Snigdha Poonam in conversation with Edward Simpson (Director of the SOAS South Asia Institute) about her book ‘Dreamers: How Young Indians are changing the world’
600 million Indians, more than half the population, are under twenty-five. This generation lives between extremes: more connected and global than ever, but with narrow ideas of Indian identity; raised with the cultural values of their grandparents, but the life goals of American teenagers. These dreamers are the face of a new India. Angry, and frustrated with being marginalised by both globalisation and India’s old politics, they place hope in the Modi government’s exclusionary nationalism and, above all, in their personal truths: shape your own future; exploit or be exploited.
Journalist Snigdha Poonam tracks these young fortune-seekers — aspiring Bollywood stars and clickbait gurus, the Cow Protection Army hoodlums and Allahabad University’s first female Student Union President — all united by the belief that they were born for bigger and better things. Dreamers brings to life their boundless ambition and extraordinary imagination to create opportunities in the unlikeliest of spaces.
Journalist Snigdha Poonam met with Edward Simpson (Director of the SOAS South Asia Institute) during her book launch for ‘Dreamers: How Young Indians are changing the world’ at SOAS, University of London.
Ed – This is a remarkable fresh book. Can you tell us how your career and experience led you into such research?
Snigdha – I work for India’s second largest English newspaper. I cover what they called ‘national affairs’. Even before I joined the newspaper, I had been covering national affairs for years. Over those years, I realised that most stories returned me to the same themes, mainly anger and frustration of young Indians. These generally related to elections, protests, riots, large-scale violence, questions of caste, class and identity. In general, conflict. The book is an attempt to understand the roots of those conflicts.
Ed– who are the Dreamers? Perhaps give an example of one character and their story?
Snigdha –Everywhere I went, I met young people who said dramatic things about what they wanted from their lives. They wanted to be Bollywood superstars, motivational speakers, elected politicians, media moguls. In the end, I chose six characters who wanted six different lives. I started following them as they chased their dreams. Over the period of this book’s reporting, some dreams came true, others failed. The point of the book for me is that somewhere between the fulfilment and failure of these dreams must be clues into the future of India.
Ed – Where are the dreamers?
Snigdha: Everywhere in the backwaters. To be honest, there are few opportunities available to them even to find a job. However, often the things that they wanted from their lives were very ambitious. I was interested in that gap, and I found that gap quite common across India.
Ed – Unlike other people who’ve written about youth unemployment, you don’t dwell particularly on over education or the democratising effects of mass education. On the contrary, your narratives are all about the spirit to improve, and the motivation to improve themselves in certain directions. I was intrigued as to how that desire to improve had become your focus, rather than the conventional focus on the devaluation of educational degrees.
Snigda – I had been reporting on education, so I was aware that the prospects for someone with a college degree in commerce or even an engineering degree are not very bright.
Often when I walk into a coffee shop I see young men reading self-help books. Just before I flew to London, I walked into a coffee shop in the middle of Delhi and saw a young man reading a book titled ‘how to think and become rich.’ What I am trying to say is that this wave of self-help is very common for this generation. I realised very quickly that that was a trend picking up fast.
Ed – Now I am interested in how you selected these characters? As a journalist you might be interested in something that’s representative. As an author of the book, you want to write something broad that engages different readers. How did you get to know them first of all, and how then did you turn their lives into text?
Snigdha – We chose each other. Early on, it was very hard to choose the six people as nearly everyone I met said that they wanted to be Salman Khan or Elon Musk — not in a comical way. They said things like: ‘for the next three months, I have these ten things that I want to learn, as listed in this piece of paper’ or ‘By the time I am twenty two, I will be this or that kind of person’. I applied some basic filters, the most important of which was complete and prolonged access to their lives. One of the first was a man, the first person to win the title ‘Mr Jharkhand’ in a pageant held in Ranchi. I knew his life was going to change and I asked him if I could follow him over next year or maybe more. I asked him to take me with him on his travels, his auditions, and on his dates. This was my typical agreement with the people in the book, but also I wanted them to be interesting, so I chose people who fulfilled these criteria.
Time was important, access was important, but I also chose the most dramatic people.
Ed – One of the characters runs a click bait company in Indore and has staff employed to think about what is going to excite Americans when they wake up. It is an eye-opening and compelling part of the story. If I could ask a provocative question on the back of that, I wonder what you think is the difference between the click-bait world and certain types of journalism and where that line gets drawn.
Snigdha – I mean in some sense what they do is harder because this was a group of 80 twenty-somethings in Indore who run the world’s second most visited website for viral content. More than half of their readers are American. So they have to come up with what is it that they will need to know over the next five minutes. Every second, these measures keep changing, whether Kim Kardasian is more important or Donald Trump. It is not just that– it could be the latest trend in lip plumping or the latest life hack (e.g.: how to build a swimming pool in your house). None of them was above the age of 24. Few of them had left India or even Indore. Most of them had not encountered English before they stepped into this office. I could say that they produced work of substandard quality or trash, but I ended up with a lot of admiration for their sheer imagination.
Ed – I think that admiration comes clearly in how you’ve written about them. The text tells us you were impressed or scared. There is lot of you in the text, or at least implicit in the style of writing associated with each character. How did you manage to maintain a line between your research and your personal life? Did you cross the line?
Snigdha – Initially, as with the journalism I do, I tried to keep myself out. I tried to keep myself at some distance. Although that’s not always easy as I mostly report stories involving men. When I began, I was trying to be an objective journalist. As I went along, the stories were changing, the people were changing, and I was changing. I learnt so much about life, the Indian reality, and how easy it is for people like us to see things as good or bad. At times, I entered the story by talking to them rather than just asking questions. Sometimes, I also helped them to make decisions. They asked me questions and challenged my beliefs and opinions. In each of these cases, I had to allow for a two-way interaction. So, this began as a very objective journalistic project, but ended up being something else, something that I cannot readily describe.
Ed – Could you say something about personal transformation over that period of research?
Snigdha– I grew up middle class, in an Indian sort of way. Parents lectured us every day about the values of simple living, honesty, spirituality and so on and so forth. My father was a civil servant, and we grew up fearing the state. And then I got to meet these people who think that corruption is a state of mind. I don’t want to give too much away, but morality and immorality are not easy distinctions to make for them. For the first year during the research, I used to be afraid for them. I used to give them advice such as ‘don’t do this, I don’t think it’s a good idea.’ The farther I went along, the more I realised that (a) somehow they knew what they were doing and ultimately aimed to get out of whatever sticky situation they were putting themselves in. (b) They weren’t interested in my way of doing things. They’d listen to me, but never take my advice seriously. I learnt to just shut up about being older, wiser, more educated and opinionated. It has changed me as a journalist, but also as a person.
Ed: So the Prime Minister of India emerges as a hero, as an astute political figure, as someone who as at least understood their aspiration and frustration, and what it means to aspire to particular kind of future. With that comes nationalism politics as well. How do you navigate those sort of political contours, given the kinds of people you were working with during the research? How did you later take an editorial stance on everyday nationalism when it came to writing the book?
Snigdha: I was trying to understand where these views were coming from. I saw complete disenchantment with the old era of Indian politics. Narendra Modi continues to be a symbol of hope, of aspiration. He has managed to turn their frustration and anger into an aspirational gimmick. In many of his speeches, he often talks about dreams. He offers himself as a solution. They believe him. Everything that he stands for, including the idea that minorities have enjoyed privileges at the cost of the rights of the Hindus. It’s common for Hindu men, irrespective of their class, to feel that they have somehow been cheated out of their rights in their own land, be it job, political power, honour, respect. It was hard for me to find any other viewpoint. The anger is so entrenched.
Ed: How has the book been received?
Snigdha: The reactions have been mixed. I am getting some hate for presenting a dark picture of India. But I also get a lot of messages from young readers saying: ‘This is my story’. It’s a bit of both. In the UK, some readers immediately saw it as an anti-India book. If anyone writes a story that goes against the ‘rising India’ narrative then it is seen as anti-India. The sub-title of the book is: ‘How young Indians are changing the world’. Some picked it up thinking that the book is about how Indians are changing the world in good ways. And some of them in the book are, but it also has stories about how they are changing the world in dark and scary ways, and I don’t think those parts have gone down well with a section of NRI readers.
Ed: Towards the end of the book, you describe how young people are no longer concerned with what is right or wrong, nor with a sense of morality. I thought hard about this. I wondered whether it was not the case that the young Indians you write about are concerned – but in certain domains only. They are concerned about right and wrong, and having a proper life. The right and wrong is complicated. The people you write about believe in things and understand that there are certain ways of doing things, there is therefore morality. It’s just when it comes to doing things like Internet business and dealing with government that the question of morality slips.
Snigdha: I don’t think so. I talk about the breakdown of morality not just in context of young people who’d been struggling to make something of their lives. I’m sure there are young people who are trying to survive, and working at a con call centre is their only way to enter the job economy. I get that. But I also met young people who are doing quite well — as professionals, in business, in teaching and other sectors — who held similar ideas of success, corruption, and so on. And I am not saying that it is only this generation that has fuzzy ideas of right and wrong, of good and bad. Many of them kept telling me that they knew that what they were doing was not right, but they could not think of anyone in the public sphere who was both successful and righteous. Every day, they hear about a new multimillion scam in politics or Bollywood. There are people who tell me, ‘Sure I take 500 rupees in bribe every day, but look at what the chief minister makes every day in commissions.’
The point I am trying to make is that it is not them who are different. Maybe because things are more difficult for them, because there are so many of them and so few opportunities, that why perhaps their attitudes are so visible.
Snigdha Poonam is an independent journalist based in Delhi. Her work has appeared in a number of publications including the Guardian, the New York Times and Granta. She tweets at @snigdhapoonam