30 September 2011
Through a Glass, Darkly: a review of Siddhartha Deb's The Beautiful and the Damned
The cover of Siddhartha Deb’s new book bears the image of a young woman posing, as so many tourists do, in front of Bombay’s Gateway of India. She wears a sari with a shiny gold border (and matching blouse) in a shade that in India is often referred to as rani pink; her clearly displayed mangalsutra and bangles imply newly married status. These facts would put her in the ‘traditional Indian’ category, but the reason she is on the cover of this book about ‘Life in the new India’ is presumably that she also wears sunglasses in white plastic frames, and carries a white faux-leather handbag. If one focuses on the straight back and thin arms arranged neatly by her side like a disciplined schoolgirl, and the tight-lipped gaze under those incongruously outsized sunglasses, Martin Parr’s image is a disconcerting portrait of the lower-middle-class woman’s desire to be perceived as having made the leap into modernity – while we, the readers of Deb’s prose, can see that she still has a long way to go.
And yet, one wonders whether there is not another way of looking at this image. Rather than seeing the young woman’s desire for a photograph-worthy identity as a pathetic delusion, one might choose to think about the pleasures afforded her by this entry into the world of tourism and photography, her determined assembling of the accoutrements of both ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ into a sense of self.
At first glance, The Beautiful and the Damned seems like it could go either way. From the central subject of his now-excised first chapter – about management guru Arindam Chaudhuri – to Esther, the Manipur-born waitress of his last, Deb appears drawn to characters who are trying to recreate themselves. If Chaudhuri ‘had achieved great wealth and prominence, partly by projecting an image of himself as wealthy and prominent’, Esther has left her life in Imphal and is trying to build a career in the hospitality industry in Delhi. ‘I want to move ahead,’ she tells Deb. ‘I don’t want to look back. I want to see the world. If I was at home now, I’d be married and with two kids.’ In between these, there is the book’s only likeable engineer, a Tamil Brahmin in his mid-50s, who began the process of transforming himself by switching from maths to computer science at BITS Pilani, sealing the change from Chakravarthy Prasad to ‘Chak’ over years in the US.
Deb, however, is determined to find chinks in everyone’s armour. In scene after scene, people are made to confirm his view of post-globalisation India as a place of masquerade, where everyone is trying to live up to an image – and visibly failing. An arms dealer he meets seems to want to confirm with Deb that the Four Seasons hotel he stays in when he visits New York is up to the mark: ‘Not bad, right? … Is that an okay hotel?’ The arms dealer’s wife insists on speaking in English to Deb, and the latter insists on pointing out the flaws in her performance: ‘Sometimes, her accent slipped, and she displayed a moment of confusion before catching herself and moving on.’
Deb’s most scathing indictment of the aspirational ‘new India’ is reserved for the chapter on Chaudhuri. For this, Deb, Penguin India and Caravan magazine, in which it was published in February 2011, have been slapped with a defamation suit, leading to the Indian version of the book being published without the chapter. Analysing the popularity of Chaudhuri’s Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM), Deb wrote:
It takes people who have a fair bit of money but little cultural or intellectual capital and promises to turn them into fully fledged partners in the corporate globalised world. The students at IIPM are not from impoverished backgrounds. They can’t be because the courses are expensive. Many come from provincial towns, from small-business families that have accumulated wealth and now feel the need to upgrade themselves so they can compete in the realm of globalisation. Arindam gives youth from these backgrounds a chance to tap at IBM laptops, wear shiny suits and polished shoes, and go on foreign trips to Geneva or New York. All this involves a considerable degree of play-acting, and the students spend the most impressionable years of their lives in what is in essence a toy management school – mini golf course, mini gym, mini library.
The description is cruel but astute. It is tempting to see these ‘aspirers’ through Deb’s eyes, viewing their ‘brashness and insecurity’ as he does, with a combination of disdain and pity. With the sentence that follows, however, Deb reveals a discomfort with Indian middle-class aspirations that is both wider and deeper: ‘But play-acting is what the Indian middle and upper classes are doing anyway, wandering about the malls checking out the products purveyed by more established, easeful play-actors like Tommy Hilfiger and Louis Vuitton.’
The statement mystified this reviewer. This is not because I think that people in Indian malls are not playacting; playacting is essential to consumer capitalism. Rather, it confusingly implies that there are other people in other (presumably Western) malls who are somehow the real thing. It reads worryingly like a reluctance to admit newcomers to the table. The sentiment is one that recurs over and over again in Deb’s book. He insists, for example, that middle-class Indians who travel to ‘ultramodern places’ such as Europe, the US and Japan cannot encounter them with any degree of intimacy: ‘The very places they were most drawn to – the business centres, the shopping plazas, the franchise restaurants – would remain slightly unreal in spite of the photographs taken, the souvenirs bought, the money spent.’
This has a kind of tragic profundity until it is explored a bit more deeply. First of all, it is hard to accept that increasingly widespread international travel has not made the developed world more real to a post-globalisation middle class than it was to previous generations, most of whom only had movies and magazines to help them imagine it. On the other hand, the architecture of hypermodernity, with its cookie-cutter aesthetic of steel and glass – the anonymous international hotels, transit lounges and motorways that anthropologist Marc Auge calls ‘non-places’ – is alienating space that requires herculean effort to inhabit. For everyone.
Deb does the same thing with call centres. He excoriates them as ‘a rather fake world, dressing up its ordinary routine work in the tinsel of youthfulness’, hiding uncertainty and stasis underneath a ‘superficial mobility and modernity’. He goes on to say, ‘There wasn’t much freedom in these outposts of the free world… They were places where along with the monotony and stress of the work, the modernity of India became an ambiguous phenomenon rather than a marker of irreversible progress.’ This is probably all true, but it is not clear why any of it is specific to call centres, or to India. Surely all capitalist workplaces, including those in the ‘free world’, are sites of monotony and stress? Likewise, modernity is an indisputably ambiguous phenomenon, but surely it is so everywhere?
Also, the popular discourse around call centres is much more nuanced than Deb lets on. Perhaps I am being unfair here, because of the time lag, but no-one thinks of call centres as a dream workplace: think of the unhappy characters who populate Chetan Bhagat’s One Night @ The Call Center. In fact, the conclusion of Bhagat’s bestselling 2005 novel – a barometer of popular culture if ever there was one – is pretty much the same as Deb’s: a call centre job is not a career, but a stepping stone. In the charming 2010 film Do Dooni Chaar, the college-going narrator excitedly declares she’s joining a call centre, only to have her schoolteacher father tell her she’s not taking a dead-end job just for the money. (Do Dooni Chaar, incidentally, was produced by Arindam Chaudhuri’s Planman Motion Pictures.)
In Deb’s vision, the world of post-globalisation India is unremittingly bleak. Everyone – whether it is Northeastern girls in Munirka village, migrant labourers in the Kothur steel factory, or call-centre employees – is simultaneously isolated from their surroundings and trapped in circumstances not of their own making. Deb underplays all signs of negotiation, of new configurations and possibilities for escape. To me, it seems no small thing that Esther’s sister Mary, who leaves a call-centre job to get married, is able to come back to it when the marriage falls through, or that Esther’s other sister, Renu, wants to do a journalism course. But Deb’s sole reference to the new opportunities that globalisation had created for women is undercut first by the phrase ‘especially … waitresses and sales assistants’, and then by his telling us that ‘the same globalization had also allowed the use of ultrasound technology to abort some 24,000 female foetuses every year.’
In fact, there is a great deal more to be said about the transformation of women’s lives by globalisation. Many more women are today in the workforce, incomes are rising, divorce rates are increasing and there is a general churning in relationships between men and women. Esther herself, though she might be unhappy with the long hours and frustrations of her current job as a waitress in a posh mall restaurant, provides evidence of this transformation when she says, ‘I’m a graduate … Why should I have to depend on my husband for money?’ But any spark on Esther’s part – whether it is her account of seeing Priyanka Gandhi or her hopeful meeting with someone she thinks is a Congress MP – is scotched by Deb’s assumption of inevitable defeat.
It is harder to argue with Deb’s sense of hopelessness when he is speaking of the future of farmers under the precarious conditions created by the government’s move towards a free market in agriculture, or of labourers whose migrant status makes it impossible for them to unionise. But Deb’s farmers and workers never come to life.
In the chapter on temporary workers, the lack of narrative spark is particularly acute, to the extent that one worker after another has to be artificially distinguished from the crowd. ‘Another man came out of a nearby room,’ Deb writes. ‘He seemed different from the workers I had come across so far.’ A dozen pages later, another worker comes out of another door and he, too, ‘is strikingly differently from the other workers I had seen thus far’. Deb seems much more at ease when he is turning the steel factory into a vision of automated hell a la Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: ‘The rods blazed red as they came out, and the men moved in unison like drugged dancers… It was a long tongue of fire, infernal and alive, claiming the men with the tongs as its servants, the red, pulsating liquid was its soul.’ Unfortunately, this vision of the factory as a deep, dark, sinister place is one he carries with him, and it seems impermeable to conversations with individual workers: ‘a dystopic realm of worker drones producing objects whose purpose seemed unfathomable to me.’
A kind of blindness
Deb’s narratorial voice, of course, makes the book what it is. Some of the most powerful sections are those in which Deb returns to some long-ago incident in which he was truly a character, a story about himself also serves as a story of the times. For instance, there is his description of working for Indranil, a ‘light skinned megalomaniac who combined business management flair with a hustling instinct’ in a faraway Calcutta of the early 1990s, or his extraordinary account of an encounter with a plainclothes policeman in the passport queue:
Did I know who he was, a man trying to maintain order in the line – afraid that I was a tout with a knife in his back pocket – doing a hopeless job assigned to him by his boss? And did he know who I was, breaking the line only after I had tried to follow all the rules, wanting nothing more than the passport that was supposedly my right as a citizen of the country?
There is a great deal of thoughtful writing in The Beautiful and the Damned, and when Deb succeeds in weaving together disparate characters he can produce a superbly coherent narrative (the chapter on engineers, for instance). But as a returnee come to document the present, he is also given to confessional waves of nostalgia, whether it is in Armoor, which brings back to him ‘a time in India when many middle class households had been like this, animated by literature, art and politics, and where people still lived in a community and believed in social justice’; on Janpath in New Delhi, which during the 1990s seemed to Deb ‘the climax of urban civilization’; or in Munirka Gaon, where he lived as a young professional before leaving for the US, and where he insists on telling us that he feels ‘no sense of triumph that I had seemingly moved up since I lived inside that one-room flat’. Does this piousness stem from Deb’s belief that his having done well for himself has had nothing to do with the transformations of the last two decades? Or is he just unable to come to terms with a desire for upward mobility – even his own?
Perhaps Deb has a point when he says that luxury brands in the West ‘had been around for so long that they had lost some of their meaning’, while in India they still possess power. But to say that a McDonald’s on Janpath is ‘a reminder that Janpath was not Times Square. It was no longer even Janpath’ is a kind of blindness, a refusal to acknowledge the millions of ways in which human beings inhabit the world created by capital. Too often, Deb combines the nostalgia of the old-timer with the newcomer’s quickness to judge. What we don’t get enough of is a complicated sense of how things feel now, for those who live them every day.
Published in Himal Southasian magazine, October 2011.