India’s economic ascent has launched a flurry of books, most of them touting neoliberalism’s power to not only propel the country out of poverty but to chase away its unsightly caste and class divisions, its nasty penchant for pogroms and female feticide. Siddhartha Deb’s very fine The Beautiful and the Damned tells a darker story, focusing on the boom’s seamy side: the scoundrels and profiteers, and the millions of farmers and migrant workers crushed beneath the juggernaut of “progress.” “The modernity of India,” he writes drily, is “an ambiguous phenomenon.” His point is that even as India has seen an increase in middle-class “aspirers,” “the poor have seen little or no improvement,” and he makes the argument with singular ease. Much of his reportage—on India’s villages, “cyber-cities,” and luxury malls—is done on foot, and his book possesses a gait of its own, achieving a contemplative, rambling rhythm that absorbs passing sights and sounds into anecdote, knits anecdote into analysis, and then analysis into advocacy.
Deb’s inquiry begins with the beautiful people, the architects and beneficiaries of India’s gilded age: entrepreneurs, engineers, and their acolytes—“an army of Gatsbys, wanting not to overturn the social order but only to belong to the upper crust.” It’s a moment with its own name (“India Shining”) whose mantra is that you’re only as small as your ambitions (an ethos Deb nails in his observation that India’s evolving ideals have been mirrored in the career of actor Amitabh Bachchan, who went “from playing thin angry young men in the seventies to corporate patriarchs in the new millennium”). Deb strips away the myths to reveal a much harsher reality. The lives of computer programmers and call-center employees, whom Americans depend on for technical support and customer service, are as much about isolation and displacement as high salaries. Meanwhile, Arindam Chaudhuri, the wealthy and enigmatic founder of an international “management institute,” has been celebrated for making higher education more accessible—but Deb digs a bit deeper and finds evidence that the program might be a cleverly designed Ponzi scheme. (When it appeared in India, the chapter, originally published in The Caravan magazine, inspired Chaudhuri to file multiple libel lawsuits—against Deb, his publishers, and, for its role in distributing the information, Google. For this reason, the chapter in Indian editions is slightly altered.)
With each chapter, Deb descends one rung down into a lower socioeconomic class, turning up stories too grim, too at odds with the national narrative of progress, to make it into India’s mainstream media. In the boom’s heyday, between 1995 and 2006, he writes, two hundred thousand debt-ridden farmers committed suicide. Another four hundred million farmers—one-fourteenth of the world’s population—stand to be displaced. Seventy-seven percent of the population survives on fifty cents a day. The Beautiful and the Damned humanizes these statistics. Deb immerses himself in villages and slums, squats in the barracks of a steel factory, and struggles to earn the trust of the wary and exhausted workers (“I was so well fed and well rested in contrast to them that I might as well have come from another planet”).
The Beautiful and the Damned does lack a coda. It doesn’t end so much as peter out. The book deserves a conclusion as fully realized and harmoniously composed as each of its chapters, something that suggests the implications of—and resistance to—such lopsided growth (and something that elaborates on Deb’s occasional intriguing offhand comments, such as that “slow, stubborn activism [is] as much a story of the new India as the frenetic milieu of the call centre workers”). Still, this brave book strikes a rare note—as a work of journalism and as an interpretation of India’s maladies. The Beautiful and the Damned digs beneath the self-congratulatory stories India tells itself—all the better to expose the stories it seeks to repress.