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Dayanita Singh launched an informal project on Facebook by asking her fellow photographers to document India's independent bookstores.
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Beneath the glitter
Avillage woman in a startlingly pink sari, suitably powdered and lipsticked for an outing, wearing gold jewels, oversized sunglasses and holding a faux designer handbag, stands in front of the Gateway of India on the cover of Siddhartha Deb's book, The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India. This fabulous image says it all: For there are elements of brashness, insecurity, confusion, mixed metaphors and humour in the portrait - and in India, as it stumbles its way into a new era of uneven prosperity.
Deb, a novelist and journalist originally from Shillong and now based in New York, explores this new India through the diverse lives of migrant workers, software professionals, traders, farmers, businessmen and waitresses. Regrettably, one of the most interesting chapters had to be dropped from the book, after a defamation suit was filed against the publishers.
The chapter was an exploration of wealth, aspiration and upward mobility in India. It centred around the portrait of a Gatsby-like character called Arindam Chaudhuri, a bewilderingly successful management guru and educationist with a penchant for publicity. "That in itself says something about the state of affairs in India these days, where critiques of the powerful and wealthy, no matter how scrupulously researched, are subject so often to intimidation, " writes Deb in his introduction.
Deb travels into the heartland of Andhra Pradesh to meet the poorest of poor farmers - people who were perennially afflicted by meagre rainfall, whimsical traders and debt. Some of them had been pushed into taking up the most demeaning jobs in the Gulf. Life was a constant uphill battle. As Gopeti, a village tailor mired in a quagmire of debt said, "It's like running against a clock that's faster than you. " Globalisation had little or no impact on their lives.
In another chapter, he meets a waitress, Esther, a girl from Imphal, who works in 'F&B' in Delhi, who represents any number of aspirational, somewhat delusional, small-town girls who leave behind hopeless hometowns that refused to change, and try to reinvent themselves in big cities.
Perhaps the only flaw in books such as these is the fact that random portraits and travel chronicles, no matter how well-researched, can scarcely do justice to a country as vast, complex and paradoxical as India. Yet, for English-speaking urbanites living in disparate bubbles, these narratives are most welcome to help make sense of the new India.
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