Akash Kapur is the son of an Indian father and an American mother. In 2003, after working professionally in New York City for more than a decade, he decided to return to India. As he writes in his book, India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India, he arrived in a place he hardly recognized.
"The East Coast Road has changed. Twenty-five years ago, when I was a child growing up at its edge, it was a potholed tar road that meandered across the South Indian countryside, cutting through rice fields and coconut plantations and sleepy fishing villages [...] By the time I moved back to India in the winter of 2003, after more than a decade in America, the country road I knew as a child had become a 160-kilometer highway. Politicians extolled it as a model for modern India — an ambitious collaboration between government and private companies, the kind of infrastructure the country needed to develop its economy [...] Some of the rice fields remain, and the views are still beautiful. But much of the countryside has given way to the promised development — beach resorts, open-air restaurants, movie theatres and scores of small tea shops catering to the tourists that throng the road on weekends."
Akash Kapur told weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz that India's transformation began more than two decades ago.
"In 1991 the country sort of went through this economic crisis, and it was forced to liberalize its economy in many ways," he says. "And that really unleashed this amazing economic boom. And I think it was toward the end of the 1990s that the effects of that boom started being felt in a more cultural or social way."
Kapur tells the story of India's development through the stories of several characters living there. One of the women he profiles is Veena, an ambitious, successful marketing professional who lives in Bangalore.
You wouldn't know she grew up in a very traditional, conservative household, Kapur says.
"She was basically a housewife to her husband and her husband had a career," he says.
Kapur explains that Veena then broke the pattern of her life and divorced her husband, moved to a bigger city and had a live-in boyfriend.
"[Veena] struggles with these issues of family versus career and things like that that an earlier generation of women didn't struggle with in India," Kapur says.
Women like Veena are at the forefront of India's transformation, Kapur says. They are embracing the idea that they have a right to live as individuals.
Of course not everyone in India is happy with the economic and cultural development Kapur describes in his book. One man, Sathay, who Kapur has known since childhood, is somewhat bothered by how India's development has changed his life.
Sathay, Kapur explains, is a zamindar, an ancestral feudal landlord. He and his ancestors effectively controlled more than 75 villages in southern India.
"As India's changed, as it's become more meritocratic, as it's become more individualistic, that feudal order has been erased," Kapur says, "and [people like Sathay are] watching the erosion of their traditional authority."
While Satahy is not as respected and powerful as he once was, Kapur says the landlord recognizes that the economic development in India is helping to lift many people out of poverty.
Kapur writes in India Becoming that the poorest in India, known in the past as "untouchables," are moving up in society.
"Caste oppression still exists in India," Kapur explains, but there are people who have been able to break out of the system. One such man Kapur talks about in his book is Das.
Das was born a Dalit, the caste formerly known as "untouchables." He grew up in a village called Molasur, living in a small single-room hut with 12 family members. As a boy, Kapur says Das was restricted to certain parts of the village.
Kapur says access to education and employment, and a greater degree of individualism have made it possible for Das to succeed.
"He moved to the city, he got a history degree, he moved back to his village, got into real estate, made money," Kapur says.
When Kapur asked Das how it was possible that his life had changed so drastically, he replied: "What can I tell you, my life is a miracle, my life is one of the miracles of the world."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Our book today is by Akash Kapur. He's the son of an Indian father and an American mother. In 2003, after working in New York City for more than a decade, he went back to India, where he was raised. And he found a place he hardly recognized.
AKASH KAPUR: (Reading) The East Coast Road has changed. Twenty-five years ago, when I was a child growing up at its edge, it was a potholed tar road that meandered across the south Indian countryside, cutting through rice fields and coconut plantations and sleepy fishing villages. By the time I moved back to India in the winter of 2003, after more than a decade in America, the country road I knew as a child had become a 160-kilometer highway.
Politicians extolled it as a model for modern India. Some of the rice fields remain, and the views are still beautiful. But much of the countryside has given way to the promised development - beach resorts, open-air restaurants, movie theaters, and scores of small tea shops catering to the tourists that throng the road on weekends.
RAZ: Akash Kapur and his wife moved to India's countryside, where 70 percent of the population lives. He felt like the changes taking place in India were most visible there rather than in the cities. And when I spoke with Kapur about his new book, "India Becoming," he said India's transformation actually began more than two decades ago.
KAPUR: If you had to put a date on it, you'd say in 1991, the country sort of went through this economic crisis, and it was forced to liberalize its economy in many ways. And that really unleashed this amazing economic boom. And I think it was, you know, towards the end of the 1990s that the effects of that boom started really being felt in a more - sort of cultural or social way.
RAZ: You sort of tell the story of the transformation of India through the prism of several characters, people that you encounter, including a woman - a young woman named Veena. She's this ambitious, successful marketing professional. She lives in Bangalore. Tell me about her life.
KAPUR: Yeah. I mean, Veena, you know, she's a very interesting woman because she grew up in a very - sort of conservative, traditional household. She had a very conservative marriage. She was basically a housewife to her husband, and her husband had a career. She then sort of broke the pattern of her life and ended up getting divorced from her husband; ended up starting to work as a marketing professional; had a live-in boyfriend, whom she later married; and sort of struggles with these issues of family versus career that an earlier generation of women really didn't struggle with in India.
So in many ways, she's sort of, you know, at the forefront of India's cultural transformation, in a way.
RAZ: She lives with her boyfriend, and she openly talks about her sex life. She says...
RAZ: ...if you're hungry, you will eat. If you want a man, you will sleep.
KAPUR: Yeah. Yes, she's quite open about it all. And yes - and she lived with her boyfriend - which was, in many ways, scandalous, and her parents didn't know about it. You know, I mean, they visited at some point, and they realized that was happening, and they were scandalized, too. But she felt that this wasn't something that needed to be hidden, and that she had the right to live as an individual - which was a very new idea.
RAZ: Not everyone that you profile in the book is happy with the changes that you not only describe, but you live. You encounter somebody who had returned to India, and one of them is a man named Sathay. You actually have known him since you were a kid. He's actually pretty upset about how the development has changed his life. Why?
KAPUR: Yeah. I mean, Sathay was a very, very interesting character because - like many of the characters in that he felt a certain ambivalence about the change but in his case, it was more pronounced because he had grown up in a sort of feudal, aristocratic family that historically, had ruled over much of the countryside where - in the area where I lived.
And as India's changed, as it's become more meritocratic, as it's become more individualistic, you know, that feudal order has sort of been erased, and they're watching the erosion of their traditional authority. Now, what made Sathay really interesting is that this has affected him personally badly. His status has gone down. He's not as wealthy or as powerful as he used to be.
But on the other hand, he's wise enough, and sort of intelligent enough, to be able to look at it from a macro perspective. And he would say things like: You know, I know it's good for the country; like, it hurts me but it's good for the country, and I have to learn to adapt to it.
RAZ: Another person you profile is Harri. He's an IT worker, and he is gay. Talk a little bit about how he sort of fits into his world. I mean, obviously, as you describe in the book, it's not easy for him to be gay.
KAPUR: Right. And I think, again, you know, when - he was a very interesting character because he came out over the course of working on this book with me; and came out not just to me - it's not like when I met him that he knew he was gay. He didn't even realize himself that he was gay because he didn't have the conceptual vocabulary, kind of, to understand what it meant to be homosexual.
So I watched him kind of struggle with this understanding of the notion of homosexuality, and what it means to be a homosexual, while I was writing this book - because he'd grown up in a small town in a very conservative family, to whom the very concept of homosexuality would have been utterly alien.
RAZ: I'm speaking with Akash Kapur. He's written a new book. It's called "India Becoming," about the transformation of modern India. I want to ask you about the title of this book, "India Becoming." What, exactly, is India becoming?
KAPUR: Well, you know, there is an inherent ambivalence in the title. I mean, the title actually comes from a quote that Einstein wrote in a letter about America back in the late 1940s, where he said that America was a country that was never being, always becoming. And so when I first moved back to India, that sense of forward momentum, a reinvention of energy that I - you know, like Einstein and many others had always associated with America - I found that very much in India.
The other reason it's called "India Becoming" is because there's an inherent ambivalence. It's not quite clear what it has become yet.
RAZ: A part of this book focuses on the environmental consequences of economic prosperity. I think you write that something like 70 percent of the surface water in India is polluted. There are mountains of untreated trash piles. Describe the scale of the environmental problems that India faces today.
KAPUR: I think that the scale of the environmental problems is huge, and it's so intimately linked to the nation's prosperity. And this is something I kept seeing, and kept coming across, when I was writing this and researching this book - was the kind of double-sided nature of development; that on the one hand, it does give you amazing prosperity, it does lift horizons for millions of people. But on the other hand, it results in these horrible problems, the environmental degradation being Exhibit A, kind of.
RAZ: You write, also, about the changing caste system in India. You profile a man named Das, who sort of seems to illustrate how that system is changing in India. Can you tell us about him?
KAPUR: Sure. You know, the first thing to say is that caste oppression still exists in India. It's by no means a broken system. But Das is a man who has been able to break out of that system, in no small part because of the sort of changes in Indian society - the greater degree of individualism, the role of education, the role of new economic opportunities.
So he grew up, you know, an untouchable, and he moved to the city. He got a history degree. He moved back to his village, got into real estate, made money. And as he tells me in the book - I ask him, how has your life changed? And he says: What can I tell you? My life is a miracle. My life is one of the miracles of the world - is the way he describes his life, basically.
RAZ: That's writer Akash Kapur. His new book is called "India Becoming." It's out now. He joined us from his home near Pondicherry in India. Akash Kapur, thank you so much.
KAPUR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.