The American Dream Outsourced:
India and the Genre of Growth

Manu Goswami

For much of the twentieth century, the conjugation of “India” and “economic growth” invoked either despair or derision. The phrase “Hindu rate of growth”—coined by economist Raj Krishna to distinguish India’s nominal 3.5 percent average rate of growth between 1950 and the 1980s from that of the dynamic “tiger” economies, South Korea and Taiwan—captured both moods. Pressed into global circulation by Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson, the phrase came to serve as an all-purpose indictment of India’s mixed-economy socialist model and its willed placement on the wrong side of the Cold War. Another American observer, the economist Milton Friedman, whose counsel was rebuffed by Nehru’s Ministry of Finance in 1955, claimed that India as a “non-colonial” state was a greater generator of poverty than the British Empire had been.

By the century’s end, however, derision had been replaced with euphoria. Following India’s post-1991 embrace of market-oriented reforms, the growth rate climbed, averaging 7.7 percent in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The daily fortunes of the Sensex (India’s stock exchange) and quarterly and annual rates of growth suffused every pore of the public media. Market orthodoxy in the land of religious heterodoxy provided an abundance of narrative and metaphorical opportunities. Overwhelmingly journalistic in impetus and cosmopolitan in faith, books poured off the presses, sounding the drama of a brave new India, one bathed, as their titles heralded, in a continuous present, forever arriving, shining, and booming. This was a distinct mode of writing India, a new neoliberal genre of emergence.

The focus on change broke from the more wearied clichés and caricatures of the past. Long a token of stasis, India (along with China) was repurposed as a favored modal unit for globalist speculations. Popular narratives had long fastened onto India’s “other-worldly” difference a timeless composite culture that purveyed esoteric insights but rebuffed profane accumulation. Whether celebrated or condemned for its polymorphous traditions, this image held descriptive sway. It underwrote the fictional genre of magical realism (Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and East, West are key exemplars), which mixed the supernatural and the mundane, and became the preferred mode of figuring “third-world” difference. But the new India projected and promised “this-worldly” sameness, a place that by the early 2000s symbolized the expansion and redemptive potential of free-market capitalism in unexpected locales.

Since History and the Market are understood as one and the same thing for the neoliberal faithful, India only enters the global stage and history proper in 1991, with the inauguration of market reforms and the geopolitical tilt towards the US.

The genre pivots on a set of revealed truths about market-oriented reforms, or “liberalization” in Indian-English parlance. Oriented towards a transatlantic readership, it posits an investor-friendly India peopled by secular English-speaking entrepreneurs, engineers, and professionals. Works as individually diverse as Pico Iyer’s lyrical The Global Soul; Anand Giridharadas’s memoir of his return to the home of his parents, India Calling; Edward Luce’s much-heralded India: In Spite of the Gods; and Patrick French’s India: A Portrait share a common historical narrative. Since History and the Market are understood as one and the same thing for the neoliberal faithful, India only enters the global stage and history proper in 1991, with the inauguration of market reforms and the geopolitical tilt towards the US. Before that, the country merely subsisted, or rather perversely persisted, in its futile effort to build an introverted, self-sufficient economy and a non-aligned foreign policy. The pre-1991 era was more or less assimilated into an end-of-history Cold War triumphalism, one made to order for post-socialist Eastern Europe, yet expansively applied across the emerging BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) nations. Nehruvian socialism, however feeble in inspiration or limited in reach, is routinely, even ritualistically, denounced. And the subsequent authoritarian populism of his daughter, Indira Gandhi, whose derangement of democratic institutions helped incubate later economic reforms, is passed over. The time line of most accounts is compressed to an immediate present, rarely exceeding the five-year horizon once dear to economic planners. Yet even with this chronological compression, the contradictory and dislocating effects of neoliberal reforms in a mass democracy have been hard to smooth over. As is often the case, the failures of liberalization are attributed to insufficient liberalization. Among the things holding India back is the still only partial privatization of key economic sectors (especially banking), the existence of high-tariff barriers in trade, quotas on international stakeholders, and the like. Hidden in plain sight is the fact that faster growth has been based more on services than manufacturing, that even the dynamic IT sector employs less than one percent of India’s labor force, that post-socialist India is more unequal than post-communist China, that more than two-fifths of the population survive on less than $1.25 a day, and that the concentration of capital is now three times greater than in the United States.

As in the Cold War past, America is the talismanic model of liberal capitalism. Though America is now hobbled by crisis, for the more imaginative writers of this genre, India is the place where American-style fortunes and aspirations may yet be realized. This dramaturgy—the American dream outsourced to an Eastern locale—combines the appeal of exotic India with tales of a brave new emergence. It is especially congenial to cosmopolitan managerial and financial classes, impatient with the past and maintaining a robust faith in the market. But it contains more Sensex than sensibility. The genre of emergence is as vulnerable to boom-and-bust cycles as the market it enshrines. As a result, it has already lost a certain descriptive monopoly to recent, more critical works. Most notable among these, are Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned, Pankaj Misra’s Temptations of the West, and Arundhati Roy’s Broken Republic. While focused on distinct sites—from a Mumbai slum to the central Indian heartland of Maoist insurgency—they provide a visceral sense of the lived inequalities ushered in and intensified by market-oriented reform. Theirs is a more disputatious and dystopic mode than the celebratory genre of emergence. Boo’s and Deb’s broadly ethnographic focus on how market reforms imperil the ways and means of ordinary people—urban squatters and slum dwellers, overworked call-center workers and factory laborers—is stripped of drama and spectacle. Roy and Misra, more explicitly partisan in their arguments, counter the “emerging India” bombast by revealing a growing estrangement between a polarized economy and a fractious democratic polity.

Kapur's work is impelled by nostalgia not for the India of his childhood, but rather the slow fading of America’s status as the shorthand for the future.

Akash Kapur’s India Becoming straddles this divide. Composed in the relative sobriety imposed by the global recession, it mixes a consensus narrative about the necessity of market reforms with an anxious assessment of its disruptive effects. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, and of mixed American and Indian parentage, Kapur’s boyhood unfolded in the leafy cosmopolitan enclave of Auroville, a utopian community now known more for its wealth than philosophical lineage, some hours outside the booming southern city of Chennai. The work is impelled by nostalgia not for the India of his childhood, but rather the slow fading of America’s status as the shorthand for the future. The book’s title derives from Albert Einstein’s gloss on mid-century Americans as a people “always becoming, never being.” This logic of “perpetual reinvention and forward momentum” is more evident now, Kapur claims, in the India that he returns to following twelve years in the US. This India was “co-opting the very qualities that defined America” amid an epochal movement towards “social and economic emancipation.” Kapur seeks to capture an India-in-emergence before it “succumbed to the bland homogenizations of twenty-first-century capitalism.” Following genre precepts, Kapur describes liberalization as “inevitable,” “unstoppable,” part of “the great sweep of history.” It is offered more as a force of nature than an artifact of politics and history. The problem is not only one of rhetorical inflation, a signature feature of the genre as a whole; it is that all his evidence pushes the other way, or rather in several directions at once, against the genre itself.    

The temptations of teleology are tempered, if not fully offset, by a focus on particular individuals. Kapur interweaves an account of how four individuals struggle to make sense of their rapidly changing and sometimes collapsing worlds and his own anxious wrestling with the threats that imperil the “rural idyll” of Auroville, where he returns to raise his family. The most fleshed-out figure, drawn with particular empathy, is that of Sathy, a local landowner and friend, for whom “social change had been individual loss.” Sathy’s “traditional” authority as an upper-caste, land-holding notable is challenged by new mafias born of rampant speculation on scarce land. His agricultural holdings are encircled and encroached upon by rapidly propagating residential developments that mirror the wider mutation of agrarian landscapes into arenas for private and state-brokered landgrabs.

Liberalization, Kapur acknowledges, is a “form of creative destruction. For everyone whose life was being regenerated or rejuvenated in modern India, there was someone, as well, whose life was being destroyed.”

The lives of others are equally ambiguous. Veena seems at first an icon of the new urban woman, a northern transplant from feudal Rajasthan who heroically leaves an unhappy arranged marriage to move to Chennai. Her rapid professional ascent is tamed by sexual harassment and an unanticipated illness. Selvi, a young migrant from a small town, pursues urban anonymity and freedom as a call-center worker only to find both jettisoned by an ever more mobile network of patriarchal censure and control. The robust optimism of Hari, a gay worker in the lower echelons of the IT industry, withers under the twin pressures of intensifying scandal over his sexuality and mounting consumer debt. The bargain that Kapur’s own family struck of exchanging the “vibrancy and life of the cities for the safety and cleanliness of the countryside” becomes harder to sustain. There is “murder in the villages” that envelope Auroville, and toxic garbage, in the form of methane- and dioxin-infused gases emitted from proliferating landfills, pervades the family’s living room. There is more thwarted ambition and disappointed hope in this portrait than in those singularly premised on “a nation on the move, emerging from the shadows of poverty into the glitter of twenty-first-century prosperity.” Anchoring large sociopolitical shifts in individuals allows for sober actuarial insight. Liberalization, Kapur acknowledges, is a “form of creative destruction. For everyone whose life was being regenerated or rejuvenated in modern India, there was someone, as well, whose life was being destroyed.”

The interwar Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter used the phrase “creative destruction” to parse and praise the heroism of financial risk takers. Largely forgotten in the post–World War II decades of industrial prosperity, its renewed currency in social science and business discourse belongs to the post-1970s world of ascendant finance capital. Kapur’s usage, while distinct, unwittingly restores the phrase’s original context. Schumpeter had borrowed the term from Werner Sombart’s work on the historical dynamic of capitalism. But its prior nineteenth-century usages (in the work of Nietzsche, among others) derived from German Indology, which glossed the essence of Shiva, the supreme god in the Hindu trinity, as one of creative destruction. The passage from German Indology to European social theory to global neoliberal discourse is more than a curiosity of global intellectual history. It underlines the persistence of the supernatural in modernist free-market mythology. From this vantage, the nonfiction genre of emergence updates the once-dominant fictional genre of magical realism, both mixing the actual and the imagined, the observable and the invisible. It does so less as conscious artifice than as an unconscious artifact of a melancholic attachment to a vitalist economic creed. The supernatural is sourced not in gurus, ashrams, or street mergers of the sublime and the monstrous. It lies in the natural wonders of market capitalism, eliciting a faith more multitudinous in its expression and compulsive in its hold than any conjured Juggernaut of nineteenth-century Indology. The genre of emergence is a portal into the peculiar cosmology of neoliberal capitalism, one as hardheaded as it is hallucinatory.