In 'The End Of Karma,' Young Indians Work To Overcome Their Past
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Somini Sengupta left India as a young child in 1975. Thirty years later, she returned as the New Delhi bureau chief for The New York Times. The 21st century country she found as a journalist was nothing like the one her parents grew up in. Today, India is youngest country in the world with 365 million people between the ages of 10 and 24. A million turn 18 every month.
SOMINI SENGUPTA: They join the labor force. They register to vote. They embrace the Internet, many of them for the first time. They fall in love. And all those things change their own country profoundly.
SHAPIRO: It's a country with a democratic government, a country with constitutional guarantees. And that means it's a country with enormous expectations and challenges.
SENGUPTA: One is how to level the playing field so that there's at least some equality of opportunity for both men and women and, I would argue, particularly women who have really not enjoyed the equality that the Constitution of India had promised them 70 years ago. And the other related challenge is how much to let this generation speak their mind. India has always had a very ambivalent relationship with free expression, and that is all the more pronounced now during the Internet age.
SHAPIRO: Somini Sengupta follows seven young people and their aspirations in her latest book, "The End Of Karma: Hope And Fury Among India's Young."
SENGUPTA: I call this "The End Of Karma" because the people I write about - they're all trying to overcome their past. They were born with one destiny. They are trying to make another. And they're all stories of incredible grit and resilience and great hope but also a bit of fury - quite a bit of fury, which is why the subtitle of the book is "Hope And Fury Among India's Young."
SHAPIRO: And this idea of trying to overcome your past - how new is that for India - that your past is not necessarily destined to be your future.
SENGUPTA: I'll tell you the story of one child who I met in reporting this book. Her name what's in reporting this book. Her name is Varsha (ph). She was the daughter of what's known as a presswala (ph). Her family had a business pressing clothes at the end of a block under a tree. And ever since Varsha was a small girl, she would go around collecting the rumpled bundles of clothes, and she would help her parents pressing them - saris and salwar kameezes and button-down shirts. And the one thing she didn't want to be was a presswala or a presswala's wife. And she really, really wanted to be a cop, a policewoman.
And her father, who was her great champion, was also very much against this idea. He wanted to marry her off to a good family, and he couldn't bear the idea of her being a policewoman. So the story of Varsha is really the story of a girl who tries to overcome her past, who tries to grow wings and a story of a father who has to decide how far he will let her go.
SHAPIRO: Do you expect that five years from now she'll be a police officer or a presswala or something else?
SENGUPTA: I think it depends largely on how hard Varsha is willing to push. She has already pushed her father to go quite a mile. Her father did not want her to even finish high school or go to college. He was very nervous about what would happen to her, and she's managed to push him ever so steadily just by dint of determination and resilience. But she has also had to tamp down her dreams every step of the way.
SHAPIRO: So many of the stories in this book reminded me of stories we hear about early 20th century America. And almost the minute that thought entered my head, (laughter) I reached the sentence you wrote, this country is not a country of Horatio Algers, referring, of course, to the quintessential story of transcending destiny in early 20th century America. So while many of the stories do follow this model that the U.S. seems to have followed a hundred years ago, you're saying, no, there's a big difference here.
SENGUPTA: Well, I think the myth of Horatio Alger has increasingly been shown to be a myth even in our own country. But I think you're absolutely right that the parallels between India and the United States are just remarkable. India was a very unlikely country at its birth in 1947. It was made up of a bunch of different ethnicities, a lot of different languages. And frankly, there were a lot of naysayers who said there's no way that a country that is so poor, that is so diverse is ever going to hold together.
It did hold together, and it has made some remarkable gains since independence. My parents, who were born during the independence era - they're called midnight's children. In their time, life expectancy was 32, and today, it's 66. In their time, infant mortality rates were sky high, and now it's diminished remarkably. In my father's time, when he went to school, there were fewer than half of all Indian children who were enrolled in school. They certainly didn't include dalits or outcasts. They certainly didn't include many girls. And today, nearly all Indian children are in school.
SHAPIRO: Your parents, who, as you say, came of age in the era of Indian independence, were known as midnight's children, a phrase made famous by Salman Rushdie in his novel. You call this young generation noonday's children. Explain what that means.
SENGUPTA: This generation of Indians, because their expectations are so high, they are so demanding and so restive in many ways that I think of India at this moment as a country at high noon. And I'll tell you one story. I remember going out to a school in rural India in a state called Bihar. And it was wintertime, and it was early in the morning. It was a bright, sunny, crisp morning. The mist was rising from the fields. And all these children were just streaming into school, carrying these empty rice sacks because that's what they would sit on. There was not enough chairs or tables or benches for them, and so they would spread them out on the floor, on the grass outside of school, and they would try to get an education.
Now, I went there with a remarkable Indian NGO called Bhutan. They were trying to assess what children were actually learning in school. And as it turned out, half of all fifth-graders couldn't read a basic sentence. Half of all fifth-graders couldn't subtract. And these were children who had been in school for five years. And I'll never forget what one of the social workers who I accompanied - he said to me, you know, when these children grow up, they'll curse us. They'll say, we came to school, and we learned nothing.
SHAPIRO: And your commitment to these people whose stories you tell really comes across in the book where, again and again, I was struck by the number of times you would follow up with a 14-year-old as a 17-year-old (laughter) or an 18-year-old as a 21-year-old, not just tracking their stories but perhaps giving them career advice and helping provide perspective. You come across as very, very invested in these stories.
SENGUPTA: Well, thank you. I did get pretty close to all of these young people, some more than others. And I have to say, I had to resist giving the girl that I described earlier, Varsha - I had to resist giving her too much career advice because I did, at one point, consider giving her the form - the application form to fill out for the Indian Police Service. And then I stopped myself. I thought, well, you know, that's for her to do.
SHAPIRO: Somini Sengupta covers the United Nations for The New York Times, and her new book is called "The End Of Karma: Hope And Fury Among India's Young" - great talking to you. Thank you so much.
SENGUPTA: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.