India’s economic ascent has launched a flurry of books, most of them touting neoliberalism’s power to not only propel the country out of poverty but to chase away its unsightly caste and class divisions, its nasty penchant for pogroms and female feticide. Siddhartha Deb’s very fine The Beautiful and the Damned tells a darker story, focusing on the boom’s seamy side: the scoundrels and profiteers, and the millions of farmers and migrant workers crushed beneath the juggernaut of “progress.” “The modernity of India,” he writes drily, is “an ambiguous phenomenon.” His point is that even as India has seen an increase in middle-class “aspirers,” “the poor have seen little or no improvement,” and he makes the argument with singular ease. Much of his reportage—on India’s villages, “cyber-cities,” and luxury malls—is done on foot, and his book possesses a gait of its own, achieving a contemplative, rambling rhythm that absorbs passing sights and sounds into anecdote, knits anecdote into analysis, and then analysis into advocacy.
Deb’s inquiry begins with the beautiful people, the architects and beneficiaries of India’s gilded age: entrepreneurs, engineers, and their acolytes—“an army of Gatsbys, wanting not to overturn the social order but only to belong to the upper crust.” It’s a moment with its own name (“India Shining”) whose mantra is that you’re only as small as your ambitions (an ethos Deb nails in his observation that India’s evolving ideals have been mirrored in the career of actor Amitabh Bachchan, who went “from playing thin angry young men in the seventies to corporate patriarchs in the new millennium”). Deb strips away the myths to reveal a much harsher reality. The lives of computer programmers and call-center employees, whom Americans depend on for technical support and customer service, are as much about isolation and displacement as high salaries. Meanwhile, Arindam Chaudhuri, the wealthy and enigmatic founder of an international “management institute,” has been celebrated for making higher education more accessible—but Deb digs a bit deeper and finds evidence that the program might be a cleverly designed Ponzi scheme. (When it appeared in India, the chapter, originally published in The Caravan magazine, inspired Chaudhuri to file multiple libel lawsuits—against Deb, his publishers, and, for its role in distributing the information, Google. For this reason, the chapter in Indian editions is slightly altered.)