Recently, I read Siddhartha Deb’s book The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India. The first thing that caught me was the interesting cover for the book. It had a middle class woman wearing a shiny pink sari with a white handbag in her hand and wearing big sunglasses with some minor jewelry that we often see in married women and there was the Gateway of India at backdrop. She was oblivious to other people clicking pictures as much as they were oblivious to her. Everything about her is bright and faux expensive. It is one of those common faces you come across daily. Someone who is in transition from traditional thought process to modern thought process. Someone who is trying hard to understand how to live with the times yet so confused.It is not one of those faces who had successfully transitioned from middle class to upper middle class but the average middle class who is still struggling with their mediocrity and they form the majority. As a cover, it perfectly depicts the India the author is trying to depict.
The book is a result of the demand of the western publishers where they constantly look out for under belly stories behind the success story of the world’s most populous and diverse democracy. The book attracted my attention as someone told me that the first chapter of the book is banned in India but you can read the complete book if you import it. I got the imported edition of the book but I was disappointed that I could find nothing in the book that was worth banning.
The book is divided into an introduction and five essays. Deb is an Indian of Bengali origin, who “grew up in Shillong, a small town in the north-eastern hills of India that few people can find on a map”. This is a slight exaggeration. Shillong was a colonial town that served as a retreat from Calcutta’s heat for the English and upper-class Bengalis; it was also a town to which East Bengalis, like Deb’s father, moved during Partition and later on when Bangladesh got independence from Pakistan. Now peripheral, politically conflicted because of the seemingly indelible tensions between the indigenous Khasi population and migrant Bengalis, less beautiful, more cluttered, it’s still oddly renowned for its rock musicians. Most non-Khasis moved out of Shillong after some time as they found it was not enough for their dreams as they are restricted from doing many things. Perhaps, it’s the sarcasm that is making him exaggerate.
The first of the essays is, “The Great Gatsby: A Rich Man in India” is the story of Arindam Chaudhuri, the hugely successful entrepreneur at one time who was all over the media. There were huge ads in newspapers with a bespectacled man in ponytail with a grinning face. Behind this successful man is an enigma about the speed at which is attaining fame and success. Chaudhuri made his money running a business school that admits people who couldn’t get into the prestigious Indian Institute of Management; and through his advertisements, he had made it believe that people studying in his institute have been successfully employed in corporate sector but the truth is (as per the narrative of the book) that he employs his graduates to run his business school. He’s written a putative bestseller, Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch. None of these successes can be entirely verified, and they are, indeed, disputed. But Chaudhuri catches people’s attention by insisting to them, repeatedly, that he’s very successful.
Deb does a great job in telling the story of Arindam Chaudhuri in an interesting manner which other stories can’t quite manage to match. However, he ends beautifully by the story of Esther who is the daughter of a Tangkhul Naga father and has a mother from the Kom tribe from Manipur who is doing the job of a waitress in a hotel and lives with her brother and two sisters in New Delhi. Both her parents were teachers so she also pursued education very seriously. She had set aside her dual degrees biochemistry and botany to do a job that makes her education sort of useless just to support her family. Her career oriented boyfriend leaves her to go to UAE and where probably he found another woman. She could anyday return to Manipur but it would be like a defeat. She tells why she chose F & B despite her qualifications and how she became successful by chosing to be waitress in an upscale hotel then be a receptionist as waitress do make good money by tips and good service can really be help in climbing up. How she got to work with and arms dealer. The arms dealer’s character is also very interesting. He is a person from Halflong who likes to call himself ‘security specialist’ and he has seen the arms industry in both India and Bangladesh. His wife tries to impress Deb by speaking English although she was not that fluent. She very casually told him hat she just had work out in gym and has doctorate degree and a fellow in a research foundation. When the arms dealer handed over the visiting card to Deb, she also presented her card promptly.
Deb’s other essays deal with the frustrations of Software Engineers despite their success in new India and the harsh truth behind the SEZ, the suicide of farmers growing red sorghum in Andhra Pradesh and the temporary wage workers in factories.
Deb does very well portray and tell the stories, but he tries put his opinions instead of artfully leaving the readers to ponder which is very much capable of. Overall, it is book you should read as it will help in seeing the other side of the success story of India.
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