Nomia Iqbal on a new book that paints a sympathetic but often troubling portrait of India’s growing youth demographic
It was Rajiv Gandhi who once said ‘India is an old country, but a young nation’. More than 27 years since his death, that paradox continues to strengthen. More than half of India’s population is under the age of 25 – that’s 600 million people. It is predicted that by 2025 the country will be more populous than China.
So what will become of the young Indians who dream big?
This is what journalist Snigdha Poonam sets out to discover in her debut book Dreamers –How Young Indians are Changing the World. It takes the shape of a long-read format which focuses on a series of profiles of young people from small towns.
In Indore, we meet the clickbait journalist Vinay Singhal, who runs WittyFeed. His ambition is to rule Mars. He’s not joking either. Over in Ranchi, Moin Khan is a man who teaches English, something he sees as essential for getting ahead in life but also necessary for self-respect. Then there is Azhar Khan, who is determined to break into the billion dollar world of Bollywood to become the next star.
What is striking about these men is that, although they are classic big dreamers, there is a practicality to their optimism. To close the gap between their realities and dreams takes a lot of hard work and they know it. For some, there are the routes that involve inevitable corruption – from Pankaj Prasad, the entrepreneurial fixer, to the scammers that run businesses where tricking people is almost an industry in itself.
Then there are the angry men. Those who believe India’s 70-year journey to independence has been wasted. Their lack of success is a blame game. Blame foreigners, blame the Mughals, blame the Brits. They flood social media with myths that India was destroyed by the outside world. This dogmatic belief grips BJP supporter Vikas Thakur, who says he wants to stand up for ‘my own’: the Hindus. There is no dealing with facts here. He is driven by emotion and social media is his tool of war. He wants to be in a position of power, but not for wealth, he says; he wants it ‘for power itself’.
With his ‘cowboy swagger’,Sachin Ahujacarries out raids with the feared Gau Rakshak (or Cow Protection Army). Poonam notes that, like many Hindu men,Sachin wants to matter to the world and for him car raids and shootouts gives him a sense of purpose, no matter what the cost.
Arjun Kumar is another would-be politician who hates Muslims and believes ‘girls are not worthy of trust’. His biggest fear is being irrelevant and, in a post-Trump, post-Brexit world, he is presented as one of those losers of globalisation. But you also get the sense he wants to be a part of it too.
However, what these young men struggling to find their place in the world ‘find hardest to deal with, are women who do’, discovers Poonam. That is underlined by Richa Singh, the only woman profiled in the book. Her story is a tour-de-force as we follow her battle to take on the upper-caste system and patriarchy to become the first female president of the Allahabad University student union.
When I interviewed Poonam at Asia House in London in January, the audience wanted to know why Richa was the only woman featured. Poonam explained that this is partly because womenoccupy so few public roles in a country which, for all its progressive desires, still clings to traditional values which put men before women. She also said that logistically it was much easier to find men who wanted to have their stories followed over the course of several years.
However, the irony is that the strongest female in the book – unwittingly – is Poonam herself. A job as a reporter is not one that is particularly sought after in India by women and she admits that, in writing a book of this nature, there were times when she felt her life was in serious danger.
Paradoxically, Poonam’s strength comes from her ability to stay in the background as much as possible. She is patient, non-judgmental and sympathetic towards her characters. Even when Kumar makes a patronising point about her modest attire in comparison to other girls, she is diplomatic in her response. There is no sermonising in her timely and accomplished reporting, just a simple representation of what she sees. For some it may be too simple for what is a hugely complex issue.
But she is adept at showing how frustration has built up for her characters, who are drunk on an unholy mix of religion, mythology and politics. They find life in the firebrand patriotism espoused by Modi and the ruling BJP but, crucially, they aren’t beholden to it. If the country doesn’t deliver anything for them, they’ll find another way. As Poonam discovers, like it or not, young India is what it is: unsatisfied, unscrupulous and unstoppable.