“No matter how poorly placed they find themselves now, they make-up the world’s largest ever cohort of like-minded people, and they see absolutely no reason why the world shouldn’t run by their rules,” writes Poonam, in her book, “Dreamers”.
Jaipur, Rajasthan: “This is the most desperate generation of Indians since independence--86% of them have been found to feel anxious about their future--but also the one most bent on world domination,” writes Snigdha Poonam in “Dreamers”, a recently released book on the hopes, aspirations and struggles of India’s young men and women.
India has the largest youth population of any country in the world--by 2020, it will have 869 million in its working population, equivalent to the combined population of the United States of America, Indonesia and Brazil.
“No matter how poorly placed they find themselves now, they make-up the world’s largest ever cohort of like-minded people, and they see absolutely no reason why the world shouldn’t run by their rules,” writes Poonam, 33, who interviewed hundreds of young men and women over four years, intimately following their life and achievements.
Poonam, who was born in Bihar, and who grew up in various cities and towns across the northern states of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar, started her book’s reporting journey from Ranchi, a town she calls home. Poonam has worked for The Hindu and The Caravan and contributed articles to several Indian and international publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, Granta and Scroll.
She writes in her book on the multitude of changes Ranchi has gone through, and how differently its young think of themselves and their place in the world.
“Unlike a younger me, they have no trouble believing they were born to be big--it is, in fact, the first thing they often know about themselves. Their problem is that no else cares what they think of themselves.”
She writes about how the aspirations of these young people will change the world we live in. “The idea that only they themselves will lead this generation of Indians to redefine everything according to their perspective; work, success, morality. It will change our world in ways we can’t yet imagine.”
IndiaSpend interviewed Poonam about the the lives of the youth, the clash between their dreams and reality, and what this means for India. Edited excerpts.
How was growing up in Ranchi and how has the city changed over the years?
I grew up in a lot of places. We kept following my father who worked in government administration. Ranchi was one of the places. I call it home because we have a house there. It has changed a lot over the years, through the 90s and then through the 2000s, starting with its physical appearance. The population expanded vastly. Suddenly there were shopping malls, residential complexes, cineplexes and so on.
People were starting to think differently about small towns. When we were growing up, there was this strong desire to leave. You thought your life was very different from the lives of people who lived in big cities. That started to change more and more with television and internet. As you became more and more connected with the wider world, the less isolated you felt. So now when I go home and speak to an 18-year-old, she does not at all feel remote. I remember, at the age of 18 years, feeling trapped in Ranchi.
How did you start writing on the lives of young men and women in India?
I was asked to do this. I was writing a lot about young people in general but light stories, like dating in urban India. I guess with this book my brief was to decode the most common word we use to describe young Indians: aspiration.
I was told go to a small town and pick 4-5 young people and talk to them about what they want. Ranchi was the natural place to go because I am from there. I started working on this book in 2014 and Ranchi was still changing every time I visited. I felt quiet disconnected with the young people that I happened to encounter there. I started hanging out in places where I would find them. I went to radio stations, because suddenly there were so many of them. I went to events of all kinds, singing shows, dancing shows, and of course fashion shows. I went to coffee shops, and tried to strike conversations. I went to coaching institutes because that's one place that's always packed with young people. I spent at least a year just talking to people in Ranchi and elsewhere in Jharkhand.
After some time, I started to travel a little outside of Ranchi as I was also reporting similar stories for newspapers and magazines. I started meeting similar people in other places. I found the student leader in Allahabad University who I write about. When I went to Indore, I made sure to go to this new media company that was just coming up there. The book ends with a story from Delhi of con call centres because I had started to see that you didn’t necessarily have to base yourself in Ranchi to find these stories. Young Indians with aspirations fill up large parts of big cities like Delhi or Mumbai.
When did you realise there were common elements across the dozens of people you were meeting across the country? What were these common threads?
I didn’t know there would be common elements. It was some time midway through the reporting--the entire process took me four years--when I was writing the first draft of the book two years in. I felt there were so many threads common between these six-seven people whom I had identified.
There was ‘self-helpism’. There is this guy in a village in Jharkhand who decides to somehow get out of his family’s working class background and become properly upper-middle class. He does it completely by himself--by watching how other people do it. There's this guy from another village in Jharkhand who says he didn’t know ‘ABC’ at the age of 17. At 27, he has his own spoken English institute. He does it in the same way--by reading books, watching people, just trying to teach himself. Then there is a guy from Allahabad who does not want to settle for his father’s job as a clerk. He wants to go to Delhi and become a big man and so he takes a similar path. Some take the fair way to reach where they want to, some trick and scam their way to success. But all of them always believe that they themselves have to do it.
The further I went along I also realised how that kind of aspiration was leading to anger for at least a section of people. They felt angry at the opportunities they thought they had been denied. They also felt angry at opportunities that they thought others, who didn’t deserve it, were getting. Their anxieties around aspiration were leading to an identity crisis. Often it led in the direction of religion or caste or drove them to claim back their masculinity.
Cover of the book “Dreamers” by Snigdha Poonam
You mention that gender is one facet of this identity crisis that young men face. But the data remain, as you mention in the book, that more than 24 million men joined the workforce between 2004-05 and 2009-10, while 21.7 million women dropped out of it. What might be some of the reasons for women to drop out of the workforce?
All in all I must have met hundreds of young men and women over about 6 or 7 years of reporting. Only a few of the stories ended up in this book but there are other stories that have gone into newspapers and magazines I have written for.
Patriarchy is of course an obvious player. If you go to a skill centre in a village you see both young men and young women learning skills and changing their lives. But the young women would choose safe skills that will not threaten the men around them. Women are packed into sewing machine classes whereas the men feel free to learn just about anything that is offered, from tour guiding to mobile repair.
A lot of times women just drop out not feeling sure of themselves. A lot of times it is marriage or other kinds of social pressures. I don't mean in any way that young women are not ambitious or they are not changing their lives all around us but for a lot of them struggles are basic. They are fighting to leave their homes, to go to school, to find work, to find equal pay, to find safe spaces, to find a husband who will support their choices. I mean it's very unusual to just show up at a place and find young women who are burning with this desire to fix civilisational imbalances and planetary arrangements, or to take India to the top of the world. The ambitions of young men and young women play out quite differently.
How do all of these changes, and aspirations of men and women affect how they relate to each other?
Young men spoke more freely to me about young women around them who had started taking control of their lives. They didn't talk to each other about this, but they felt like they could say things to me that as a woman I would understand. I'm sitting with this Gau Rakshak in Karnal and he talks about how he has been rejected by every girl in his neighborhood. How they are educating themselves, finding work, and choosing their husbands in cities, and exercising their own choices. He felt completely alienated by that kind of change. A lot of his anger against the world and trigger for his violence came from that basic insecurity about these women not finding him desirable. I found that quite touching.
What role does social media have to play in affecting the worldview of young men and women?
Most people I met with were born after liberalisation. You know many of them were discovering the world through the internet and they were discovering themselves with social media, with Facebook and WhatsApp. It's amazing for me to discover that so many of them hadn't really thought of themselves in an objective sense before they had to fill in the ‘about me’ column on Facebook. That's when, for many of them, they first started thinking of themselves as individuals. What am I, what do I like, what do I want to present to the world. On WhatsApp they create these multiple personalities for themselves depending on whom they are talking to. It's on WhatsApp that many of these men that I spoke to first started to learn to flirt because in real life they would not go up to women and ask them out for coffee. They had to stand in a corner and harass women or stay completely out of the picture. It is also on WhatsApp that many of them tried to create other kinds of personalities--social personalities, religious personalities.
I felt like social media is a big part of their life. But I don’t know how much their worldview is shaped by social media because a lot of that also depended on their real and immediate circumstances. Many of the people in the book--the men mostly--felt quite disempowered in the local communities. When they felt that, they used social media to somehow win their place back. You have these young men all over north India who have six public Facebook pages. It's so common. They will create separate personalities on each one of them.
What is driving them to do that is always local. There is this guy in Meerut who is angry with the fact that that no one cares much about him in college. He gets very angry about it and uses Facebook to launch a war against Muslims in the world, and Bangladeshis. It's not like he really knows or cares about what is going on in Bangladesh.
Some of them know what’s going on in the world. They know that (United States President Donald) Trump got elected, they know Brexit happened. The more illuminated of them even spoke about these things and and it led them to become more politically demanding or angry. But I found that quite rare.
They have the bleakest chance at a real opportunity--a million Indians enter the job market every month; perhaps 0.01% find steady jobs--but they have the fanciest possible ideas about success, you write in the book. What would it mean for the country if these young men and women cannot achieve their dreams, aspirations?
I really don’t know how that’s turning out for India. Every day there is a protest in which young people are at the centre. I remember mentioning in the book that in 2013, the International Labour Organisation came to the conclusion that India has the largest number of young people of any country and if the country is unable to meet their aspirations, there is possibility of all kinds of unrest ahead.
We’ve seen a lot of that come true in the last few years. We’ve seen the quota riots. A lot of the conflict we see in India today, be it because of caste or religion or gender, comes from those frustrated ambitions. We have violence against women that comes from the men feeling that the women are getting too ahead of themselves. The lynchings are also often rooted in Indian Muslims’ moving up the ladder, which leads to insecurity among the majority community in the village or town. A lot of violence against Dalits stems from the fact that the dominant caste in the villages feel these Dalit boys and girls are getting educated, going to cities, finding jobs and then coming back and showing off their new status.
I remember when the Ram Rahim riots broke out last year, the larger feeling was that these people are a part of a crazy cult, rioting across Punjab and Haryana for their jailed leader. But speaking to many of them, I found they were also worried that the Ram Rahim Dera had employed them indirectly or directly and they were losing their jobs.
At the same time, I feel in India we are so divided and there are so many of us that I really doubt that there is going to be mass protest against the government anytime. But we are going to see these isolated and violent expressions of dissatisfaction.
India has over 295 million children--about 24.6% of its population--between the ages of six and 18 years. What can the government do so that future generations do not face the same scale of difference between their aspirations and reality?
There are a number of things the government can do and many of them have already been prescribed. I don’t have many solutions but one of the things that I really took away from reporting the book is that education is certainly something that we need to fix. In large parts of India people go to schools and colleges knowing completely that nothing will come out of this education and that was disheartening to see. As people have already pointed out, you have to somehow create jobs in the manufacturing sector. We need to have quality reforms and an overhaul of the service infrastructure. I don't have a roadmap how to fix the problem of dreams clashing with reality but I think the government can start with listening to this demographic dividend and not just use that as a buzzword.
Out of all the people you met, which story did you find most interesting?
Like most people who have responded to the book, I was completely smitten with Richa Singh’s story. She was a young woman and as a woman myself, I just never got over her guts. Her battle was mesmerising to me and I don't think I ever rooted for anyone else in the book as I did for Richa Singh. I remain in awe of her.
Do you continue to follow the lives of these people?
Yes, we remain in touch. Richa Singh just campaigned for the Phulpur by-election and she did quite well. She tells me the highlights. People will send me WhatsApp updates from time to time or some of them will call me. I feel like these relationships have now developed over at least two-three years and it's just really hard to cut myself off and move on. Also, from the journalistic point of view, I do want to keep following some of these stories to see where they lead, and if there is any point in doing a sequel.
After the book, have you met more young people whose lives revolve around similar themes?
Yes, I keep travelling to small towns and villages to find stories and many of them revolve around the same themes. The last interesting story I reported was from Kaushambi in Allahabad, which used to be called “Nakal ki mandi” which translates to “market for exam cheating”. It’s a whole economy built around this giant fraud, and everyone in this town is employed in it. I met these hordes of young men who come out of colleges and don't find any jobs. They become what they call ‘solvers’ in Uttar Pradesh. It is so common for them that they don't hesitate at all in telling you that they solve exam papers for others for money. It’s just something that they do, and they don't have any other opportunities, so they don't feel any regret about it.
(Khaitan is a writer/editor with IndiaSpend).
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