• ‘‘
    This is a remarkably absorbing account of an India in transition – full of challenges and contradictions, but also of expectations, hope, and ultimately optimism.”
    — Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate
  • ‘‘
    There are many virtues of Akash Kapur’s beautifully sketched portrait of modern India. The book reads like a novel. Kapur’s skill is to get people talking and to weave their stories into a necessarily messy debate about India’s future.”
    The Financial Times
  • ‘‘
    Impressively lucid and searching... In his clarity, sympathy and impeccably sculpted prose, Kapur often summons the spirit of V. S. Naipaul.”
    — Pico Iyer, Time magazine
  • ‘‘
    A wonderful writer: a courageously clear-eyed
    observer, an astute listener, a masterful portraitist, and a gripping storyteller.”
    — Philip Gourevitch,
         author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We
         Will Be Killed With Our Families
  • ‘‘
    [R]eadable, acutely observed, and crammed with well-drawn characters.... Mr. Kapur offers a corrective to a simplistic 'new, happy narrative' of a rising India. That is welcome and he does it well.”
    The Economist
  • ‘‘
    Marvelous... Sharp-eyed, insightful, skillfully-sketched and
    beautifully written, India Becoming is the
    remarkable debut of a distinctive new talent.”
    — William Dalrymple, author of Nine Lives
  • ‘‘
    Akash Kapur lives in and writes out of an India that few writers venture into. His writing has established him as one of the most reliable observers of the New India.”
    — Pankaj Mishra, author of Temptations of the West
  • ‘‘
    Lucid, balanced. Kapur is determinedly fair-minded, neither an apologist nor a scold, and he is a wonderfully empathetic listener.”
    The New York Times Book Review
  • ‘‘
    Through a series of deft character sketches, Akash Kapur captures the contradictions of life in modern India...His writing is fresh and vivid; his perspective, empathetic and appealingly non-judgemental.”
    — Ramachandra Guha,
         author of India after Gandhi
  • ‘‘
    A fascinating look at the transformation of India, with broader lessons on the upside and downside of progress.”
    Booklist (starred review)

New Book: Better to Have Gone

I’ll be posting more here soon about my new book, Better to Have Gone: Love, Death, and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville. Ten years in the making, it will finally be out, from Scribner, in July 2021. In the meantime, you can find more information and some of the advance praise here.

If you’re interested in the topic of utopia, you might also want to revisit my article on the topic (“Return of the Utopians”) for the New Yorker, which you’ll find here.

Check back again soon for a revamped website and more information on Better to Have Gone.

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Top of the world

The New Yorker, January 25, 2021: An essay review on the Himalaya

Romantic visions of the region have obscured the real people who live in it.

Many millions of people now visit the Himalayan region in a typical year. Some four thousand climbers have attempted to summit Everest in each of the past two decades, a fifty-per-cent increase over the period when Krakauer wrote his book. Satellite phones and charter flights penetrate the formerly inviolable geography, and climbers on Mt. Everest have access to Wi-Fi at seventeen thousand six hundred feet. Himalayan myths endure, but old tropes about self-cultivation through adventure have been repackaged and commodified, marketed to eager consumers desperate for a taste of authenticity. The snow-capped peaks and dramatic glaciers have been reduced to props in a great big human reality show: backdrops for a thousand selfies and boastful social-media feeds—destinations, as the author Jamaica Kincaid puts it, for “people from rich countries in the process of experiencing the world as spectacle.”

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BBC Radio on pandemic living

BBC Radio 3: Sunday Feature, May 24 2020

BBC Radio 3 asked six writers to record a chain letter in which we talked about our experiences living–and writing–during the pandemic. I wrote and spoke about a silver lining of calm and solitude; and also about the joys of my lockdown reading, Vasily Grossman’s marvelous novel Life and Fate.

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The Rising Threat of Digital Nationalism

From the Wall Street Journal, lead story in the Review

As the internet turns 50, the global vision that animated it is under attack. What can be done?

Like classical liberalism, the internet may also be a good idea in urgent need of updating. Much as the individualism and freedom of classical liberalism have been distorted into the inequalities and ethical transgressions of modern capitalism, so the internet’s culture of “permissionless innovation” has been abused, transformed into the centralized, controlled network of today. It’s no coincidence that the rise of digital nationalism corresponds with a similar resurgence of its offline variety. A technology community that has long prided itself on its radical difference, its apartness, turns out to be susceptible to many of the trends that influence the world at large.

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Can Poland’s Faded Brutalist Architecture Be Redeemed?

My article on Brutalist architecture in Poland and its link to communism, from T Magazine, The New York Times

Long derided as relics of an oppressive regime, the country’s Communist-era buildings are being given a second look, and a new life.

Architecture always bears the weight of history; our buildings are indelibly imprinted by the era in which they were conceived. But probably nowhere in Eastern Europe has witnessed more turmoil in the recent past than Poland, a country that has endured successive waves of invasion, genocide and occupation. And, as the rise of the country’s right-wing government illustrates, the contestations of history are ongoing. All of this has imparted an especially complex (and convoluted) legacy to the country’s Brutalist monuments. Those concrete and steel behemoths that mark the Polish landscape have long been reviled and rejected for their associations with Communism. Now, in a new post-Communist Poland, their fortunes may be changing: They have acquired a peculiar — if fraught — afterlife.

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Whiting Nonfiction Grant

Some of you might know that I’m working on another book. It’s titled Better to Have Gone and it’s going to be published by Scribner. The topic, broadly, is on utopia–the search for a better world, how it can inspire, and how it can sometimes go awry. I’m thrilled to say that the book has just received a Whiting Nonfiction Grant, which is awarded to support a nonfiction work in progress. The Whiting Foundation does amazing, important work supporting writers and others. You can read more about the award (and the book) here. You can also read more about my take on utopia in this recent piece from The New Yorker magazine.

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Attempting the Impossible: A Thoughtful Meditation on Technology

A review in the New York Times Book Review of Bitwise: A Life in Code by David Auerbach

It’s sometimes hard to remember this, but the internet is young — a mere three decades or so have passed since its mass adoption. Our relationship to technology is still evolving, characterized by inevitable spats and rapprochements. Yet throughout these cycles, we are increasingly intimate, ever more intertwined and interdependent. The danger is that this relationship will, like so much else in our public lives, be captured by extremism: that we will be forced to choose camps, that we will divide ourselves into mutually antagonistic factions of technology lovers and technology haters. We need guides on this journey — judicious, balanced and knowledgeable commentators, like Auerbach.

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Is a Basic Income Utopian?

An essay review on the case and evidence for a universal basic income, from The Financial Times.

We live in implausible times. Robots may take our jobs. The Arctic might disappear. A new wave of strongmen is pushing back against what only yesterday seemed like an unstoppable tide of liberal democracy. As the New York Times recently reported, media references to that menacing line from Yeats — “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” — have spiked to a 30-year high.

The notion of a guaranteed income for all may appear counter-intuitive, even heretical in an era marked by anxiety over rising deficits and creaking welfare states. Opponents of the idea also worry that no-strings-attached free money could reduce incentives to work. Bregman is relatively sanguine about costs, suggesting, alternatively, that a universal income would be cheaper than existing welfare programmes, or that it could easily be paid for by new taxes on “assets, waste, raw materials, and consumption”. Concerns about incentives are similarly unfounded, he argues, relics of old, patronising thinking about poverty and welfare.

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The Return of the Utopians

From The New Yorker: What today’s movements for social and economic reform can learn from the intentional communities of the nineteenth century.

Contradiction and hypocrisy have always hovered over the utopian project, shadowing its promise of a better world with the sordid realities of human nature. Plato, in the Republic, perhaps the earliest utopian text, outlined a form of eugenics that would have been right at home in the Third Reich—which was itself a form of utopia, as were the Gulag of Soviet Communism, the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and, more recently, the blood-and-sand caliphate of isis. “There is a tyranny in the womb of every utopia,” the French economist and futurist Bertrand de Jouvenel wrote.

The twentieth century was perhaps the cruellest for utopian hopes. “Innumerable millions of human beings were killed in this century in the name of utopia,” the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz reminded his audience, at a 1986 pen conference. In a 2007 polemic, “Black Mass,” John Gray proclaimed “the death of utopia.” Indeed, utopia’s name has become so tarnished that it has recently been used almost interchangeably with its evil twin, dystopia—a word coined by John Stuart Mill, three and a half centuries after the publication of More’s book, to describe a society that was “too bad to be practicable.”

Now the tide may have shifted. Utopias come in waves. Could these books—along with the other recent utopian books—offer guidance for a grand new moment of social reform?

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How to Find Happiness in Switzerland

A family journey to “the happiest country in the world,” from Conde Nast Traveller

When I was younger, I used to travel alone a lot. I loved the sense of discovery, of newness and serendipity. Most of all, I revelled in the freedom: no one to consult, no permission to be asked. Travelling with family—with any group, really—is more complicated. It has its joys, of course, but I’ve learnt the hard way that much time on family trips is likely to be spent planning, weighing everyone’s preferences, working out compromises to keep the peace.

The difficulty of harmonising preferences is directly proportionate to the attractiveness of a destination. As a family, it’s easier to visit cities with a single attraction, towns with few good restaurants. The less there is to choose from, the less there is to argue about.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached Switzerland—that tiny, land-locked country that famously contains multitudes within its tight boundaries. “Switzerland would be a mighty big place if it were ironed flat,” Mark Twain once wrote. He was referring to the mountains, of course. But there was a sense, too, of densely packed plenitude, of a variety in experience and landscape that has drawn eager travellers for centuries. It was precisely this plenitude that worried me. How would we decide what to do?

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