Siddhartha Deb is a marvelous participatory journalist, a keen observer of contemporary India. In "The Beautiful and the Damned" he dives head-first into the places where change is happening, temporarily inhabiting these evolving, often confusing sub-worlds, talking to those benefiting from (and victimized by) said changes, and explaining in prose both highly personal and sociologically insightful how India's people and culture are coping. India is a land of glaring contradictions, Deb writes, where newly minted millionaires drive shiny BMWs along dirt roads clogged by cows.
Deb studies India's nouveau riche firsthand, interviewing go-go entrepreneurs whose business bravura and unbridled ambition make them South Asian brothers of Donald Trump and Jay Gatsby: India's "new rich," writes Deb, "are people in a hurry, expressing fevered modes of consumption, flaunting gargantuan appetites meant to astonish and dazzle the rest of us." As Deb makes clear, conspicuous consumption is a staggering trend in India today, happening alongside poverty that's equally staggering -- and much more widespread.
In a country famous for its spirituality, American-style hyper-materialism has become the rage. Deb examines both the winners and losers, those who exploit India's cheap labor and those who are themselves exploited in factories and farms and call centers. The author meticulously humanizes their insecurities, hopes and motivations.
Deb is a wonderful observer of India's aspirations because he's Indian himself and shares many of the nation's modernizing, self-improving impulses, though not, apparently, in the outsized manner of some of the Indians he encounters. Indian cities like Delhi and Bangalore are booming with call centers and software companies, allowing multimillionaires to buy mansions and yachts. Meanwhile, the rural India where Deb grew up is suffering an economic and cultural crisis, completely left behind by India's "boom."
Deb describes how thousands of Indian farmers, confronting dwindling economic opportunity, are killing themselves instead. "Farmers see no future," Deb writes; they can either continue to lose money farming or "join the ranks of migrant workers who shuttle between the countryside and urban areas, working at jobs that pay little, offer no mobility and are usually temporary in nature."
Deb notes that 77 percent of India's population survive on less than 50 cents a day, and "although they are everywhere," Deb says, "they are invisible in the sense that they seem to count for nothing at all."
Much like fellow participatory journalist George Orwell, who witnessed and wrote about horrific industrial conditions in the north of England in the 1930s (Orwell's "The Road to Wigan Pier" remains a masterpiece of the genre), Deb is a distinctly sympathetic firsthand observer of the contradictions between rich and poor, those who receive the gains and those who pay the painful price of hard labor with their bodies and (sometimes) their souls. Anyone wanting to understand contemporary India's glaring contradictions, its juxtapositions of glittering boomtowns with horrific slums, should read Deb's wonderfully researched and elegantly written account.
Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.