In tracing the history of modern India, a line in the sand can be drawn circa 1991. Prior to that year, India was more or less a closed economy, one characterized by a “license Raj” where business success was more a function of obtaining valuable permits than of competing with a better product or service.
A foreign exchange crisis forced the Indian government to open up its markets in return for aid from the World Bank. The period after 1991 is normally referred to as the period of “economic liberalization.” Suddenly the Indian consumer found that he had ample choices in various products. Liberalization, aided by the growth of the Internet, brought seismic changes to the Indian market, both in terms of product choices as well as in job opportunities. A burgeoning middle class emerged, and Western ideas and influences began to seep into the Indian psyche. Akash Kapur chronicles the impact of these changes in his Ground Zero look at what economic liberalization has wrought. His thesis is that for every progress made by giving opportunities to those disadvantaged by caste and money, there are untold negative social consequences of an entire nation diving headlong into a new, and oftentimes alien, era.
A riveting cast of characters populate Kapur’s finely nuanced narrative. By shining a probing lens on their lives, Kapur points out how people confront, manage, and sometimes succumb to change. There is Sathy, a middle-aged landowner, who is to Kapur a bulwark of the “old’ India. Sathy looks at the changes in India skeptically because they have personal consequences to him. His wife is from a city and is unable to live in the village with her husband. She yearns for the business opportunities of the city and so lives with her children away from Sathy. Sathy sees his power as the village headman dwindle as land ownership is no longer the path to wealth.
Hari, a young software engineer, is part of India’s “demographic dividend,” a cohort of young, technically trained employees responsible for driving India’s economic progress. Hari does not see himself as a company man. Rather, he is quite willing to move around to improve his economic prospects even as he confronts questions about his homosexuality. There is Selvi, a twenty-one year old village girl who works at a call center (responding to queries from American customers as “Sally”), is economically independent, yet find herself caught in the eddies of family, tradition, and marriage.
Kapur lives with his family in Auroville, a commune in the southern part of India. He is both a participant in and an observer of India’s economic liberalization. He is able to skillfully penetrate the veneer of opacity posed by his interviewees and to get them to dig deep inside themselves to confront their reaction to the changes. He is part questioner and part interventionist, and he captures both sides in unobtrusive prose that lets the voices of the protagonists emerge strongly. India is still largely a mystery to the West, and Kapur goes a long way in removing the veil to let the reader get a glimpse of a culture that races to embrace a new world.