Book Review: The End of Karma
Hope and Fury Among India’s Young
by Somini Sengupta
WW Norton, 2016
Journalist Somini Sengupta’s nonfiction debut, The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s Young, starts off on a deceptively mild note, with a glimpse of her childhood in Calcutta (a “steamy metropolis of Victoria and jazz”), but it quickly hurtles into the full gear of both reportage and prose. This is a raw, unposed snapshot of the world’s largest democracy.
Sengupta travels the country interviewing people, mostly young people, about their lives, all in an attempt to fill in a broad-canvas depiction of the state of India for ordinary citizens in the 21st century. The country Sengupta encounters everywhere is an intriguing and often maddening haphazard grafting of ancient prejudices and modern possibilities, sometimes cropping up in the same interview:
Across India, where for centuries a life’s possibilities were circumscribed by the caste into which you were born, housemaids, sharecroppers, and bricklayers are sending their children to school like never before. In primary school, there is almost universal enrollment, and for the first time in the country’s history, girls are as likely to be enrolled in primary school as boys. On every reporting trip across India, I am struck by this remarkable shift, and when I ask their mothers why they bother, I hear answers as vague as this: I will educate my daughter because I want her life to be different from mine.
“Democracy fed these desires,” she writes. “It starved them too.” As she points out (with sometimes endearing melodrama), the stakes have never been higher on some of these societal issues, especially for India’s young people. Nearly a million men and women turn eighteen every single month in India, and as Sengupta aptly puts it, “they go out in search of work and dignity. They push their leaders to deliver.”
The world those young people encounter outside of their home villages and towns is to a dismaying extent still mired in a quarrelsome and unproductive past, with age-old attitudes and bigotries cropping up in all aspects of life, across the whole breadth of society, as Sengupta repeatedly discovers when, for instance, dealing with the country’s ingrained class system:
These taboos are not limited to servants. They might apply to a concert musician as well. My friend Ashutosh Sharma, a music promoter who also lives in Gurgaon, recalled that in the summer of 2013, he had invited Lakha Khan, an award-winning elderly musician, to his hotel room in Udaipur, a popular tourist destination in Rajasthan, about an eight-hour drive west of Delhi. The hotel waiter refused to serve tea to Khan. Never mind that the Indian government had lavished him with awards: Khan, as the waiter well knew, belong to a community called the Manganiyars, who for centuries have served as court musicians for the royal families of Rajasthan, and are considered untouchable.
The End of Karma is a tough book, as wary of sentimentality as it is of easy answers. It holds an unflattering mirror up to a wonderful country with many serious problems, and it lets all walks of Indians – both the ones experiencing those problems and the ones causing them – tell their stories in their own words. It ought to be required reading for all of India’s many elected officials … and all its parents as well.