On a Friday writer Akash Kapur was travelling in a car out of Bangalore towards his home in Pondicherry accompanied by a driver. Once they reached the open country, the driver pressed the accelerator.
But around 15 kms from Akash’s home in Pondicherry, the car hit two boys riding on a moped. “The boys were lifted onto our hood and then dropped to the road,” writes Akash, in his book, ‘India Becoming’ (A Journey Through a Changing Landscape). “They were carrying lunch in a tiffin box. The tiffin box flew open; the cover was stuck behind one of our wipers. The windshield was covered in yellow sambhar and rice. It looked like vomit.”
Before a mob could gather, Akash and the driver decided to go to the local police station and report the accident. Akash looked back and saw that one of the boys was on the ground. “He was lying in a pool of blood,” he says. “His right arm was twitching.”
The story continues and details the experience in the police station. How a mob gathers outside. The fear of the policemen inside. Akash’s own fears of getting lynched.
‘India Becoming’ is a lucidly written book about such incidents and about the impact of modernisation on the lives of a few people in South India. So, Akash has written about a farmer called R Sathyanarayanan (Sathy), who used to be a big zamindar, and had lost a lot of land in the village of Molasur. Sathy talks about his declining importance in the village, where the Dalits are coming up.
Then there is Hari, a closet gay, who works in the IT industry, as well as marketing professional Veena. She grew up in Jaipur, had a empty traditional marriage, walked out and began living with a boyfriend called Arvind.
The interesting thing about the book is that Akash spends a lot of time with the people he befriends. So even after six years, he is still interacting with them and moving the story forward.
But it was not an easy process. “You are going in depth into people’s lives,” he says. “The first few times you are not getting anything because you are building trust. You are seeing whether you are comfortable with each other and they should also understand what the process is all about. You want them to open up and many people had dropped out because they did not find the process comfortable.”
On a brief visit to Kochi, Akash explains the reason behind the book. “I moved backed to Pondicherry in 2003 after ten years abroad,” he says. “I got a sense that my home and the world there had changed. My book was a way to engage in that process. My goal was not to capture the whole of India. People had tried to do that and it has not worked out well.”
One reason for his focus on South India was because it has been neglected in contemporary fiction and non-fiction, as well as international journalism. “When reporters are posted in India, they are usually based in Mumbai or Delhi and venture out to North India, and rarely to the South,” he says. “I also did not want to write a broad policy analysis with statistics. I thought that if I took a life, which is one of the most complicated things, really, it would capture the complexity and nuance of a country like India in a much better way.”
Despite his disinclination to write about policy, Akash does have an intellectual bent. He has a bachelor’s degree in social anthropology from Harvard University and a D Phil (as a Rhodes Scholar) at Nuffield College, Oxford University. One of his teachers was the Noble Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, who contributed a blurb on the book cover. Akash has also written for internationally reputed magazines like ‘The Atlantic Monthly, ‘The Economist’, ‘Granta’, ‘The New York Times’, and ‘New Yorker’.
And the author has been happy at the positive reviews, both nationally and internationally, which the book has received. Asked about his future plans, Akash says, “I am thinking about a book of fiction as well as one on non-fiction.”