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The Reverse Commute

AKASH KAPUR IS part of a group of Indians and half-Indians who have returned to India in the past ten years and written about their experiences. For most of us, our parents’ stories overshadow our own: they left, we return. Kapur is something rarer: he has the perspective of being born in India, leaving for school abroad, and then returning. He has a fluency that outsiders—even those of us who claim some genetic tie—lack. His parents are not even mentioned in the book. This is his story.

And yet India Becoming is not really a personal tale. Kapur is absent for the first three quarters of his book. The reader is told that he has a wife and two children and that he lives in a rural town in southern India called Auroville. He does not tell the reader about Auroville’s unusual history as an international experiment in living. The community was founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa, known to her followers as “The Mother,” and based on the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, which concerns human aspiration towards divine consciousness. He does not mention the Matrimandir, a golden dome-like structure that looks like an alien spaceship in the town’s center, where seekers go to find their consciousness.

Many journalists who return to—or just arrive in—India live a life of influence and luxury. It is a life where underwear can be ironed, and tea served in bed. Suketu Mehta, the author of the superb Maximum City, commented that he “could get used to it.” Kapur makes a point of not getting used to India. There is no complacency in this book, although there is a certain amount of peace.

Kapur’s writing is deceptively simple. He hardly ever draws attention to himself, and he does not insert himself into his interviews. He listens and asks a few—not leading—questions. He is patient, and he gains his subjects’ trust. When they are ready to open up about their emotional lives he is present. Imagine an Indian joint-family home—a compound where generations of children, parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents live together, shouting and interrupting, cooking, laughing, crying—and you will understand how rare the sort of attention Kapur bestows on his subjects is in India.

Kapur’s subjects cover a wide span: a cow-broker, a call-center girl, an IT worker, a marketing professional, and a farmer. They represent the breadth of the Indian caste system from Dalit (untouchable) to Reddiar (once-aristocratic landowner). They are the foot-soldiers of change but also its casualties.

Kapur describes Veena, a marketing professional: “In many ways, she was like a lot of women I had known in New York: just a girl in the city, navigating the shoals of love and career.” Later, after she gets cancer, she decides that she is finally ready to have children, and she wants to do more yoga and write short stories instead of nasty work emails. This is not an “only in India” story. Hari, an IT worker, struggles with whether his parents will accept his homosexuality. The cow-broker Jayavel appreciates that his line of work is becoming obsolete and imagines embarking on a new career—a story that many Americans who worked in manufacturing can easily relate to. On their own these are unremarkable stories. But together they show a seismic change in Indian society—a society where the ability to make choices in one’s personal and professional lives has historically been subordinate to the strictures of caste and colonialism. A country where the choice of whom to marry, which in the West is considered the ultimate form of self-expression, is often arranged by families.

Kapur picks up on the newness of these individual choices and experiences: Hari, the gay IT worker, has taken on the slogan “once I start, I can’t stop” as a shopping motto. He explains that he has “seen customers go into shops with long lists of questions. They took things down from shelves, they made a mess, and then left without spending even fifty paisa. It wasn’t correct.” Traditionally shopping in India would not have been a time to exercise personal choice. You shopped at certain times of year that coincided with holidays and weather, money might be allotted from a family pool, the merchants were people that had longstanding relationships to the family and were a part of the community. It is this relationship of customer to merchant that Hari grafts onto his experience of going to a mall, and it gets him into trouble: he accumulates tens of thousands of rupees in debt on his new credit cards.

Now imagine that Hari comes home from the mall with a new cell phone cover. The cover comes in a plastic case, in a plastic bag. He gets sick of the case’s color, and in a month he is back at the store buying another. He has more money, more stuff, and more trash than his parents ever imagined. He throws the old cover out—just as he has thrown out the case and the plastic bag the covers came in. When he throws trash out, he leaves it on the street. Hari is, Kapur writes, one of “a population capable of maintaining ritualistic levels of hygiene at home, yet that dumped its garbage on the streets without compunction.” There is no garbage collector to pick up the trash. It is picked through by a scavenger who sells the case to a recycler in one of the city’s slums. The rest might end up in a burning pile of garbage along the highway.

Trash becomes a motif of the book, as it is of modern day India. Kapur wakes up one night to find his older son vomiting. Dioxins from a nearby garbage dump have infiltrated his living room. Peace in Auroville is shattered, and suddenly he sees trash everywhere. “When I drove along highways lined with blazing mounds of garbage ... India, I began to feel, was burning,” Kapur writes. Moreover:

India produced some 100 million tons of municipal waste every year. On a per capita basis, this was still lower than most developed countries. But the problem was in the way the waste was treated—or not treated … the garbage just piled up—and rotted, and smoldered, and polluted the air and water … [it carried] diseases like typhoid, dengue, and filariasis.

Kapur sees this garbage “as a form of colonization … all the development struck me as violence—violence against the forest, of course, but also violence against ourselves.” Self-destructive environmental abuse is a crucial theme, but it is common in most developing countries. Kapur does not belabor the point, he extends it:

The fields gave way to a forest of acacia and eucalyptus. There were mansions in the forest, large country homes with high stone walls and carved wood doors. Expensive cars were parked in the driveways. The houses belonged to the rich. They were enveloped in smoke, and I couldn’t help thinking they were mansions in a slum.

No matter how nice the houses are, or how far out-of-sight the nearest pile of burning garbage is, the dioxins (and disease) cannot be kept out. All of developed India is a slum. The poorest American has cleaner air, cleaner water, better sewage, and less exposure to fatal disease than the richest Indian.

The burning pile of garbage pollutes the rest of the book. After reading Kapur’s impassioned indictment of India’s trash problem I couldn’t be convinced by palliative sentiments such as, “I held on to all that was good, all the reasons I had moved to India—and all the reasons I had for staying …” or “on bad days … I would remember the good days.” More convincing was Kapur’s question, “What am I doing to [my children] by living in this country?” This question haunted me throughout the rest of the book. The one time we hear his wife speak, she and Akash have left London for a short trip to New York, and she asks: “Couldn’t we move back? At least for a little while? Just to recharge our batteries.” She is voicing the dream of slum-dwellers throughout India: can we get out? For people like Kapur, but certainly not for every Indian, there is always the reverse commute.

Alexandra Sage Mehta, a writer living in New York City, is currently at work on a book about being Indian-American.