In Conversation


Finely written, carefully reported, and imaginatively conceived, Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India (Faber and Faber, Inc.) is one of the outstanding nonfiction books of 2011. Deb was born in Shillong, India in 1970, and now lives in Brooklyn. He teaches creative writing at the New School. He responded to questions from Scott Sherman via e-mail.

Photo © Rafil Kroll-Zaid.

Scott Sherman (Rail): After publishing two novels, you decided to write a nonfiction book on India. Why?

Siddhartha Deb: I’d just come out with a novel that was rather poorly published. I didn’t have a job and depended entirely on freelance income and my book advance, and I was about to be a father. Any novel I wrote would take some years, and although I very much wanted to write a novel, I had this wild idea that it would be easier to sell a nonfiction book on proposal. I thought I’d get an advance, do the book quickly, and get back to the novel, and here I am, some six years later.

I didn’t sell the book on proposal in the U.S., although the proposal was shopped around. I remember one American publisher listening to my pitch and saying, “Yeah, I remember when I went to Delhi for the first time.” And I thought, ‘You know what, this ain’t Alabama.’ After some conversations of this nature, there was an offer too low so I refused to take it. But it did sell on proposal in Britain and in Canada. That helped buy some diapers. The Society of Authors in the U.K. gave me a generous grant to research the book, which went to buying more diapers. Most of the research was done on credit card debt, which funded the tickets between India and New York. I also depended on the hospitality of friends and strangers in India, and my thankfully unprivileged upbringing in India which allowed me to report on the cheap, skimping on things like cars and drivers and resorting to buses and auto rickshaws for the most part.

That’s how it started. But people were also interested in the nonfiction pieces I’d been writing on India, especially this cover story I did on Indian call centers for the Guardian weekend magazine. Most of the nonfiction stuff on India that I was reading was of the boosterish, “India Shining” variety, and I wondered if I could write something that was both critical and “alive,” something like a novel but based on reporting and research.

Rail: What languages do you speak, and what languages did you use in the reporting?

Deb: My mother tongue is Bengali. I used mostly Hindi and English, and a bit of Assamese when I ran into some security guards from Assam in a factory in Andhra Pradesh.

Rail: Was this your first stint as a journalist? Did you find satisfaction in the reporting: preparing for interviews, doing the interviews, transcribing the interviews, and building a fact-based narrative?

Deb: I began as a sports journalist in 1994 in Calcutta, moved to Delhi in 1995 and continued regular journalism until 1998, when I came to the U.S. I was usually stuck at the desk and never a beat reporter, but I’d done a fair amount of features.

I do like the reporting. It creates the illusion of order around what can be a remarkably anxiety-ridden process for me. I start with that kind of order, but then as I slip into reporting and interviewing, it becomes more fluid. Then comes the part where one sits down with the notes, observations, scrawls, and it usually begins with me despairing that I’ve gathered nothing, achieved nothing, squandered my time and that of those I’ve interviewed, and have in fact wasted my entire life. But I keep looking at the stuff, pushing things around, trying to find a narrative arc here, build a paragraph there, and then some kind of order begins to show up again.

Rail: In the introduction, you introduce us to an activist named Abdul Jabbar, a fascinating person who has been organizing in Bhopal for decades, and who rides a scooter purchased for him by Arundhati Roy. I would have read an entire book devoted to him. Why does he vanish after the intro?

Deb: I’m glad you like Jabbar, but in fact he’s there in part because I never succeeded in getting my original piece on him published. I went to Bhopal in 2004 to do a piece on the Union Carbide factory for Granta. The piece I wrote was killed by the editor of Granta. In retrospect, I can see that what I filed was written too hurriedly and was structurally flawed. But I was more moved, emotionally, by my time in Bhopal than I had been for a long time, so the death of the article was especially devastating for me. I tried to rework the piece later and get a few publications in the U.S. interested in it, but there’s a kind of conspiracy of silence here around Bhopal, in sharp contrast to Chernobyl. So if Jabbar’s there, it’s because I was trying to smuggle him and Bhopal into the introduction almost as a form of contraband.

Rail: In 2007, the well-regarded India correspondent for the Financial Times, Edward Luce, published a book called In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India. In a review of Luce’s book in the Nation, you wrote that his account is shaped by the “rigid certainties of neoliberalism.” In writing about India, what is your own angle of vision, politically and ideologically?

Deb: I’ve seen myself for much of my life as a person on the left, and it’s from there that I’m coming at my subject. I must emphasize that by left, I do not mean liberal; although, let me add that I have never been a member of any party. That’s partly a temperamental matter, but I actually see this individualism in myself as a flaw rather than something to be proud of, but it may have allowed the narrator of the book to be more interesting.

There’s also a sheer experiential gulf between a very smart journalist like Luce and someone like myself. For me, much of my life in the last decade is extremely new. My use of the language that I am using in writing to you, the fact that I am typing some of this from an office at the New School, the fact that these days I no longer seem to have to worry about where my next meal is going to come from, all these are fantastic luxuries of a kind that would have seemed quite unreachable to my younger self, who was subject to a tremendous amount of anxiety and humiliation. I try to keep those memories alive in some ways when I interview or write about less fortunate characters. For a very long time in my life, I had to put up with an incredible amount of patronization: I heard a lot about how someone like me (and that me was determined by my cheap clothes, by my not very polished accent, by my bad teeth) could never become a scholar or a journalist or a writer. I was “nothing,” as a very wealthy person once told me, and I think I try very hard not to see those below the middle strata as “nothings,” which is where the personal flows into a larger political sense of the collective of the dispossessed and the humiliated. Wow, that was a tirade, wasn’t it?

Rail: When you set out to write a nonfiction book about India, were you inspired by other authors who have written about India for a Western audience—J. R. Ackerley, V. S. Naipaul, William Dalrymple, P. Sainath? And who do you see as the audience for the book—Indians, Westerners, or both?

Deb: I’ve read a few of those, liked some, and been indifferent to the others. I couldn’t help being aware of Naipaul’s India books; some of his prose is stunning, but my politics and sensibility are nothing like his. I’ve always liked Pankaj Mishra’s nonfiction writing; I like Basharat Peer’s memoir on Kashmir. I also like Arundhati Roy’s polemical and fierce essays. But ultimately, inspiration doesn’t have to be just from Indian books. That’s a ghetto of sorts. Inspiration can come from any book that suggests a kindred spirit, or that captures something of a particular time and place; I’d put down Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London as well as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah. Finally, I was watching the Wire, all five seasons of it, while writing this book, and I remember being stunned. I never watch television shows, but something made me rent out the Wire DVDs from Netflix, and I was hooked. It gave me hope in terms of trying to capture social complexities in narrative form. Given that my own tastes are somewhat hybrid, I never care too much about who the audience is going to be. That’s something for the marketing people to figure out. But yes, I do hope to shake up Indian complacency a little bit.

Rail: Chapter two comprises your reporting from the technological hub of Bangalore, where your stated goal was to probe the “inner life” of the computer engineer. I sense that, over the years, you had grown weary of fawning magazine profiles of wealthy entrepreneurs in that city, and wanted to provide, in your own reporting, an alternative perspective on Bangalore. If that is the case, why did you focus on computer engineers instead of, for instance, sex workers or manual laborers or slum dwellers?

Deb: Yes, I had grown tired of some of the writing on Bangalore, and I couldn’t help thinking that much of it was indistinguishable from corporate PR. I was, on the other hand, interested in the computer engineer as a character. It’s a very middle-class aspiration, to want to become one, and it comprises a curious range from clerical work at the lower end to the billionaire entrepreneur at the upper end. A very small number of people in India are computer engineers, but they exert an immense influence on culture, politics, and economics. I was also conscious that I had narrowly avoided the fate of becoming a computer engineer, and that too adds to the interest. As for the other categories you mention, I did end up writing about them, just not in Bangalore.

Rail: In Bangalore you meet people who seem disconnected from Indian reality—including a young, tightly-wound, introverted computer engineer who writes “nanopoems,” but who has never heard of global warming. Another character seems rather proud of the Italian marble he has imported for his kitchen. Are you indicting the Indian middle class generally, or just the techno-elite of Bangalore?

Deb: The techno-elite of Bangalore are very representative of the Indian middle class, so the indictment is pretty equal opportunity and nationwide. Bangalore offered interesting narrative juxtapositions of various layers of the old and the new as well as the idea of change. It allowed me to explore the links between the old, governmental India and the new, entrepreneurial India, and how deeply enmeshed the two are even though the rhetoric of the new entrepreneurs is about the way they suffer at the hands of the old bureaucrats.

The change in the upper tiers of the Indian middle class towards self-absorption is devastating. It was always there, even in the old India, but I think it was challenged by other, more progressive and egalitarian strains. You still find these positive qualities among the lower reaches of the Indian population, and which is, one must note, the majority, but it seems to have been abandoned by the upper segments.

Rail: Surely there are middle class Indians who are not obsessed with shopping malls and Italian kitchen marble, and who devote themselves to civic reform and popular activism. Are you overstating your case against the Indian middle class?

Deb: There’s plenty of civic reform among the middle-class, but it’s usually about protecting the Italian kitchen marble and complaining about how minorities, the so-called lower castes, politicians, the government, and leftists want to take away the kitchen marble. Of course there are a number of middle-class people who are activist, progressive, and democratic, but that’s not the dominant strain.

Rail: You went to the Nizamabad region of Andhra Pradesh with the intention of investigating the rural crisis. When you got to the small town of Armoor, you learned that, a few months earlier, 10,000 farmers had burned down the mansion of a local seed dealer, a man who had reneged on a deal he had signed with the farmers to grow red sorghum; the farmers also set fire to a police jeep and two government cars. Here we have a turbulent piece of rural India, in miniature. When you originally went to Armoor, did you know that you were stepping into a conflict zone?

Deb: I went to Andhra looking for trouble, and I suffered from the reporter’s anxiety that I wouldn’t find the trouble. It wasn’t a conflict zone in the sense of Chhattisgarh or Kashmir or the northeast (where I grew up and where I travel back in the final chapter of the book) where draconian laws co-exist with an utter absence of human rights. Andhra had aspects of that, in part because it borders Chhattisgarh, but it was a conflict zone in a less obvious way, with the creepy velvet glove of the market more in evidence than the iron fist of the state.

But I wasn’t sure that what I was hearing about Armoor was a coherent story with larger implications. I heard bits and pieces, rumors, assertions, and when I went there, it seemed more of the same. It took a long time for the pieces to fall together, and often enough, during the reporting, I felt that I was just going from place to place, from person to person. But when I looked at the notes later, and began moving them around, I thought I had a pretty good story. And I realized how fond I had become of the many people I met in Armoor, including the feisty Dalit left Devaram.

Rail: And Devaram is openly Naxalite, right? I was struck by that fact: most accounts of Naxalism in the Western (and Indian) press imply that Maoism in India is a totally clandestine phenomenon—people with guns in forests.

Deb: Well, he used to be underground, but his party eventually came “overground,” as the Indian media puts it. This is a party that still calls itself “Maoist,” but it technically abjures violence and contests elections.

Rail: Chapter four is, for the most part, vividly set inside a steel factory outside Hyderabad. The managing director granted you access to the factory: why did he do so?

Deb: I was introduced to him by Vijay, an activist professor who had done his Ph.D. many years ago at the same factory and had got to know the managing director. That helped, and I got the impression he was a fairly humane man in any case, sympathetic to the workers although unwilling, and unable, to do much about it.

Rail: The first chapter concerns a wealthy, ubiquitous, pony-tailed Delhi businessman named Arindam Chaudhuri. After that chapter appeared in the Indian magazine the Caravan, Chaudhuri sued you and your publisher, Penguin. The suit, which also targets the Caravan, claims damages of seven million pounds for defamation. As a result, the Indian edition of The Beautiful and the Damned will not contain the chapter on Chaudhuri. Will the chapter be excised, or will it contain empty white pages?

Deb: The suit also names Google India, and charges us all with serving the interests of Chaudhuri’s rivals. The chapter has been left out, with a brief note in its place telling the reader that it’s illegal to publish the chapter until the matter has been decided in courts. Penguin India has said it intends to pursue the case in court and that they will issue a complete version if they receive a favorable verdict from the courts.

Rail: If you could write that chapter over again, would you write it differently?

Deb: That is a terrific question. In the aftermath of the lawsuit, I did suffer some doubt about what I’d written: Had I been unfair? Inaccurate? Mean? Then I had to go through the chapter and its accompanying notes carefully to present my case to the publisher’s lawyer, and the self-doubt gave way to a sense of anger. I had, in fact, been quite scrupulous in my research and nuanced in my writing, and there was no way for me to rewrite the chapter without being dishonest.

But the thought nevertheless came to my mind momentarily; maybe I shouldn’t have written that chapter or in that way, and that’s the way intimidation works and is very effective. An Indian stand-up comedian wrote to me in the aftermath of the lawsuit. He said he had been planning to do a caricature of Chaudhuri but was worried that he would be targeted with a lawsuit. What did I think? I told him that they would probably go after him but he should brave it. He wrote back and said he had decided to tone it down and play it safe. The best kind of censorship, as Foucault pointed out, is self-censorship.

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Scott Sherman

SCOTT SHERMAN is a contributing writer of the Nation and a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.