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review: non-fiction

Siddartha Debhandout

Not so long ago, New York-based Indian writer Siddhartha Deb reviewed a novel by Hari Kunzru. "Globalization," Deb began, "the most pressing issues of our time … has usually proved a poor subject for fiction. Far too many of the Anglo-American novels referring to globalization are full of what the critic James Wood has called 'irrelevant intensity,' exhibiting an endless fascination for pop-culture trivia, post-structuralist meta-theories and self-referential irony." Deb found Kunzru's Transmission an exception, partly because it betrays the irrelevant intensity after the 30th page or so "when it finds its course with something as simple as a man walking down a highway. … Kunzru seems genuinely interested in ideas and social problems, such as the predicament of the disenfranchised."

Deb's own book, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of New India, comes after two highly acclaimed novels ( The Point of Return and Surface), and focuses on something as simple as five characters. Although categorized by the publisher as "Social Science – Business Affairs," it reads more like a nonfiction novel, that all-encompassing fuzzy genre.

"Everywhere there seemed to be construction and ruin, hard to distinguish from each other."

The book begins in 2004 (when the right-wing Hindu party, BJP, was about to lose power), but it really carries echoes of a dozen odd years 1998 onwards.

"We choose our own entanglements," says the narrator, who is Deb and not Deb, more like a character in a novel by Siddhartha Deb. One of the entanglements he chooses is a youthful and flamboyant Delhi-based rich man with a ponytail, who owns a million-pound Bentley. The narrator (a journalist and a professor) feels compelled to comprehend "the tremors created by new wealth in India."

Scott Fitzgerald comes in handy here. Where did Gatsby get his money from? Where did he go to college? And is this India's Gilded Age, its Age of Excess?

Soon we get glimpses of Gatsby's aspirations and insecurities, and the aspirations and insecurities of those around him. "The man is a fraud, but a very successful one." We get glimpses of another of history's more expensive orgies. But.

Gatsby didn't turn out alright in the end.

(Arindam Chaudhuri, a rich man in Delhi, got a court injunction against the publication of material connected to him in the Indian edition of this book. The Canadian edition has escaped unscathed.)

Deb's work has been compared to Naipaul's, but his voice is unique, more honest, a gaze refreshingly different. We are far removed from the colonial brown-sahib gaze of Naipaul ("Indians defecate everywhere"). Instead, we witness those surreal everyday convergences. Halfway into the book, the narrator chats with a well-dressed, unemployed man while urinating against a brick wall. "Sir, have you read Amartya Sen?" the man asks, referring to the Harvard economist and Nobel laureate best known for his work on hunger and inequality. "You remember what he said about famine, that it doesn't necessarily happen because there is not enough food but because the powerful take the food away from the powerless? It is still like that in India. Are you going to write about that in your book?"

More entanglements drive the narrative forward. The beautiful are fragile beneath surface brashness, and they, too, are unhappy. We understand (and yet we don't) the narrator's need to listen and analyze, his restlessness and obsessions. He carries within the traumatic memory of the 1984 Bhopal disaster, and we latch onto him as he journeys to one of those Special Economic Zones in Bangalore to figure the "inner life of an engineer." We meet Chakravarty Prasad, a computer scientist back from the United States after the boom, who becomes Chak, a.k.a. SS Prasad, the inventor of "nanopoems" (almost on the verge of satire). This is followed by one of the most chilling moments: a graduate of India's most prestigious engineering and management schools, a member of an extreme Hindu party, gives the narrator a fascist salute.

Slowly we move toward the invisible, well-concealed aspects of globalization, visible to the narrator and the authors he reads (Palagummi Sainath, for instance), but invisible to India's heavily Murdochized media outlets (not necessarily under Murdoch's direct ownership, but in the way they operate).

This is the world of nearly 77 per cent of the population, 836 million, who live on less than $2 a day. More than 200,000 farmers committed suicide from 1995 to 2006. This is the story of massive environmental destruction, and forced migration on a near unimaginable scale. India, it seems, is at war with its own people. The predicament of the disenfranchised stares back at fraudulent ideas. Honey, the world is flat.

"I thought I understood something of their loneliness in the loneliness I myself had felt when I first began to leave my small town origins behind and started my drift through the cities," the narrator says. We are at the beginning of another entanglement now, perhaps the most moving one in Chapter Five. The girl is a migrant from the Northeastern India and works as a waitress in a glitzy five-star hotel in South Delhi. The narrator (he, too, grew up in the Northeast) makes a sincere attempt to cross the gender, ethnic and class divides. Chapter Five begins with the energy of a Haruki Murakami short story and slowly reveals an archive (or what will become an archive) of devastating images. The narrator's odyssey continues while India's is being forcefully remade. We would like to know more about him, but the lack works to the story's advantage. As subtle and sensitive as it is shocking and significant, you will not read a better book on the "human" face of globalization this year.

Jaspreet Singh's novel, Chef, was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. He is working on a new novel.