• ‘‘
    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)

Rajasthan revisited

Conde Nast Traveller

Sixteen years earlier, I had travelled through Rajasthan on a borrowed Royal Enfield motorcycle with a Canadian friend whose flowing red curls and delicate bone structure belied his skills as a mechanic. We spent more than two weeks on the road, driving over the Aravalli mountain range that slices Rajasthan in two and across the harsh Thar Desert that dominates the western part of the state.

Much has happened in my life since that trip. I got married and had two boys. I have grown older: my hair is thinner, the lines on my forehead deeper. I have lived a lot, travelled in many countries. But the memory of that motorcycle trip has always stayed with me. It was a magical time; I have rarely felt so alive. And I suppose it was that feeling of living, of sucking at what Thoreau called ‘the marrow of life’, that has often made me wonder what it would be like to return to Rajasthan—to retrace the journey I took as a young man; to revisit, with my wife and sons, the cities and countryside I had known before I knew them.

Adult life dulls the senses. It is not a criticism of my wonderful wife or children to say that family, work, routine and responsibility can numb a man until he is barely sentient. Can travel make you feel alive again? I was back in Rajasthan, now staring down the barrel of middle age, and I was determined to find out. I wanted to know if I was still capable of feeling the world.

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In a Landfill, Locals Cling to Way of Life

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

It seems unimaginable that human beings could live amidst this environmental catastrophe. But propose to the gypsies here that they move away or that the landfill be moved, and they object vehemently.

Garbage is their livelihood, they say. Without the landfill, they would starve.

On this paradox of a people clinging to the very thing that is killing them rests much of the dilemma of environmentalism, especially in the developing world. The more time I spend at the landfill, the more I realize that cleaning up India’s air and water is going to be even more complicated than the staggeringly complicated task it first appears.

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Understanding the Puzzling Nature of Poverty

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

At least three government committees have recently been formed to count the poor in India. The variance in their findings suggests not only the prevalence of poverty, but also that its very nature is misunderstood. For all the attention directed at the issue, poverty remains something of a mystery.

A new study tries to unpeel some of the layers of that mystery.

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A Model of Development Worth Building

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

In recent years, there has been growing talk about an Indian model of development and governance — what Larry Summers recently referred to as a Mumbai Consensus. He positioned this as an alternative to an ascendant Beijing Consensus, which emphasizes the role of the state, plays down the importance of democracy and human rights, and has been embraced by authoritarian regimes around the world.

This Mumbai Consensus is far less established than its Beijing counterpart. Still, with India’s economic success now receiving general — and sometimes exaggerated — international recognition, and with a growing number of Indian companies embarking on acquisitions around the world, the outlines of an Indian model that could light a path toward development for other countries are starting to become clear.

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The Mystery of Economic Growth

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

Development is an unpredictable business. One of the central questions facing India — and, indeed, the developing world as a whole — is why some people, or countries, move ahead, while others fall behind.

Despite its temptations, however, the search for a policy toolkit toward development is fraught with pitfalls. Over the last 60 years or so, the international development community has come up with model after model, theory after theory, in search of just such a toolkit.

It has, at various times, promoted the benefits of huge, often conditional, inputs of foreign aid, the rigors of shock therapy, the virtues of free trade and the promise of the Washington Consensus (a set of policies prescribed and often imposed by agencies like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. Treasury).

Yet for all the efforts to come up with a general theory of development, the truth is that economic growth remains something of a mystery.

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A Hindu Sect Devoted to the Environment

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

The Bishnoi are devoted ecologists. Although they are friendly people, full of toothy smiles and warm hospitality, they can also be fierce when defending nature. Their ecological ethic represents a remarkable ideology in modern India, where the environment so often seems to take a back seat to the quest for economic growth.

Across the country, forests and glaciers are dwindling, air and land are being polluted, and coastlines are disappearing.

I wanted to visit the Bishnoi settlement outside Dhundli because I wondered if their way of life offered a path to sustainability. Historically, India’s environmental consciousness (such as it is, anyway) has often been driven by grass-roots, traditional movements.

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A Grass-Roots Rapprochement Between India and U.S.

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

Recent months have witnessed something of a cooling in the relationship between the US and India. But how threatened, really, are ties between the two countries?

Even as they protest, Indian businessmen concede that they are unlikely to suffer much. In addition to the limited impact on companies’ bottom lines, though, there is another, more structural and perhaps more significant, reason why the political and public jousting is unlikely to result in real damage.

Unlike many bilateral relationships, ties between India and the United States are not, primarily, driven by politicians or the political process. The growing closeness of the last couple decades has had, rather, a distinctly grass-roots character. It has been forged in thousands of interactions between individual citizens, many of them in the context of flourishing commercial and business transactions.

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Changing Poverty’s Parameters

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

Conventional measurements define poverty with reference to national or individual income. Critics have long argued that this narrow focus is flawed.

I first came into contact with an alternative, less reductionistic, approach to development when I studied with the Indian economist Amartya Sen as an undergraduate. It was in the mid-1990s, the Indian economy was picking up, and much of the country (and, indeed, the world) was euphoric over the rising prosperity of the nation.

Mr. Sen sounded something of a cautionary note. Arguing for a more holistic view of development, he drew attention to the failures in education, women’s liberties and health that persisted despite India’s rapid growth. He exuded a broad-minded humanism that I found not only morally compelling, but accurate. It reflected the complex nature of deprivation that I had seen (if not experienced directly) while growing up in rural South India.

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India Is Getting All the Trappings of the New Century; But Is It Modern?

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

I think it is fair to say that India has become a more modern country. It clings far less to the achievements of its ancient civilization, and looks proudly and with anticipation to the future successes of what many believe is destined to be an Indian century.

When I was a boy, India felt isolated. Today, the country is a world power, its interests and actions helping to define the contemporary global condition.

But is India really a modern nation? Modernity is layered, defined more by a state of mind than by loyalty to contemporary trends or consumer fashions. As the German philosopher and social critic Theodor Adorno put it: “Modernity is a qualitative, not a chronological, category.” Perhaps the relevant question, then, is not so much whether India is a modern nation, but what form its modernity takes.

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The Promise of India’s Nascent Economy

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

This is the kind of dusty crossing that might once have been referred to as a farming town.

A couple of decades ago, it was surrounded by fields of rice and sugarcane. Agriculture was the lifeblood of the economy. Farmers clogged the streets with ox carts and gunnysacks, hawking their crops in makeshift stalls.

The stalls are still there, spilling over onto the roads and holding up traffic. It’s possible to see an occasional ox cart lumbering between flashy new cars and motorcycles. But over the years, agriculture has become less important to this town in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Many of the fields have been sold, turned into housing projects or other real estate developments. Young people no longer become farmers; they move to the cities, in search of new opportunities.

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