Snigdha Poonam’s Dreamers attempts to tell the story of India’s demographic nightmare through the ordinary and often troubling lives of a few young people.
India is experiencing a demographic nightmare. There are about 35 million students enrolled in various colleges across India, according to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). India produced a mere 0.4 million jobs in the organised sector in 2016-17, according to data from the labour ministry. That is, 0.4 million jobs for an approximate ten million people who leave college each year. That’s roughly four jobs in the organised sector for every 100 college educated people.
India’s overall gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education, according to MHRD data, is under 20%. That is, only one in five of those students who complete high school enrol into a college of some sort. And even that paltry GER results in about ten million young people leaving college each year. For every one person who’s college educated, there are four others, who have a high school education but have never gone to college, likely joining the workforce. That’s an additional 40 million people. Even if the unorganised sector created ten times the number of jobs that the organised sector did, it’d still be a mere four million jobs for these 40 million people. Even if one assumes only half of all students who leave college or high school seek employment, the numbers are still alarming.
Snigdha Poonam’s Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World is a profile of a select set of young people who are braving this hopeless situation with their own hustle. Poonam is a good reporter and that’s apparent from the endless conversations she’s able to have and the detail that she’s able to extract from her interlocutors in the course of her reporting. Regular listeners of ‘Reply All’ may remember Poonam and her investigative skill from the episode where she helped the podcast’s hosts investigate a call centre scam. She brings the same degree of sometimes unthinking but mostly dogged reporting to this profiling of a set of obscure men and a woman from parts of central and northern India. Dreamers attempts to tell the story of India’s demographic nightmare through the ordinary and often troubling lives of a few young people.
Socio-political analysis through an ethnographic study often gives us insight that quantitative analyses miss. Arlie Hochschild’s best selling Strangers in Their Own Land, for example, goes to the heart of the American Deep South and attempts to understand the conservative heartland’s sense of loss and mourning. Hochschild, a trained sociologist and an avowed liberal from California, went into rural Louisiana and embedded herself into a community for a five-year period before she gave us her insightful story on how rural white US thinks of immigrants as cutting into the line they’ve been diligently standing in. Poonam, unfortunately, hasn’t spent that kind of time with a singular focus of understanding the world from the point of view of those whose lives she’s profiling. Further, the people she’s profiling, it appears, have been picked for a narrative arc and political viewpoint that was settled on apriori.
The problem Poonam ends up with is that the lives of people she’s profiled could fit into any era of the past; she makes the case that they are uniquely representative of the times we live in. There’s Singhal who runs a content farm in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. It’s an Internet sensation that’s likely to either become stale or get co-opted soon. Like everything about the Internet has been thus far. We are introduced to a maze of scammers in Delhi who prey on young job-seekers with technically sophisticated means. Their basic trick of playing with people’s insecurities by promising a job was the subject a famous Tamil movie in the 80s. It’s not new and does not surprise anyone.
The fixers in far flung parts of the country, again, have always existed. As have aspiring actors and entrepreneurial small town folk. The rabidly partisan angry young men who’re prone to violence and bigotry, whom Poonam tags along with when they go hunting for cow smugglers, have also existed in our midst forever. They now have Facebook and WhatsApp; that’s about the only difference one can think of.
One person who stands out from this motley crowd of losers is Richa Singh, the first woman president of the Allahabad University Students’ Union. Singh’s story is truly unique and Poonam does well in this segment by pushing herself to the background.
A city slicker going into small town and semi-urban India to write a social commentary is fundamentally a condescending idea. It takes a lot of effort and thought to either completely transcend the divide or just enough to fake earnestness. Akash Kapur did this successfully in his wonderful rumination on urbanisation creeping into rural Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry. Poonam, sadly, does not. Admittedly, it’s a lot easier to do it in a 5,000-word essay than it is to do it for the entire length of a book. Poonam’s style of interjecting herself and her analysis into the profiles she’s painting comes across as self-indulgent. At one point she declares:
Vikas Thakur was different. Our wide-ranging dialogue was one between equals: urbane, English-speaking, upwardly mobile, intellectually curious. We could have been friends. We grew up in the same city; many of my old friends live by his world view. We argued over meeting places, I pretended to find his jokes about the Congress party funny, and he promised to read articles written from the left-liberal position. Crucially, I continued to meet Thakur to see if there was any value in his shtick: that young men armed with facts and figures were going to change Indian politics.
It’s a stunningly tone-deaf piece of writing that indicts the writer more than her subject who does seem like a bit of a jerk elsewhere in the book. The equilibrium between reporting and cultural analysis is a hard thing to pull off. The temptation to explain gets the better of most writers. Some wrestle with that temptation better than others. Adam Gopnik’s best selling Paris to the Moon is a ready reckoner of sorts in this regard. Gopnik has a penchant to generalise and pontificate; but he’s also earnest and erudite and self-effacing which helps him almost pull it off. Perhaps having great editors helped.
Poonam’s idea of India is another aspect that’s jarring, if not surprising; especially for a reader who’s not from a Hindi-speaking state. The book’s idea of government is almost exclusively the one in Delhi. As is its idea of politics. Someone who’s not from one of the states where Poonam has picked her subjects from is likely to say: but those are states with really poor indices in health, education and governance. These states – Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand – have above replacement fertility rates and have over 35% of population under 15 years of age. In Uttar Pradesh’s case, it’s a scary 42.3% of population that’s under 15 years of age.
These states are a ticking time bomb not just from a socio-economic perspective but also from that of sustaining the political union that includes them and those like Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The two southern states have had a below replacement fertility rate for over a generation and have the lowest ratio of people under 15 years of age in their population. The fault lines that emerge from this demographic divergence is the most significant question facing the Union of India. Poonam is silent on not just the question of such divergence but she ignores the fact that Peninsular India even exists.
Ultimately, this is an important book regardless of the writing itself. One hopes there are many such attempts by many such reporters and sociologists to help us understand the complex and complicated marriage that the Union of India is.
Nilakantan R.S. works as a data scientist for a tech start-up and looks at politics from that vantage point.