
KAPURIt was very bad. I think it was the worst-hit state in India. If I recall correctly, about 7,000 people died and it really decimated the coast, the entire stretch of the coast that I live on was really destroyed by it.
REHMHow were you affected?
KAPURI have to say, you know, I live about 15 or 20 minutes inland so I mean, my home was fine. I wasn't affected, but of course, you know, you go down to beaches you've known all your life, you see villages that you've known all your life and you see how decimated they are and you see the destruction which lingered, you know, for years afterward so that was pretty striking.
REHMNot everybody in India is happy about the changes that you describe. You talk about Sathy, you profile in your book. Tell us about Sathy.
KAPURYeah, Sathy, you know, he's a really interesting character and he opened up a lot of worlds to me actually hanging out with him and sort of researching with him. He is what you call a zamindar, which is a feudal landlord, an ancestral feudal landlord. And he and his ancestors basically, you know, controlled the entire area for centuries and centuries.
KAPURSathy has watched this transformation over time in the kind of newly-meritocratic India where ancient feudal structures no longer hold and so on and so forth. He's watched his ancient sort of power steadily whittle away. And I found him a really interesting character because personally this has affected him very badly, you know. Basically he's not the little king in the area anymore, but at the same time, he's intelligent enough and wise enough to recognize that this is a process of development that's sort of helping many people around him and lifting many people up at the same time.
KAPURThere was a kind of ambivalence in Sathy that I felt reflected in many of my characters that's at the core of the book in many ways...
REHMAnd of course, his wife is also affected?
KAPURYeah, his wife is a city woman and this is part of what makes Sathy's story interesting, that he is very rooted in village life, you know. He's been there for centuries. This is his territory. His wife is a modern city woman. She has an engineering degree. She has a business degree. She wants to live in Bangalore and pursue business opportunities, which is an amazing change from, you know, from what her mother would have done, for example.
KAPURAnd so they have this sort of tussle because, you know, where are the kids going to live? And then they try to live apart and then they try to live together. She tried to live in the village for a while, but it didn't work. So together, they made a really sort of interesting study in contrasts.
REHMDid he stay in the village area and she stay in the city?
KAPURFor most of the book, that's what happened and then he would go up on weekends to see his kids. And it was always interesting when he would come back from the city because he'd come back sort of disoriented by all the development and the prosperity he saw in the cities. And you know, I don't want to give away the plot, but at some point they achieve some kind of reconciliation.
REHMI'm glad to hear that. I wonder for you coming back here on this book tour, you moved to India in 2004 or even earlier?
KAPUR2003, late in 2003.
REHM2003. So how is coming back here now, seven, eight years later? How is that affecting you?
KAPURYou know, I still love America. I didn't leave America because I didn't like America. I loved America and I still love America. I just felt like my place was in India and I'm always happy to come back to America. I mean, you know, one of the things that I write about a little bit in the book that's happened over the last 15 or 20 years is that America and India have become much closer.
KAPURSo when I was growing up, the two countries really felt kind of on opposite sides of the world in every way, politically, culturally, socially. Now there's sort of much more of a reconciliation between the two countries and I personally find it much easier to go back and forth and traverse both worlds than I did when I was younger.
REHMWhy do you think that reconciliation has come about?
KAPURI think it's come about for many reasons. I mean, the end of the Cold War was a big deal because, you know, India and America were kind of on opposite sides during the Cold War. But all the technology industries and the IT industries and that kind of -- the outsourcing industries have really led to closer ties. Originally driven by business ties, but those have naturally filtered into person-to-person ties and I talk about it in the book.
KAPURYou know, the young people who work in these outsourcing companies who are exposed to American culture, who, in strange ways, pick up American accents and use American names, which is sort of bizarre and I'm not sure always a wonderful thing, but what it does is, throughout the culture, it kind of filters. It kind of creates a greater familiarity with America.
REHMYou, yourself, are a writer, I'm sure you do other things as well. What about your wife?
KAPURMy wife works in public health and now she works in sort of development work. She's getting involved in solid waste stuff. She's basically a development worker.
REHMI wonder whether that is difficult for the two of you to reconcile your very different approaches.
KAPURYou know, they kind of work together because to some extent, this book is a book about development, too. Now, of course, it's an observation rather than a participation in the process of development, where she's much more of a participant in it. But I find that her work often, you know, offers me insights into the type of stuff I'm thinking about and that I'm writing about. So she's, you know, for example, working out in the field on a particular problem and she comes home and talks about it at the end of the day. It often taps into things that I'm thinking about or writing about at the same time.
REHMAkash Kapur, the book we're talking about "India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India." If I could describe the cover to you, ramshackle buildings at the top of a hill, a fairly modern car at the bottom, we'll be right back.
REHMWelcome back. Akash Kapur is with me. He is the former “Letter From India” columnist for the International Herald Tribune and the online edition of The New York Times. His new book is titled "India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India." He left New York in 2003 with his wife moving back to an area where he had grown up. Akash, you married a woman who was born here in the states but had lived in India for her childhood. How did she feel about going back to India?
KAPURI think when we first moved back, you know, we were both pretty excited about moving back. I mean, India wasn't a strange or unfamiliar place to her. And like me, she felt that there were just, you know, India was a more exciting -- I mean, India was a more exciting place to be than America at that time. And like me, also over time, she'd seen some of the complications that come with that excitement.
REHMLike what for her as a woman?
KAPURWell, first of all, there's, you know, the things like we were talking about, the environmental pollution and so on affect all of us. These are day-to-day sort of challenges of living there. I think that her, as a woman, I think she's less affected per say than some of the things that the women I write about are affected by because she's brought up in a culture where women are comfortable having careers and are comfortable working and have dealt with the issues of balancing children and career. So she doesn't struggle with those as much as some of the women that I write about do.
REHMAnd how do they function, these women that you write about?
KAPURYeah, I mean, it's very hard for them. And it was, you know, some of the more interesting aspects of the book were talking to these women and following them around. Because I really saw them struggling with something that I imagine American women and Western women may have struggled with 30 or 40 years ago when they were just sort of -- the emancipation was starting to happen of women.
KAPURThe thing with these women is they don't have any role models. They're kind of going on an untrodden path and they're trying to figure it out for themselves. They all have mothers who are basically stay-at-home moms. And aunts and cousins and everybody were stay-at-home moms. So they're the first, you know, women in their family to get educations, to go out and try to get careers.
KAPURAnd one of the women in particular, a woman called Vina in Bangalore, she's got quite a successful corporate career but she agonizes about children, and shouldn't she have children and how do you balance, you know, having a career with children. And she talked about it a lot.
REHMWhat kind of a corporate career does she have?
KAPURShe was involved in a lot of marketing so she would get these marketing jobs. And one of the things that was interesting about her is that there were so many opportunities that she kept kind of switching jobs every six months. Every year she kept kind of moving up in the ladder. And at some point, you know, she reaches a stage where she's just sort of like, I need to settle down. I need to settle into a job and not just chase after every opportunity that's thrown at me. But it's so exciting when it's happening because this is such a new thing.
KAPURShe also was very interesting because she had been through a divorce, which is very unusual for a woman of any generation in India. And when she was first married, her husband, I think, expected her to play the role of a traditional housewife and stay at home. And as she started getting a career, that started becoming a little threatening to her husband. They started having friction and, you know, she pursued her career. She ended up getting divorced.
REHMWhat about your own mother?
KAPURMy mother was American and she moved to India, you know, in the late '60s or maybe it was the early '70s. I think, you know, it was much more of a challenge for her than it was for my wife because in those days, India was a very different country. Women really were expected to stay at home. There weren't many career opportunities. And also it was just so cut off. So, you know, communicating with her family, staying in touch with the United States -- she'd grown up in Minnesota -- was incredibly difficult for her.
KAPURI mean, I still remember when I was a kid to call my grandparents in Minnesota, you would have to, you know, book a call several hours ahead of time. You would have to reserve a time and then the operator would call you. And half the time you couldn't get through. Of course, there was no email and all that kind of stuff. So it was very challenging, I think.
REHMI understand that people fall in love and people make decisions and choices because they fall in love and marry. I wonder, has your mother related to you her feelings about moving to India?
KAPURYeah, she's talked a little bit about it. And, as I say, I think it was quite challenging for her. I think she landed up in a very kind of conservative environment where, you know, women weren't expected to go out and do things and have jobs. And also, you know, at that time foreign women...
REHMJust the very fact of being an American.
KAPURRight. So just being an American, just being a white woman in India was a big deal and made her very anomalous. Now there's so much more cultural exchange and cultural movement that it's not that big a deal anymore to be, you know, a foreigner in India, or for that matter an Indian in America. I mean, you know, my father experienced the same thing when he was Indian in America. That was also very anomalous, right. You know, in those days you didn't have as many Indians as you have now.
REHMWhat kind of schooling did you have?
KAPURI went to kind of an unconventional school that was very, very unstructured but I think very wonderful in the way it taught its students. And it -- you know, we didn't have formal grades. We didn't have exams. It was a very kind of open system. And I think my parents were a little bit concerned about whether I would be able to sort of get back into the formal educational system. But, you know, the American educational system is pretty great. That way you take tests and if you do well enough on the tests you're brought it. So you didn't need to be in the system right from birth.
REHMAnd what about your own children, how they're being educated?
KAPURMy children are being educated in the very similar way. They're, in fact, in pretty much the same school that I was and I really want that and that's, I would have to say, you know, one of the things that most excites me about still living there. I want them to have this other world view and to see the world in a different way. I think it will add a lot to their lives.
REHMCourse, one of the things that we in America have heard most about as far as India is concerned is the caste system. How is that changing? Is that developing or falling away? What's happening?
KAPURI mean, the first thing to say is that the caste system is still very much alive and there is still, you know, caste oppression and caste discrimination in India.
REHMExplain it to us.
KAPURWell, in particular, the caste, you know, that used to be known as untouchable, as they call Dalits now, are excluded from the social system. And, you know, they're denied a lot of benefits by society, not by the government policy. I mean, government policy's very forward looking on this and tries to include them in society.
KAPURNow the caste and the untouchables that I write about in the book are actually examples of a sort of gradual breakdown of this caste system that's happening with the new prosperity and the development. And they've risen to do amazing things that, you know, their parents could've never imagined them doing. They've made money, they live in new houses. And they've pushed and fought for social rights that they have now that they didn't have when they were kids. So some of their stories are quite moving.
REHMHow did they come to be labeled the untouchables?
KAPUROh, you know, this is very ancient sort of caste system that divided Indian society up into various castes. And traditionally the untouchables were excluded from the formal caste system. And they were confined to doing works that were considered kind of polluting...
REHMBut why? Who were they?
KAPURThis goes back, you know, millennia. It's a caste system that sort of descended throughout the centuries basically.
REHMBut we don't understand why. We just accept that they were in that category.
KAPURYeah, they were born into the category and they've been born into that category for generations and generations. I think the important point is that this generation is now in some cases at least able to break out of that. And this is part of India's modernity and development and progress and the new opportunities that they're being given.
REHMI want to open the phones. Here we have a caller in Salt Lake City, Utah. Good morning, Bill, you're on the air.
BILLHello. Yes. I'm a lawyer that has worked from time to time with lawyers in India on environmental issues. And your guest, at the outset, mentioned a concern about the environment. I have heard nothing further in the discussion. And there are a number of cases that are particularly prominent, the development of the steel plant by the South Korean Posco organization, the attempt by the Vivante Corporation to take over the (word?) of tribal people in Risa (sp?) .
BILLThe development of oil pipelines and power plants in Gujarad (sp?) displacing people whose lives depend on the fisheries on the beaches and in the coastal areas that are heavily affected by that development. And I'm wondering if he could give us a little balance in viewpoint because I hear this discussion of the effectiveness of the new prosperity there, but very little about the consequences to tribal people, to rural people. The provocation by the taking of their lands and displacement causing many people to become so disaffected that they become part of the malice or, well, their rebellions.
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for your call.
KAPURYeah, I mean, I think that's a really important point. And, you know, part of it, there's sort of a downside and the negative consequences of development has definitely been just sort of the environmental depredation that's manifested in various forms throughout the country. And I write about this in the book. It's very tough, you know, not only in India, but in many countries. It's this sort of balance between development and environment is a very tough balance to achieve.
KAPURHistorically, you know, there's a famous quote that Indira Ghandi, the U.S. Prime Minister, once said. Well, she went to a U.N. conference on the environment and she said, well, poverty's the worst form of pollution. And for a long time, that was kind of the motto in India, which is poor countries can't afford the luxury of environmental concerns. And when I talk to people who are involved in the early environmental movement in India, they often were sort of labeled as being antidevelopment and anti-poor.
KAPURI think things are changing now. I think people are seeing that, you know, the environment and development have to go together. That if you don't preserve the environment while developing and becoming prosperous as a country, you end up having very serious problems.
REHMBut I think our caller Bill is really particularly concerned about the people who are displaced by all this growth and development.
KAPURYeah, you know, some of the particular cases that he mentioned I haven't reported on them. I don't know about those particular cases. But this -- but those are the big stories that make news but this is happening all over the place. Like, next to me, you have fishing communities that have been displaced because, you know, big hot ports and harbors are being built that lead to coastal erosion. So yeah, people are being displaced...
REHMAnd where are they going?
KAPURThat's a good question. Where do they go? You know, you go -- I have scenes in the book where I go to their village and they're living in kind of ramshackle little huts that they've had to sort of, you know, improvise. And it's a total tragedy. And there's no good answer to that. Where are they going? You know, this is a problem that the Indian state faces.
REHMSo as all of this prosperity grows and I asked you about the gap between the wealthy and those who are not part of that "India Becoming," it sounds as though there is a bad downside to all this.
KAPURThere definitely is a bad downside. I mean, I think the important thing to remember is that there's also a very nice upside. And so, you know, in the book, I really try to take this kind of balanced view of development or to try to recognize both perspectives on development. Because, you know, I compared development in the book to a process of creative destruction and that basically you have creativity and you have destruction.
KAPURNow when people talk about development and prosperity, they tend to overemphasis the creativity and the upsides I think. So it is important to also mention the downsides.
REHMAkash Kapur and his new book is titled "India Becoming." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Houston, Texas. Good morning, Frem (sp?) , you're on the air.
FREMYeah, hi, Diane. Thank you for taking my call. I was just trying to say something about the caste system in India. Now I understand that it's not a good system, but what my grandparents had told me is that the caste system was established in a very ancient time. And the reason for that is in ancient times, brahmans, superior tasks were traditionally teachers, professors, doctors. And what that realized that communicable diseases, for example, cholera and dysentery were very prevalent.
FREMAnd the people who essentially cleaned the sewage thing and moved the excrement from the human, they were at risk of spreading it very fast. Now if you -- you also have to understand that in ancient India, almost every villager or city person used to go to a temple and get the holy water every single day. And those people that were involved that situation, then the disease would spread much faster. Unfortunately, what happened was that the superior Brahman, they never explained it because they thought if they explained that, then their status might be down.
FREMI think once we started learning just some scientific angle, I think things changed significantly. But that's what I heard from my grandparents and it makes lots of sense.
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for calling.
KAPURYeah, I mean, what I would say is that, you know, a system that made sense, you know, millennia ago didn't evolve with the times basically. And so whatever justification or reason there was for its creation a millennia ago -- and I think that you're right. I think that there were good reasons for it and it probably wasn't as oppressive then as it became.
KAPURBut, you know, now and until recently caste has basically become a system of great oppression. And some of the characters I talked to who, you know, talk about their childhoods, I mean, they suffered horrible discrimination. You know, in school they weren't allowed to drink water from vessels because they didn't want to pollute the vessels. So they had to drink from their hands. Now you can see how, you know, a millennia ago this might have been something about disease or whatever. But there's no reason to think that a child born as an untouchable today would have any more diseases than a child born as anything else.
KAPURSo, you know, while there may have been a justification for it, I think that today it's great that's it's weakening and that caste oppression is down.
REHMYou write that attitudes toward sex have changed in India. Explain what you mean.
KAPURYeah, I mean, I talked to a man who calls himself a sexologist. And he's basically a sex therapist and a very intelligent and smart man who sort of watched his profession evolve over time. And he offers a kind of fascinating window into the new India because he talks about how his profession has changed over time and how when he started out, you know, he couldn't get a patient. Everybody sort of like, you know, wondered why he was getting into this field. His wife wondered why he just didn't get into cardiology or a respectable profession like that.
KAPURAnd now, you know, he showed me his appointment book. It's just chock full of appointments and he can't keep up with things. And, you know, it's not that like with prosperity people have suddenly developed sexual problems or issues that they didn't have before. It's that people are willing to talk about them now. They're willing to come out and deal with them.
KAPUROne of the characters in the book is a gay man who, in fact, in the book meets this sex therapist and talks about, you know, his homosexuality and coming out. This is something as I know, and as the therapist also explained to me, that when he started his profession gay men just, you know, they'd get married and they'd try to make it work. And they wouldn't come to a sex therapist and talk about it and they wouldn't deal with it.
REHMSo more openness.
KAPURMore openness but still a struggle and still difficult.
REHM"India Becoming" is a "Portrait of Life in Modern India." Akash Kapur is the author. We'll take a short break here. More of your calls when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMWelcome back. If you've just joined us, Akash Kapur is with me. He's written a new book titled "India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India." You know, here in the States there's always a lot of talk, Akash, about the jobs leaving this country and going to places like China, like India. And here's an email from John who says, "Do Indians ever think about job losses here in the U.S.?"
KAPURThey certainly talk about it. I have a couple characters in the book who worked in these outsourcing centers who, you know, were dealing with American credit card clients and things like that. And so they're certainly very aware of the feelings in the U.S. about outsourcing to India, about the concerns about outsourcing to India. And, you know, sometimes they talk about the fact that sometimes they get clients on the phone who also abuse them, accuse them of stealing their jobs. So it is a topic of discussion, yes.
REHMAnd (word?) emails to ask about your mother. "Can you expound on what her experience might have been, not just as a foreigner in India, but as a white woman? Was she afforded any social opportunities that may not have been conventionally acceptable for an Indian woman? And can you discuss your identity of being mixed race?"
KAPURYeah, I think that's actually a very interesting point, that, you know, while my mother probably did feel a little cloistered when she moved to India, she also was probably relatively liberated compared to Indian women at the time. Like, you know, for example, she would have been allowed to have a glass of beer, which would have been, you know, something that many of her female relatives in India would not have been doing at that time.
KAPURAs far as my identity goes, I said earlier that being half Indian and half American has become much easier over the last 15 or 20 years because when I was growing up, you know, not that it was particularly painful or anything, but India and America were very different countries. They didn't communicate much with each other. And now that's changed, now that there are a lot of people like me who have spent time in the U.S., who have lived in India, who are comfortable in both cultures. And I think for me, personally, that's been sort of a wonderful change.
REHMWere you ever bullied for being different?
KAPURI was never bullied per se, you know, but there were times when I did feel like an outsider in India. And then of course in the U.S., when I would visit my relatives in the U.S., I often felt, you know, that I had come from a very, very far away place that people didn't know or didn't understand. You know, I was going to rural Minnesota. People were always very nice. I never felt that people were discriminating, but there certainly wasn’t much awareness or understanding. And all that's changed now. I mean I think even in the small town where my mother lived in Minnesota. I went there recently. There's actually an Indian company that's set up a windmill factory there. And so people are very comfortable with Indians now.
REHMHow do you think your -- or has she ever talked about it -- how do you think your mother's family felt about her not only marrying a man from India, but also moving there?
KAPURI think, you know, what my father always says is that he was incredibly lucky to marry a woman whose parents were so liberated and so tolerant. And while they were of course sad that their daughter was moving so far away and they missed her terribly, they were also very accepting and open about it. And they visited us several times in India when I was growing up there.
REHMSo they were accepting of her.
KAPURThey were accepting. And I think that, you know, both my father and my mother recognized that they were lucky for that. And that they had a very tolerant set of in-laws and parents.
REHMInteresting. To Millfield, Ohio. Good morning, Tom.
TOMGood morning. In 1969 I walked from Lonavala, Maharashtra to Raxaul, Bihar. And that happened to be the centennial of Gandhi's birth. And within a couple days I was given Gandhi's autobiography, "My Experiments With The Truth". And I heard Gandhi's voice all across the country. Where is Gandhi's voice today?
KAPURI think Gandhi is still very much in people's minds and people talk about him. And there are many people who are self-proclaimed Gandhians. So as a public figure and as sort of like the father of the country he's still very much alive in people's minds. You know, the question is that Gandhi's message of austerity, of sort of life rooted in Indian villages, I think that is sort of fading in the reality of India, increasingly.
REHMAre they able to hold onto their culture in these small villages, such as the one you live in?
KAPURYeah, I mean, this, you know, the book is full of villages and villagers that are struggling to hold onto their culture and that are dealing with -- to me this was one of the most interesting things about development in India. That this rapid prosperity often leads to huge, you know, cultural dislocation and cultural disruption. And so you have people in these villages who are dealing with an element of psychological dislocation in their lives because they're struggling to reconcile the new wealth and the new opportunities and the new prosperity, which are wonderful things.
KAPURBut, you know, along with those gains come the sense of loss of a world they've always known slowly fading away, of tradition and culture sort of disappearing and being replaced by something new.
REHMBut how has the culture demonstrated its change? There's even eating of beef now, is there not?
KAPURYeah, there's more eating of beef. I mean, one of the chapters focuses on a cow broker, who's a middle man that basically sells cows. And so through him we see this sort of growing comfort with eating beef. I should say that I think, you know, for like a majority of Indians still wouldn't eat beef and still would sort of, you know, would not go that way. But through this man what you see is that these cow markets that used to be traditional agriculture markets and the cows were sold mostly for work in the fields, now cow prices have greatly increased because it's become a business. And you have owners of slaughter houses that come to take cows to their slaughter houses and slaughter them and then they're eaten.
KAPURAnd I talked to a lot of people in the course of researching this chapter who would say things like, yeah, you know, I eat beef. You know, my doctor told me it'd be good for my health because I'm weak, but don't tell anybody. You know, don't tell anybody that I eat beef and things like that.
REHMInteresting. All right. To Sarasota, Fla. Good morning, Kevin.
KEVINHi, Diane. How are you doing?
REHMI'm good thanks. Go right ahead, sir.
KEVINI wanted to ask, there was some talk about this earlier, the consequences of economic development and things like pollution, things like displacement. What I wanted to know was since your guest who -- I’m sorry, the name I've forgotten -- your guest, when he was growing up in India how does the place where he lives today -- with the economic development, with, like, increases in pollution which is one of the things that he specifically mentioned, how is the government in anyway trying to compensate for increases in illness or disease as a result of that?
KEVINLike, what is the government's role, for example, since he lives in a smaller village, not in a large city? I'd like to know if they have any kind of program, you know, compensating people if there's, like, increases in cancer in the region, increases in asthma, things like that.
KAPURYeah, I think, you know, let's put it this way, I think it's been quite hard for the government in India, particularly in rural areas to keep up with the pace of change. So to deal with the types of illnesses that you're talking about and more generally just to deal with the many problems, the environmental problems, the law and order problems that have come up. And, you know, I sort of have two ways of thinking about this. One is it's very common in India to describe India's problems as a failure of governance. And to say that the private sector and the private companies in India are much more effective than government, which is partly true.
KAPURAnd there's certainly many problems with the government's lack of responsiveness and so on and so forth. On the other hand, the pace of change has been so dramatic and has moved so fast that, you know, a lot of it is just as individuals have a hard time keeping up with it, I think the institutions of government also have a hard time keeping up with it and are sort of struggling. Just, you know, on the question of pollution in particular because it was affecting me personally I got involved in a little activism. And I met a lot of government officials, politicians, bureaucrats.
KAPURAnd I came away convinced in those conversations that most of these people actually did care about the problem. It's not that they didn't care. They did care about the problem. They would like to solve the problem. Sometimes they would say, give us a solution and we'll implement it, but it's an incredibly complex country. And this country's huge, changing very fast. There are no easy solutions for individuals or the government.
REHMWhat kind of pollution problem did you run into?
KAPURWell, this was coming from the waste, from the garbage. I mean what happens is that you have this huge garbage dump, you know, a couple miles from my house. And it emits a dioxin smoke that basically blows into my living room, but of course thousands of other living rooms in the area. And the important thing about this dump, to understand, is that in a strange way it's a sign of prosperity because the reason this dump has grown so big is because people have more money and they're buying more and they're buying more goods that are wrapped in plastic.
KAPURAnd so this horrible garbage problem is actually one of these signs of prosperity and development and progress.
REHMWhat about law and order? You write about that in the book.
KAPURYeah, there's a chapter about sort of breakdown of law and order in India around the area where I live. And this has happened in many parts of India. This is partly, you know, what we were just talking about, inability of government and government institutions to keep up with things. But also it's a story about breakdown of traditional mechanisms for control and order in the villages. So you have these bodies called panchayats which are village assemblies which historically have sort of controlled the villages through a body of village elders.
KAPURBut as the villages have become more meritocratic and as people have started standing up for themselves, which is a good thing, right? But part of what comes out of that is that the panchayats no longer have the old sort of traditional authority they used to have because, you know, a young guy goes to the city. He gets a college degree. He comes back. He says, why should I listen to these people anymore? And so these bodies have lost their authority and their ability to control things in the villages.
REHMIt's interesting because you write about a driver who hit a Moped and a boy is injured. What happens?
KAPURYeah, I mean, I was in that car. We were driving back. We had an accident on the road. We hit two boys who I think turned out to be underage even. But anyway, we hit them on the road. One of the things, we were kind of in the middle of nowhere. And one of the things, you know, is that a mob quickly forms in a situation like that.
KAPURYeah, so, you know, you don't hang around. You go straight to the police station, basically, which we did. But then, you know, the very dramatic thing is that the mob assembled at the police station. And so we were sitting in this rural outpost, this small police station with a mob of -- I think it was about 30 or 40 people outside -- sticks. They were rocking my car. And it was a very dicey situation where you really felt, am I actually gonna get mobbed in a police station? You know, it was that extreme.
REHMAnd what happened?
KAPURWell, what happened finally is that I got on the phone to the guy we were talking about earlier who's the local landlord, the feudal landlord and still maintains enough sort of authority and control in the area. And I told him what was happening and he sort of raced down there and rescued me in a way and was able to control the mob and was able to sort of get things under control.
REHMAnd what about the boy on the Moped?
KAPURYeah, well, at that point we were very afraid because it seemed like one of the boys had maybe died. It turned out that he was in a coma for three days in the hospital, but then he emerged from the coma and walked away and he was fine. And, you know, this went to trial and things were resolved. Eventually it was resolved through the official channels and the system in a good way, but there was that moment, you know, an hour or two when you were completely outside the system. And it was a total breakdown of formal mechanisms for dealing with this kind of thing.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show". To Eric, who's here in Washington, D.C. You're on the air.
ERICYes. I just returned from 18 days as a tourist in India. It's an extraordinary and complicated place. And I had a lot of conversations with a lot of people. And one of the things that Indians tell you and which you can actually see, too, is that there's a very pervasive level of corruption in -- manifests itself in kickbacks, commercial kickbacks, bus drivers tell you simply, if you wanna go into a bank and ask a simple question, you gotta give the person to ask the question a couple of rupees, up to and including an overwhelming amount of kickbacks in the political system. And that hasn't been discussed yet. I will say that it's an extraordinary place, well worth visiting. And it changes your eyes about the world, too.
REHMBut what about corruption?
KAPURYeah, I mean corruption, you know, first of all, Eric, I mean, you're right. It's an incredibly complicated country. And that's something that I try to get at that complexity in the book, but, you know, I'm probably only skimming the surface of it. Yeah, corruption has been a major problem for a long time and is a major problem today. And I think, to some extent, perhaps not the prevalence of corruption, but the scale of corruption, that is the amount of money involved are also, to some extent, the outcome of a new prosperity. That there's so much more business going on and there's so much more money sloshing through the system.
KAPURNow, that being said, corruption is a major problem. It affects people in their daily lives. Over the last year or two, there have been a couple of high-profile prosecutions of corruption cases. The media's played a major role in bringing these to light. And there's a sense that, you know, maybe I'm being too optimistic, but there's a sense that things may have reached a little bit of a tipping point and the public is just fed up with it. And there have been all these demonstrations. And maybe going forward there will be greater accountability.
REHMDo you think?
KAPURI do think, yes. I think there will be greater accountability. As Eric said, India's a complicated country. And I don't think it's likely to happen in a kind of straight line. But I think that sort of, you know, we have had for the first time cabinet ministers who have been put in jail. And that's never happened before and so there's a sense that there isn't absolute and total impunity the way that there used to be.
REHMNow, coming back here for the book tour, do you have any sort of longing to be back in the States again?
KAPURI'm very settled in India now. I have two young children. And I want them to grow up there. I miss the United States. And India is a complicated, rough country. And I write about it in the book. There are moments in the book where, you know, for example, when you have dioxins pouring into your living room and your kids are coughing and one night my kid wakes up vomiting, you know. My wife and I look at each other and we say, what are we doing here? I mean, is this what we want for our children?
KAPURAnd so there's a scene in the book when we come to America. We're sitting in the West Village in New York at a restaurant that we used to hang out in. And we say, maybe we should move back. But ultimately we decide not to. We decide that for various reasons we wanna be in India. And I think that India is one of the most exciting, happening, complex countries in the world right now. And sometimes I feel like I'm sort of getting a ring-side view at history. And I wanna watch this unfold.
REHMAnd yet you worry about your children and their health.
KAPURYeah, but I think, you know, part of being a parent is anxiety. And I think that I would worry about other things if I were living in this country and I had children. I mean, every society has its problems and every country has its problems. There's a certain intensity in India because it's all happening so fast and on such a big scale. And yes, of course, there are days when I just feel overwhelmed by that intensity and I feel exhausted by it. But on good days, I feel excited by it, in a way that perhaps I wouldn't feel excited in a less intense country.
REHMAkash Kapur, his new book is titled, "India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India." Good to talk with you. Thank you.
KAPURThank you so much.
REHMAnd thanks for listening all. I’m Diane Rehm.
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