• ‘‘
    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)

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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The Mountain Shadow

My review, from The New York Times Book Review, of Gregory David Roberts’ The Mountain Shadow

Gregory David Roberts’s “Shantaram” was an unlikely publishing sensation. Literary purists scoffed at its purple prose; Indian (and many other) readers bristled at its stereotypes and cultural simplifications. The book nonetheless possessed a grittiness and vividness that helped Roberts sell four million copies around the world. Hollywood rights were scooped up (though a film has yet to be made). The book has gone on to occupy a distinctive — and deserving — place in an emerging genre of Bombay noir.

“The Mountain Shadow,” Roberts’s second novel, appears more than a decade later. A sequel in a planned tetralogy of novels, it is likely to please many “Shantaram” fans. The book is populated by several of the same characters (notably Lin, also known as Shantaram), and it unfolds on much the same urban landscape of drug lords, corrupt police and washed-out expatriates. The story begins with Lin’s return to Mumbai from a smuggling trip; we follow him through a thinly plotted litany of killings and violent encounters as he seeks to reunite with his love, Karla (also a repeat visitor from the earlier book).

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Why Roger Federer Hasn’t Broken Down

Another piece on tennis for The New Yorker (online)–this one on Federer’s remarkable longevity

There are many reasons for Federer’s longevity. Talent, hard work, good timing, and a little luck have all contributed to his remarkable staying power.

The talent—that outrageous grace and fluidity that David Foster Wallace famously compared to a religious experience—comes first. Federer’s smooth, effortless style, his near-perfect balance and poise, are throwbacks to an earlier era in men’s tennis, before all the grunting and power shots, when men like Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver played into (or almost into) their forties. That classic kind of game isn’t just beautiful to watch; it’s also far easier on the body, reducing the wear and tear that have plagued practitioners of a more modern, physical game.

Nadal, for instance, plays a brash brand of tennis that has often overwhelmed Federer. He is the boxer to Federer’s ballerina, and, faced with Nadal’s power and sheer physicality, Federer has often seemed fragile, a little anachronistic. But now, in this late stage of their respective careers, Nadal is plagued by injury and loses in the early rounds, and Federer glides his way to titles.

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The new tennis league is crazy but good fun, says Federer

My piece for The New Yorker online on the International Premier Tennis League and what it means for the future of the sport.

I can’t deny that the league possesses a certain easy charm that, gradually if not entirely, grew on me over the weekend. There was, for one thing, the sheer novelty of watching all those stars assembled in the same place. I couldn’t take my eyes off Federer and Sampras, who were huddled together on a bench—what were they talking about?—and my eyes kept following Sampras as he sauntered over to Boris Becker, who stood a few metres in front of Goran Ivanisevic (Becker wasn’t playing; he was part of the audience). Gaël Monfils danced with the Indian star Sania Mirza. Ivanovic laughed a lot, wrapped her arms around the French player Fabrice Santoro, and at one point broke into a fake bow to mark her awe at a particularly impressive Federer overhead.

This was sheer entertainment, of course, just cheap celebrity watching. It certainly lacked the intensity of a Wimbledon final (or even, truth be told, of the club matches I play a couple of times a week). But I think that’s part of the point. Tennis is an amazing sport, but even its biggest fans would be hard-pressed to say that it is a fun sport. Agassi called tennis “the loneliest sport” in his autobiography; he compared it to “solitary confinement.” Few things in life are as nerve-wracking as going for a second serve at, say, 30-40, 4-5. There’s nothing quite as miserable as netting an easy volley on match point, or as watching yourself—helplessly, as if from the outside—fritter away a lead.

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More on the Bay of Bengal…

Last year I had the pleasure of reviewing Sunil Amrith’s fascinating book on the Bay of Bengal for The New York Times Book Review. I recently met Amrith in Pondicherry. We drove up the coast and talked about his research and the fascinating–if often overlooked–history of this part of the world. I wrote about our afternoon together for The Hindu.

I’m standing in the fishing village of Arikamedu, outside Pondicherry. I’m visiting with Sunil Amrith, a professor of History at the University of London. Amrith is the author of a recent book titled Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants.

I first came across the book about a year ago, when I was asked to review it. It piqued my curiosity. I have grown up along the Bay, in Pondicherry and Auroville. Very little writing and research exists about this area. I feel as though I have grown up lacking a conceptual vocabulary to understand my world. Amrith’s work has given me a new frame of reference. It has led me to revisit, and re-imagine, the landscape of my youth.

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