The first time someone recommended Snigdha Poonam’s Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing the World to me, I rolled my eyes at the title. I wondered, “Who are these young Indians, these ‘dreamers’ who are, as the title of the book states, ‘changing the world’?” I imagined a book about ambitious software engineers heading global IT companies, founders of start-ups, athletes, actors, politicians, writers, activists, and fashion designers: prosperous young Indians daring to dream big, representing the country on a global platform, and making India proud.
And then I saw the cover of the book.
On the cover is the photograph of a thin young man, perhaps in his late teens or early 20s, sporting a barely-there moustache and a red shirt with a purple floral design and the letters “PU” on the right side of his chest and “NK” on the left: PUNK. He is holding a large camera with a flash, and white earphones peek out of his shirt collar—one earphone in his left ear and the other dangling off his neck. His PUNK shirt, coiffure, and earphones—the whole ensemble is a stereotypical example of a “style statement” of non-elite, low-income young men who are “doing style.”1
Maybe he works at a photo studio taking pictures of people who need photographs to apply for visas and passports that might take them out of this country for good. Those living in Indian cities and towns are only too familiar with these “passport photo” studios. Maybe he photographs aspiring brides and grooms, large families who squeeze themselves into his tiny studio, couples at weddings, or lovers against painted backdrops of Niagara Falls, the Pyramids of Giza, the Swiss Alps, or the nearby Taj Mahal. The look in his eyes is striking: vacant—if not grim—but resilient. He seems like a “boy next door,” no one of particular importance.
Yet he and countless other nameless youths like him dot our towns and cities. Often reduced to a statistic in reports by developmentalist agencies or the Indian state, we know little about the lifeworlds of those who constitute India’s “youth bulge.” We also know little about how they make sense of themselves or their past and their future in relation to the way the world appears to be changing.
Diving headfirst into this dizzying world of northern Indian youth, Poonam shows us how these youths dream big dreams against all odds and how their “capacity to aspire” is barely limited by their material conditions.2 Whether or not the internet has actually flattened the world, it has certainly imbued the lives of Indian youth with the frisson of seductive possibility and resilient optimism. In imagining and dreaming big, they find themselves nimble-footed on a slippery slope—a point tenderly captured by Poonam in Dreamers, which has met with a good deal of positive reception in both India and abroad.3
India’s Garbage Politics
Having grown up in post-liberalization India myself, I have hardly been a stranger to discourses of optimism and anticipation with regard to India emerging as an assertive player in the game of “changing the world.” One key factor fueling this optimism has, in fact, been the seductive promise of India’s not-so-secret weapon: its “demographic dividend” and the related implications for future economic growth.4 With more than half of the population under the age of 25, some estimates suggest that by 2027, India—with a billion people between 15 and 64—is going to have the largest workforce in the world.
Lately, however, the excitement surrounding this “youth bulge” has been accompanied by a sense of anxiety and exasperation. Some are now speculating about how this demographic dividend might turn into a “demographic liability” or even a “demographic disaster,” since most Indian youth, it turns out, are actually uneducated, unemployed, or even unemployable. According to a UN report on this issue, averting a bleak future requires paying keen attention to the needs and aspirations of those who fit this bill.
Dreamers, I quickly learned, is a book about these uneducated, unemployed, or unemployable young Indians. Youths who—unlike their educated, employed, or employable counterparts—are often viewed with disappointment and skepticism, for threatening to turn India’s demographic asset into a liability.
Youth unemployment has been widely recognized as one of the biggest issues confronting the country. It has become the symbol of structural neglect and a great example of the failure of institutional mechanisms to deliver on the promise of the euphoria-inducing buzzwords of the mid-2000s like “India Shining.”5 As Poonam observes in Dreamers, “A country that depends solely on its youth bulge to become a superpower hasn’t yet figured out how to turn the numbers into an asset.” By extension, institutional failure has publicly manifested itself in the form of young men waiting: “doing timepass,” or loitering on street corners, which some see as impacting not just their own self-worth and morale but also incidences of crime and violence in urban areas, especially against women.6 Commentators have also noted that dissatisfaction with the pace of economic growth is becoming increasingly palpable; young men and women of contemporary India are impatient for the tangible benefits of more than two decades of waiting.
In the face of a seemingly daunting structural impasse, it becomes even more necessary to better understand the cultural and affective aspirations, the disappointments and contradictions that constitute the everyday lives of the aspiring youth, the jobseekers. This demographic group is critical to the nation’s economic and social progress and is a key constituency in electoral politics. We need to understand the psyche of what the International Labor Organization calls a “scarred” generation. One might want to ask, then, what motivates aspiration in the face of structural deadlock and institutional ineffectiveness? And what are the social implications of this aspiration?
Through the improvisational and entrepreneurial ways of working associated with “making it” today, risk-taking has come to define youth.
Snigdha Poonam’s rich and perceptive ethnography of young men and women in towns and cities in northern India is a deeply sensitive foray into the lifeworlds of this “scarred generation.” Filled with breathtakingly diligent detail, Poonam’s narrative about the dreams and frustrations of the youth she encountered, followed, and spent time with over four years is both unflinchingly astute and keenly empathetic.
Poonam shows how the very idea of dreaming big is fundamental to the self-understandings of these youth and, counterintuitively, that when it comes to aspiration and dreaming, it seems like “the farther you lived from a big city, the bigger your dreams.” She sees no dearth of aspiration in the hinterland of India. This sociocultural fact has been recognized by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose rhetoric of change and aspiration is said to have contributed immensely to his political popularity, especially among young voters. Aspiration, unlike employment, seems to be in abundance in the “youth bulge,” and this abundance rests on the availability of images, inspiration, and information on the internet. As Poonam eloquently puts it, “A twenty-year-old in Indore has the same access to information as someone his age in Iowa—and could very well have the same desires.”
Indian millennials, like their global counterparts, have a distinctive cultural understanding of what constitutes a “good life,” an understanding forged in economic circumstances far different from their parents’. Through the improvisational and entrepreneurial ways of working associated with “making it” today, risk-taking has come to define youth. The allure of potential, of aspiration is strong: a start-up can become the next big thing, an Instagram account can attract a million followers, or an underdog can become prime minister. Security, no longer available, is also no longer desirable.
Poonam’s subjects are young men—and a couple of young women, in chapter 5—who are all restlessly trying to make it in a variety of different contexts rather than complacently making do. The notion that ordinary young Indians have no option but to work for wages is now being replaced by a sense that “one no longer has to be rich to dream of running one’s own company … All over the world, they are aware, people like themselves are building the companies of their dreams from hope and thin air.” The book introduces us to several manifestations of the restless urge of such dreamers.
In Poonam’s first three chapters, we get an intimate sense of how the desire to be significant fuels many to become a dreamer. We meet “The Click-Baiter,” who founded a start-up that produces articles that “go viral” among youngsters in the US and who wants to become rich and fix his country. We meet “The English Man,” who teaches spoken English for a living and is convinced that “speaking English … opens up your mind, your whole view of the world.” We also meet “The Fixer,” who, as a particularly agile and digitally savvy “village-level entrepreneur,” benefits from being an important node in the everyday governance of villages. While all three men—and the several others whose lives intersects with them in Poonam’s narrative—come from different backgrounds, live in different cities/towns, and have different professions, what binds them is a keen sense of optimism.
While “The Click-Baiter” and “The English Man” and their similars in the book recite or share motivational quotations from global personalities like Elon Musk, Warren Buffett, Swami Vivekananda, and Paulo Coelho, “The Fixer” has his own set of improvised, inspirational tidbits to share. We see how a reliance on the global production of inspiration is critical to the local production of aspiration. Quotations of sometimes unknown origin comingle with anxiety and doubt in the circles of jobseekers to offer something more than just solace: impetus. Risk-taking, thinking big, dreaming, chasing, doing—these are all idealized to the point that they become inevitable:
Taking no risk in life is the biggest risk of life.
If someone has to make money, he will make money. No one can stop him.
I don’t want to be successful, I want to be significant.
Climbing the mountain maybe difficult, but the best view is from the top.
It is no coincidence that Narendra Modi, who embodies the “rags to riches” and “self-starter” narratives made to seem attainable in this motivational thinking, also doles out exhortatory aphorisms to the throngs of hopeful youths. One of his many “viral” sayings is that “the youth of this country can rule the world with a finger on the mouse.” That this resonates with a generation trying to make sense of their own place in the world is hardly surprising. In him, writes Poonam, others see themselves.
Writing with incredible sensitivity, Poonam lays bare the circumstances that produce the desire to dream big and to chase success against all odds.
However, the subjects’ infectious enthusiasm for life in the first three chapters is not the only story. Poonam, in the next section, provocatively titled “I Am Ready for a Fight,” explores how youthful aspiration mutates, taking on a life of its own in the context of a politics increasingly characterized by anger, violence, and communalism. After all, the resonance of an inspirational quote has a shelf life. The embers of an anger-imbued polarizing rhetoric, however, do not die out quite as fast.
As the promises of “making it” fade, Poonam reveals in chapter 4, anger and resentment come to reign. Such feeling are acute among young men in right-wing student organizations and “cow-protection armies.”7 Often citing India’s former glorious “bird of gold” status, “the angry young men” that Poonam spent time with—who are becoming radicalized into a particularly militant brand of Hindu nationalism—ask why India is not being valued in the world, why Hindus are not being valued in India, and, indeed, why women are being valued at all.8
To me, this is the most terrifying chapter in the book. It gives us a glimpse into a world in which young men seek to feel significant, relevant, or even a “complete man” by engaging in activities like beating up unmarried couples on Valentine’s Day or cow “traffickers” for the “thrill of violence, of ‘taking the law in their hands.’” In this chapter, Poonam also reflects on her own inability to put herself in their shoes: “You have got to be a young man to feel their rage.” In her next chapter, however, we learn of one woman’s rage—a woman who is steadfast in asserting her dreams and desires in the context of the violent, toxic masculinity of university-level campus politics. In all these stories of “anger,” there is a sense of aspiration, of imagining a different life, campus, society, and nation.
Finally, in the ultimate culmination of youthful aspiration, Poonam draws out the memorable vignettes of “The Star” and “The Scammer”: a small-time model trying to make it big and the professional fraudster who makes his money by giving jobs to young men and women at illegal call centers where they pose as the IRS to make money off of unsuspecting US citizens. In both the cases, cheating and deceit are considered the only way out in a world where “hard work,” slogging, and honesty seem to have no point. Writing with incredible sensitivity, Poonam lays bare the circumstances that produce the desire to dream big and to chase success against all odds—by hook or by crook.
Poonam’s empathetic and incisive portrayal of a generational sensibility pays heed to Karl Mannheim’s insistence on how certain modes of behavior, feeling, and thought are characteristic of generations that have gone through certain “formative experiences.”9 Everything in Poonam’s book seems to underscore the importance of thinking about generational particularity along with class, gender, caste, religion, residence. That the millennial generation in India is characterized by economic liberalization, the internet and telecommunication revolution, the rise of social media, consumerism, the rise of religious factionalism, and urbanization matters to how aspiration is understood and experienced at both an individual and a collective level.
In attempting to understand the motivations and inspirations of the youth, Poonam asks, “What happens when 100 million people suddenly start dreaming big, in a place where no one is prepared for it—families, teachers, employers, governments?” And by telling the stories of several young men and women, she shows how: “They realize they are on their own. They reconcile themselves to the idea that they must build a world in which they can be what they want to be, where how well you do depends on how badly you want to do well. Once they have created this bubble of aspiration, they chase their dreams like their life depends on it—do or die.”
The promise of possibility and the thrill of playing the game are ushering in a work ethic that denounces staid stability in favor of chasing, being on the move. As my own dissertation advisor once told me, “Freedom is in the worlds between.”
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.
- The phrase is borrowed from Constantine Nakassis’s wonderful ethnography of college students in Tamil Nadu and their relationship to personal styling, fashion, and brand culture. See Constantine Nakassis, Doing Style: Youth and Mass Mediation in South India (University of Chicago Press, 2016). ↩
- See Arjun Appadurai, “The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition,” in The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition (Verso, 2013). ↩
- The US edition features the image described above. In the Indian edition, there is a young man without a helmet on a motorcycle in what seems to be an agricultural cropland. Here, too, we see a sense of defiance and silent resilience conveyed through the man’s posture and the ease with which his hands grasp the handlebars of the motorcycle—just raring to go. ↩
- The demographic dividend, as defined by the United Nations Population Fund is “the economic growth potential that can result from shifts in a population’s age structure, mainly when the share of the working-age population (15 to 64) is larger than the non-working-age share of the population (14 and younger, and 65 and older).” ↩
- A slogan used by the Bharatiya Janata Party–led government in 2004 for publicity before the national elections. However, the term soon began taking on unintended connotations and has become a buzzword referring to economic optimism in India. ↩
- In Indian English, “timepass” means “killing time” while waiting, but Christopher Fuller has noted its wide semantic variation. Anthropologist Craig Jeffrey’s ethnography Timepass: Youth, Class, and the Politics of Waiting in India (Stanford University Press, 2010) found that young men in northern India experience feeling “in limbo” and “left behind” in India’s post-liberalization economy. Jeffrey insightfully argues that delving deeper into the act of waiting—or even feeling it—provides a window into the frustrations and anxieties of unemployed or unemployable youth in northern India. He also shows how “timepass” is constitutive of social interaction among male youth. ↩
- Cow slaughter and eating beef has been a contentious religious and communal matter for several years now, although vigilante groups physically attacking and even killing those rumored to have cows, cow meat, or cow hide is more recent. Vigilante groups—mostly in northern India—known as “cow protection armies” patrol roads and highways at night for transport vehicles “smuggling” cows. ↩
- The popular phrase “bird of gold” is characteristic of precolonial India and connotes India’s erstwhile prosperity and status as a global powerhouse. ↩
- Karl Mannheim, “The Problem of Generations,” Psychoanalytic Review, vol. 57, no. 3 (1970). ↩