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‘The Beautiful And The Damned’ Of Globalized India

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
October 11, 2011

Years after leaving his small village in northern India, journalist Siddhartha Deb set out to explore the true impact of globalization on his homeland by working undercover in an Indian call center.

That experience paved the way for The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, a book in which Deb follows the lives of a rural farmer, an ambitious hotel worker and an affluent movie producer to expose the dark side of Indian prosperity.

Deb joins NPR’s John Donvan to discuss how the globalization that helped make India an international player continues to leave millions behind.

Interview Highlights

On the wealth disparity in India

“You have at the very top end of the country … something like 66 billionaires. And these numbers might be slightly old, but there are probably a few more billionaires since I last checked. But 66 billionaires who seem to have something like 30 percent of the country’s wealth.

“On the other end, you have like 800 million people — over 800 million people — living on less than $2 a day. When you have a country where 40 percent of the children under the age of 5 suffer from malnutrition, it seems to me that these contrasts aren’t really healthy. They’re not just differences. They are really like living different worlds within the same country.”

On high rates of cell phone use as an indicator of progress

“Often the number of cell phones is a very favorite figure. It’s very interesting … they did have cell phones, but they didn’t feel that they had become empowered in any major way because of having cell phones. I mean it is convenience.

“And when I was speaking to the migrant workers in a factory where I spent some time … many of them didn’t have cell phones. One of the … things they were [more] concerned with is they didn’t have ration cards that they could use to buy subsidized food.

“So some of the fundamental struggles are over things like food, water, land and maybe mobility in some sense, education. And that hasn’t changed. And the numbers are not good.”

On the first chapter of his book, which has been censored in India

“It’s a fairly nuanced [profile of] a very wealthy person. He’s an entrepreneur. He owns a large chain of business schools. He’s a producer of some Bollywood films and very flamboyant, very energetic. He’s a management guru. His name is Arindam Chaudhuri.

“And I spent a significant amount of time with him, talking to him. And I have a critical but nuanced portrait which was excerpted in an Indian magazine … What happened was that his company filed a defamation lawsuit, but not in Delhi, which is where his company is based and where the magazine is based, as well.

“They filed it thousands of miles away in a very small court, and the court issued an injunction without allowing us to respond. And the suit was filed against the magazine, my publishers, Penguin, me and Google India for some very strange reason, accusing us of all working for his rival companies.

“And as a result, it just wasn’t possible legally to publish the chapter in the Indian edition until it’s resolved, which may take years.”

On the power of wealth to inspire envy

“I am sympathetic to people aspiring to more material wealth, and I’m critical at the same time … I mean, essentially, what we are seeing is that a certain section within India wants to catch up with the West. And they want to catch up in the West at some very obvious levels, at material wealth, big armies and, you know, big shopping malls.

“And, in a way, I can understand why. I mean, it’s a great culture. It’s a very old civilization that’s been deeply humiliated through a great part of the modern era, partly because of colonialism. It has felt itself sort of out of the loop, and so people want to catch up. And I’m sympathetic to that …

“And yes, there’s something wonderful to wearing a nice suit and wearing designer glasses, carrying a laptop, feeling like a certain kind of citizen of the world. This is the phrase that would often come to me from the well-to-do.

“But, you know, there are all kinds of citizens of the world, and we can’t forget about everybody else.” [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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