Q&A Akash Kapur, Author
‘What does it say about a country when you’re modern economically, but not culturally?’
AFTER LIVING abroad for more than 10 years, Akash Kapur came back to his native Tamil Nadu when India’s future seemed promising. Looking at the woes of rural South India, he finds out in India Becoming that development and change never come without heavy costs. In an interview with Ayan Meer, Kapur, 37, talks about the ideas and experiences that finally culminated into this book.
India examined Akash Kapur
Photo: Ankit Agrawal
What makes this book different from the legion of books on the transformation of India?
I didnít consciously
think how I could make this
different from all these
other books, but it eventually
turned out to be a personal
process. When I came back to
India after living in New
York, I was at home but I
didnít feel at home, I didnít
understand my home. My impulse
was to re-engage with
these places I had known, as I
had been away for more than
10 years. I met many people
and they offered me a window
to their world ó the
transforming rural South.
You seemed to be confident about the Indian narrative on development when you moved back here. Has this changed after writing the book?
People often ask me if I really was as naïve as I sound in the book when I first came back, and I think I was. I didn’t believe that India was fully developed, but felt that an amazing process was going on. I was focussed on the positive aspects of it. I realised with time that it was a simplistic take on things, though I reject the claim that the book sheds a negative light on Indian development. For those who grew up in India in the ’70s and ’80s, what was happening in the late ’90s represented a sort of liberation, which now feels dated and naïve.
Having been brought up in Auroville, did you feel sheltered from what was going on in the surrounding villages?
I am very honest in the book about life in Auroville, where you’re in a rural setting but you’re not living like a villager. I did feel sheltered and a little bit removed, and writing this book was a way to come out of it and engage with India beyond Auroville.
India Becoming refers to the death of a world and the birth of a new one. What makes you think this march of history is so inevitable?
It’s not just inevitable in India, modernity is inevitable anywhere. I see what is happening here as the work of historical forces, and India is taking them on very willingly. The question that arises is how to make sense of the shades of grey in these historical forces, especially locally. I don’t see the country as being removed from the current of history, which is what India tried to do in the ’70s and ’80s and it wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
Looking at rural Tamil Nadu, do you foresee a massive rural exodus and the rise of a poor underclass in cities?
It seems to be happening, and it’s somewhat sad. In the book, I cite figures regarding Indian rural exodus, which predict that between now and 2030, the equivalent of the US’s population will move to cities. My book is full of stories about the countryside dying and farms being abandoned. That’s why I tried to look at alternative rural economies that are developing, in order to keep people in their villages. Young people don’t want to work on farms, and end up living very precarious lives in cities. I saw a form of intergenerational struggle between the holistic family unit and the individual: village youth today is being stifled in a village life that their families have been living for centuries.
Through homosexuality or pre-marital sex, you also explore the evolution of sexual mores. Did you find that the relation to sexuality is changing at a much slower pace than the economic situation?
Definitely. We have all these modern facilities, but a girl I met was forced back from the city to her village because her roommate had had an affair. What does it say about a country when you’re modern economically, but not culturally? I found it generated many problems.