The adage “write what you know” lightens the load of, what is for many writers, a craft that is hard-earned, word-by-word. Thus my respect for authors who are able to traverse many landscapes, many cultures, and many socioeconomic strata is usually quite high. In the case of Siddhartha Deb, this respect is especially heightened. In constructing The Beautiful and the Damned, Deb glides from The Great Gatsby to The Girl from F&B. The subtitles of the opening and closing chapters of this fine book hinge at the boundaries that Deb crosses: “A Rich Man in India” and “Women in the Big City.” The reader who is curious about F&B will first have the joy of reading the first four chapters. Taken as a whole, these readings serve as an Indian Rorschach Test of sorts.
The reader who is optimistically fascinated by Arindam Chaudhuri, “a phenomenally wealthy Indian who excites hostility and suspicion,” can be forgiven for believing that New India truly is the (con)temporary land of milk and honey; with a little bit of inspiration and a lot of perspiration, hard-working Indians can come out of nowhere and amass incredible wealth. This sweat equity has long been considered an American virtue, suggesting a culture that privileges the so-called Protestant work ethic. For the longest time, Old India’s modest economic growth, hierarchical caste system, and dharmic humility (con)spired to keep wealth (con)centrated in the coffers of a handful of family-owned industrialists (e.g., Ambani Father and Sons) and heredity-based royalty (e.g., the Nizam of Hyderabad). But as Deb writes, “Every age gets the rich people it deserves. In contemporary India, the new rich are the anti-Nizams. They are people in a hurry, expressing fevered modes of consumption, flaunting gargantuan appetites meant to astonish and dazzle the rest of us.” Most middle-class Indians know the story of Dhirubhai Ambani, who seemingly came out of the backwaters of small-town-village India to build a global empire that his sons divided; but even with the division, one son—Mukesh —became India’s richest man with a sixty-story residence.
Arindam Chaudhuri’s particular genius has been to channel the get-rich-quick dreams of India’s middle-class into a Ponzi scheme built not only on those dreams, but also on India’s long-held belief in higher education. His Indian Institute of Policy and Management is meant to reflect the elite Indian Institutes of Management, and in its acronymic form—IIPM—even sound like the world-class IITs that are statistically more selective than Harvard. But Chaudhuri’s model sets a low bar for selectivity: if you can pay the fees, you get in. “IIPM had the same relationship to IIM as knock-off goods do to branded products, which is to say that there is always a market for a knock-off version among aspirational crowds.” Sadly, if this reading of India is accurate, the country is in for trouble. For while you can at least wear fake Ralph Polo shirts, or work in a factory making those shoddy products, a faux-MBA is a con-job which will not get you a well-paying employment and most definitely will not help build a sustainable economy.
The second reading of India is the one that has become quite popular in Western popular media—that of brilliant but geeky engineers. If the chapter on Chaudhuri is about the lumpen-proletariat who take almost useless coursework developed by a pony-tailed business guru, this chapter, titled “Ghosts in the Machine: The Engineer’s Burden,” is about the tiny bourgeoisie who have studied engineered and developed marketable skills in information technology. Before the millennium, most of these engineers toiled away at middle- to upper-middle-class jobs in small- to mid-size companies. But as the year 2000 approached, and fears of the “Y2K bug” demanded a global response, the Indian engineer became an archetypal hero, brought in to save the world’s computers form cataclysmic collapse. Rather than rehash the decade-old story, Deb uses caste constructs to contrast the IIPM students’ common-man fantasy of New India’s wealth engine with the engineers who are actually driving that engine: “Engineering had become a Brahmin occupation … There is also something Brahminical in the very way engineers perceive their work around computers, if by Brahminical one means the idea of exclusive access to knowledge that cannot be shared with commoners.”
This bit of anthropology is taken deeper by Deb’s vignette-like visits with engineers. These interactions introduce us to technologists of different stripes: Arvind Krishnan, a former engineer who started A Fuller Life, a
company that supplies happiness; Chakravarthy Prasad, a senior engineering manager for a Bangalore-based American semiconductor company; S.S. Prasad, an engineer who hides poetry in his software code; Vijay Chandru, who had attempted to build a Gandhian computer which was affordable and accessible to all; and Kartik, who conflates the absence of Muslims and lower-caste students at IIT and IIM with their backwardness.
While no simple story coheres from this all-too-brief introduction to the engineer’s India, a nice bit of sociology attributed to Chakravarthy (a.k.a. Chak) suggests that India is building walls that will make cross-socioeconomic interactions less possible: “The low-context technology hubs of Bangalore existed in conflict with the high-context society all around. Chak was conscious of this. He lived, in his own words, in a “gated community.” The only time he interacted with high-context India was when he travelled between his two nodes of work and home, jostling through traffic … every many for himself.”
The next two chapters, “Red Sorghum” and “The Factory,” take the reader from the countryside to the city; but regardless of the shift in the geography, the picture that Deb renders remains one grim Rorschach test of whether India will ever be an equitable country or will forever be wedded to its feudal past. In The Beautiful and the Damned there is no romanticized beauty of village life; both farmers and factory workers seem doomed to live damned lives.
Perhaps because of the bleak hand-to-mouth existence of its subjects, the writing in the “Red Sorghum” chapter is not as compelling as in the rest of the book; or perhaps it is just this reader’s failure to pass a test that paints India in such an unfavorable light. How can India be shining when millions of farm workers commit suicide because they cannot survive off the land that has been tilled by generations who came before them in an India that was far less prosperous but far more livable? Deb’s oblique answer is red sorghum; he unconvincingly makes this crop his main character to explain how the dystopic nexus of seed dealers, local politicians, police, and rich farmers heaps distress on poor farmers. Rather than frame an economic argument in favor of a nostalgic and idealistic vision of Marxist India, Deb may have been better served by personalizing the tragedy by describing the plight of one suicidal farmer and bereft family.
Deb seems to be writing from the same manifesto in his exploration of factory workers’ plight when suggesting the structure of dislocated temporary labor “is an arrangement that suits employers everywhere well, ensuring that the workers will be too insecure and uprooted to ever mount organized protests.” However the writing in the factory chapter soars above the simple Communist/Capitalist dichotomy. There is a cool objectivity when he writes that “the changes that have been wrought in India in the past two decades have not been kind to the poor.” And there is hot poetry in Deb’s description of the invisibility of the poor and the stinking visibility of their squalid living quarters, conditions that are an unbridgeable divide between the “beautiful” and the “damned:” “Although they are everywhere … they are invisible in the sense that they seem to count for nothing at all … There was a constant smell of shit in the air, and the entire place seemed to be cast in shades of grey … Men from the managerial class did not cross the border into this living space of theirs. This was their domain, and the only people from outside their class who came here were the labor contractors, the tough middlemen straddling the decent bourgeois world of management and the rough, desperate realm of the workers.” Deb brilliantly enables the reader to similarly straddle the border, recognizing that one need only turn the page to return to our privileged lives.
After such powerful writing, the allegorical final chapter is anticlimactic. The saving grace is that the masculine feel of the rest of the book is given a rest in a profile of Esther, “The Girl from F&B.” But except for curiosity about F&B (the part of luxury hotels where young women serve Food and Beverages to rich Indians and foreign visitors), this reader was neither curious about, nor sympathetic to, the choice that Esther made in moving from rural Manipur to the country’s capital. Delhi has money and Esther has “the taste of money.” In some ways, she is a sad caricature of New India longing for something lost some 65 years after Independence: “Her mother was a schoolteacher too, and what Esther sometimes wanted, after all her independence, striving, exposure and mobility was a simple repetition of her mother’s life.”
For Muniraj, a gentle soul who goes by one name, navigates RCO through the busy streets of Bangalore with subtle intelligence and grace.
Rajesh C. Oza is a Change Management consultant who also facilitates the interpersonal development of MBA students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.