Young people, who constitute a large segment of the Indian society, is the subject of study in the recently released nonfiction title, The End of Karma: Hope and Fury among India’s Young, by Somini Sengupta. In the book, the Polk Award-winning New York Times correspondent eloquently portrays the aspirations and frustrations of the young as they discard old assumptions about fate and demand a brighter future. Seattle novelist Bharti Kirchner conducted this e-mail interview with Ms. Sengupta prior to her arrival in Seattle to do a book reading.
Bharti Kirchner: You allude to the fact that young Indians are socially conservative. Also from your narrative, they don’t seem to be alienated from their parents (as might sometimes be the case with the youth in the West.) Please comment on this social phenomenon. Also please comment on how young Indians handle generational differences.
Somini Sengupta: India has always had a way to meld old and new, modern and traditional. And so, as India modernizes in some ways, traditions hold fast, for better or worse. Surveys suggest that young Indians remain socially conservative on many issues, including marriage, for which they commonly seek their family’s blessings. Nuclear families are increasingly common, and that’s often for economic reasons. When young upwardly mobile couples can afford to move out, they do, and there are lots of new housing developments to cater to them. What fascinated me when I moved back to the United States as it was recovering from the financial crisis was how common it was for young people to be moving back with their parents, for economic reasons. Also, we have more and more houses it seems with “in-law units”—which strikes me as a very Indian thing!
BK: You draw fascinating portraits of seven young Indians. You followed some of them, such as Anupam, for years. What gave you the clue that these particular individuals will be worth pursuing? Were there any that weren’t included in the book?
SS: They were all people with great resilience and grit. They were all on some sort of journey, and they represented, all in different ways, the demands that their generation were making on their country. Also, they let me into their lives, which I take as an enormous gift. They are certainly not meant to represent all of India. They are only seven in a billion.
BK: Was it ever risky for you, a female, to travel to the places you did to interview? If so, how did you handle it?
SS: I’ve reported from Iraq and Darfur and Sri Lanka, all during conflicts. I’ve kept myself safe all over the world by telling the truth about who I am and what I do, and listening to all different points of view. In my reporting for this book, I’ve done the same, and all kinds of strangers have helped me and kept me safe in ways that I probably didn’t even realize.
BK: You mention that you wrote this book over a number of years and the focus changed after you became a parent. What did you learn from this process and what advice would you give to new writers who might be struggling with a similar issue?
SS: Becoming a parent changed the book in two ways. First, it took much longer to get it done, and sadly, most of my Sundays and vacation days were spent in a café or a library, with headphones on, shutting out the world, and trying to write. I don’t recommend this path. It’s frustrating, and often unproductive. But I have a demanding full time job, and a kid I wanted to be with. Plus, I’m not a morning person, and I could never carry through with the advice that many writers gave me to wake up at 5:00 a.m. and write every day for two hours before the rest of the family gets up. So Sundays and holidays were my writing days. Second, it made me see the country through the eyes of its young. I’m a daughter of India, and my daughter is a daughter of India. So I wrote this book to better understand the past and future of the country that made us.
Bharti Kirchner’s latest novel is ‘Goddess of Fire.’