Writers etc, the 34th session of the literary platform organized by the Institut Français

Prembabu Sharma

Manu Joseph
Manu Joesph quite humorously began the evening saying that when he took over the Letter from India column in NY Times often people wrote to him saying “can we have the old guy back” highlighting Akash’s innate gift for observation without allowing opinions to get in the way and a personality that makes people want to talk to him. Manu recounted that Akash’s book “India becoming: A journey through a changing landscape” has intriguing moments where it is evident that India for all its economic progress for good that comes with it for all the obvious reasons, also has to face the consequences of it without making economic progress look like some socialistic lament.Some horrible consequences that come with progress despite the obvious education, empowerment are concerns of violence, environmental degradation, collapse of traditional structures of hierarchy and ensuing societal vacuums that sometimes result in identity conflicts.

There was a part in the book that outlined a passage that intrigued Manu Joseph, a part where Akash is driving on the east coast and then there is a road accident with two youths on a motorcycle. Aksah doesn’t immediately take them to the hospital but heads for the police station.

Akash Kapur
Akash says that the context is morally complicated and comes under a chapter called ‘goondagardi” or “lawlessness and violence” that have come with rapid progress . While education and empowerment are positive outcomes they tore down existing systems of control and social order, so initially while the will to help out exists, you are afraid of a mob that will lynch you because there is an undercurrent of hostility towards affluence. Akash narrated several instances where the people he met talk of this conflict of identity between their past and now. He recounts one meeting where the upper castes no longer have it so easy, and they also recognize that this is a good thing since the children of the lower caste can now go to the same school as those of the upper caste, as they gain in economic status owing to land compensation deals.

He talks of a young girl Sudha who is living the new India dream, of having left her village, working in a BPO and is living life on her own terms, but eventually when her boyfriend dies drowned at the beach, she is forced by family pressure to head home, leave her job and settle in an arranged marriage and live the way her family would want her to. This in total contrast to the story of Veena, another young woman, a divorcee, sexually liberated ,who never thought sexual harassment at work could ever happen to her, but when faced with it she is torn between the dilemma of putting her career over family and eventually gets sick, recovers but then passes away.

Then again the story of a sexologist who could not practice for the longest time and finally was given a place to open a clinic in the maternity ward of a hospital and rename his profession as that of a reproductive biologist and the fact that for years no one visited him and in a changed scenario today he is flooded with queries of all sorts showing the churning and change in accept ed norms in society.

Mr. Francois Vandeville, 
Director of Institut Francais in India
Manu Joesph brought up the question of authenticity of a writer writing about stories that are not autobiographical, how does Akash deal with that. To which Akash replied saying that this is a question that is mostly asked of a writer when in Delhi and that there are structural inherent concerns in writing and he can appreciate that but he thinks that for someone in Delhi to pass of his narrative as inauthentic he would like to point out to them that for someone in Delhi, Tamil Nadu, where the stories of the people he interviewed originate, is pretty far away too.

Audience questions ranged from those that said that Akash wrote mostly for a non Indian audience because of the amount f background or explanation he offered. To which Manu Joseph intervened saying that once at NY times he wrote a piece on Tendulkar and had to state that Sachin Tendulkar is a cricketer: A fact so obvious, but something that made him think he must be the only Indian to ever have written that kind of explanation. This drew a lot of mirth from the audience.

To a question that his book was published in France and what was his reaction to the French audience of his book, Akash replied he was pleasantly surprised by the depth of interest and the level of knowledge that the French people he met had about India which was in contrast to his interactions in the US.

Also to an audience e question that asked him if he was putting forth a positive message about the development in India, Akash responded by saying his message is ambivalent. Good or bad is too simplistic and that economic progress surely has its merits and with it comes the price one pays of violence, environment and so forth.

Photo Credits- Danial Nathan