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Review: ‘India Becoming’ by Akash Kapur

Review: ‘India Becoming’ by Akash Kapur post image

Title: India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India
Author: Akash Kapur
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2012
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★★☆

Long Review: When Akash Kapur was a child growing up in India, the East Coast Road — the main artery through the countryside of southern India — was a potholed tar road with views of the ocean. When Kapur returned to his native India in 2003 after more than 10 years living in the United States, the East Coast Road had been transformed into a modern, paved highway that Indian politicians look to as an example of what modern India can be. But instead of ocean views the East Coast Road is now flanked by tourist developments and, closer to the city, urban crowding and a growing technology corridor. India Becoming is Kapur’s exploration of what life has become in modern India:

Millions of Indians have risen out of poverty since the nation’s economic reforms. But millions more remain in poverty, and millions, too, are beng subjected to the psychological dislocation of having their worlds change, of watching a social order that has given meaning to them — and their parents, and their grandparents before them — slip away.

Development, I came to understand, was a form of creative destruction. For everyone whos life was being regenerated or rejuvinated in modern India there was someone too, whose life was being destroyed.

To tell the story of modern India, Kapur wisely choses to profile Indians of vastly different circumstances and lifestyles — a village leader slowly losing power and respect as his farming town slowly evolves, a 27-year-old closeted gay man struggling to stay connected with his tradional parents while advancing his career, a very traditional young women stepping out on her own to earn a living at a call center in the city, and others. They are people struggling to balance a pull toward modernity (and many of the problems we’ve struggled with in the United States) and the equally compelling pull back toward the India that used to be.

The one big critique I have of the book is that it lacks a narrative of forward momentum. Each chapter reads more like an essay on a particular topic of India’s transformation, and they don’t necessarily feel cohesive. Kapur uses many of the same people throughout the book, and their stories serve as some forward momentum in the book, but on the whole it doesn’t quite move forward as effectively as I hoped that it would. If I hadn’t been invested, I think it might be a book that would be easy to put down between chapters because there isn’t anything deeply pulling the reader forward, you know?

But on the whole, that’s a relatively minor criticism of a book that read straight through in just a couple of days. The way Kapur uses stories about the real people being impacted by this rapid pace of development illustrates the way any major global change matter most to the people who have to live with the result. That’s a lesson all of us — but particularly those in power who make these decisions — should be regularly reminded of.

Other Reviews: S. Krishna’s Books |

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  • Man of la Book April 11, 2012, 5:56 am

    What an interesting book. I know that when I went back to the place of my childhood after a decade, I also remember being amazed at the construction. It is also a statement that, while advancement is certainly good for the whole, we have to remember the price the individuals pay.


    • Kim April 13, 2012, 7:44 pm

      I’ve had that feeling too. My hometown hasn’t changed that dramatically, but there is something disorienting about seeing your home different than it used to be.

  • Jenna (Literature and a Lens) April 11, 2012, 7:48 am

    I like that this book seems to tackle the downsides to progress and modernization. Not everyone’s experiences are positive, and I’m glad Kapur highlights some of the negatives.

    • Kim April 13, 2012, 7:45 pm

      I think that’s an important part of the book, particularly the deep sense of tradition many Indians feel and how that sense of tradition is being challenged as the country modernizes. There’s a lot of tension there.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) April 11, 2012, 12:53 pm

    I love to read about other cultures and I love that the author included people of different socioeconomic backgrounds. This sounds like a winner!

    • Kim April 13, 2012, 7:46 pm

      There could have probably been more from the poorest people of India, his subjects seem pretty solidly middle- or upper-class, but he does a good job getting variety in that sphere. Also, those are the people most affected by modernization, which is what he’s writing about.

  • Jenny April 11, 2012, 5:51 pm

    I love a nonfiction book with narrative/reasoning momentum, but it can also be kind of great to read something like this, where the chapters can be considered discrete in some way. It’s definitely good for me when I’m reading in twenty-minute increments on the subway morning and evening. 😀

    • Kim April 13, 2012, 7:47 pm

      That’s a good point, there is something to be said for books that compartmentalize a bit 🙂 And like I said, the characters remain in different sections, so that helps tie things together.

  • Aarti April 11, 2012, 9:56 pm

    Oh, this sounds great! I guess in a way I can see that the book isn’t forward-looking enough, but must every book provide reflection and prediction for the future? In a way, I really like that the book just describes India at this particular point of time. Though that means that perhaps the title is misleading.

    • Kim April 13, 2012, 7:48 pm

      I’m not sure I’d say it’s not forward looking — I think there is some speculation about what might come next, if I remember right. It’s more that the book doesn’t have a narrative arc, it’s more of a portrait of India at the moment (which is what you said), and it’s good for that too.

  • Suzanne April 12, 2012, 7:12 am

    I am weirdly (to my mind) drawn to books about India, so I purchased this book when I first heard about it. I think the fact that it reads more like a series of essays may be beneficial, but I’ll have to see.

    • Kim April 13, 2012, 7:48 pm

      I hope you enjoy it!

  • Maphead April 12, 2012, 8:32 am

    I also received an advance copy of this book. Right now it’s just sitting on my shelf waiting to be read. Maybe your review will inspire me to finally read it.
    Thanks for the great review!

    • Kim April 13, 2012, 7:48 pm

      I’d be curious what you have to say about this one. It seems in line with a lot of what you’ve been reading lately, it seems.

  • Ash April 12, 2012, 11:13 am

    This sounds like a great book for me to read right now, and the fact that it reads more like a series of essays sounds good to me because right now that’s about all I can stomach with reading (I’m losing concentration pretty easily). I’ve really missed India recently so maybe this book would comfort me? Plus I think the cover is great.

    • Kim April 13, 2012, 7:49 pm

      Yes, absolutely! The chapters are on the long side, but they can definitely be read slowly. I do love the cover too, that’s part of what drew me to the book.

  • Meg April 12, 2012, 12:50 pm

    Over the past few years — probably since discovering Jhumpa Lahiri’s startlingly beautiful stories — I’ve become very interested in India. Adding this one to my wishlist!

    • Kim April 13, 2012, 7:50 pm

      I hope you like it if you get a chance to read it!