In Auroville again. These red roads are becoming familiar terrain. I’m here to meet Akash Kapur, whose first book, India Becoming, was published earlier this year. Akash lives in a house camouflaged by a dense thicket of trees near the Matri Mandir. I tell him his book put me in a foul mood for days. He laughs, apologetically.
India Becoming weaves together the stories of seven people whose lives have been changed by India’s economic boom. They come mainly from small town South India—places like Villipuram and Tindivanam, and Akash tracks their careers and altered lifestyles as they move to bigger cities like Chennai and Bangalore. As much as this book is about individual stories, it also hints at a larger picture of an emerging, increasingly urbanised India. Cow-brokers and fishermen, farmers who sell their land to real estate agents, young women working in call centres—all find a place in his narrative.
Akash says he didn’t set out to write a big India book. He’s interested in ordinary lives, which is why he counts as his heroes Raymond Carver and Chekhov. “I’m a big believer in writing not having a point,” he says. “I often have journalists ask me, ‘So, what’s the point? What’s your final conclusion?’ I get criticised for being ambivalent, for not having strong opinions. Well, the way I see it, life is pretty complex. I’m not setting out to say development is good, or development is bad. What I’m doing is documentary.”
Akash grew up in Auroville and lived abroad for 12 years before moving back in 2003. When he returned, he says, he’d lost his love for literature. “I know it sounds like a grandiose thing to say, but I lost it, and it’s never made sense to me to write as a career. It has to be motivated by love, otherwise, why not just work as a banker?” Teaching Hamlet to a class of 14-16 year old Aurovillians helped rekindle his love for writing and reminded him that there was something universal to good literature. The idea for a book came afterwards, and it began with optimism.
Amartya Sen, with whom Akash studied, writes of India Becoming that it’s an ultimately optimistic account of India in transition. I disagree. I tell Akash that his book gave me nightmares, particularly the chapter about a 12 acre landfill called Karuvadikuppam, which conjured up a WALL-E scenario, where all that will survive on the planet is mountains and mountains of trash. How do you reconcile economic development with environmental disaster, I ask? And isn’t it conceivable that India will derail and take the rest of the world with it?
Akash tells me he’s not a person of automatic faith. He doesn’t believe things will work out by just sitting still. Instead, he practises what he calls “willed optimism” — a survival technique which allows him to keep on living in Auroville with his family. “If you remember how I end that chapter about the garbage,” he says, “I go home, I hold on to everything I have, I shut out all my doubts and I remember why I moved to India, all the reasons for staying…. This is my home, and I love it here. So I want to make it work. I have to make it work.”
The writer is a dancer, poet and novelist.