Readers often confuse fiction for non-fiction and vice versa, with narrators resembling authors, fictional characters resembling real ones and real lives being story-fied. So how does one categorize a book that explores a country of one billion people by following five principal characters, a book whose first person narrative is not explicitly the author’s voice?
We settle into our chairs to listen to Siddhartha Deb read from such a book, his latest work, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of New India, to try to answer these questions.
Deb does not preface his reading with much context, although book includes a touching Introduction about struggling with his slippery north-eastern Indian identity while growing up, “resident of the land that my father had left and that I had never lived in.” Today, he provides a bit of background about each passage he will read from, letting the prose take over from there.
And he does, with flair, turning the pages with the flourish of a piano player. Each excerpt is dramatized as Deb reads slowly, pausing, smiling and inflecting to give us a sense his exhausting and revealing travels throughout India:
Vijay brought his tiny car to a halt, and the man loomed up in front of the windscreen, a dark, stocky figure dressed in a T-shirt and jeans. He put his right hand down on the bonnet of our car. In his left hand, he held an automatic pistol, its barrel pointing up at an acute angle. His gaze, as it swept over our faces, was intense, scrutinizing us carefully, meeting our eyes for a few seconds.
Deb frequently takes his eyes off the page to look straight at us and off to the side, and his familiarity with the text makes his reading that much personal, the pistol that much more tangible. Describing this police checkpoint on a highway out of Hyderabad that Deb had driven on, he points out to us that not only was it illegal, it was also in vain. His writing renders this impromptu call to action utterly impotent in an impassive scene of oozing traffic and sense-numbing smog.
“The ‘I’ in the book is not a journalist ‘I’. It’s more a narrator ‘I’ who has a history, has memories,” he says. A combination that gives his characters histories and memories, too, such as the wife of one of the few wealthy farmers in rural Andhra Pradesh:
My attention was drawn to the woman in her thirties, everything about whom suggested that she was the mistress of the house. She was wearing a bright blue sari, from the fringes of which one foot displayed a gleaming golden toe ring. She was slightly plump, and light-skinned – attributes that declared the upward mobility of the man who had married her with as much clarity as the marble and teak fittings of the house.
Deb remarks a paragraph later that this woman does not seem fazed by the charred, dusty state of her house—recently set on fire by angry famers cheated out of their revenue by her husband—nor by her husband’s feckless behavior. The way she carries herself reflects her standing: a woman of higher social class than the farmers in the town, a woman with property, a woman with status and promise.
Less classily portrayed is the infamous and now defamed personality, Arindam Chaudhuri. People told Deb that he seemed “grotesquely fascinated” with Chaudhuri, that he explored—and exploited?—Chaudhuri’s life more critically than he did other characters in the book. Why? Deb argues that he took much care to respect the privacy of his characters, omitting details and changing names when asked. Chaudhuri, however, was already a grandiose figure in India, notoriously ubiquitous, dominating print advertisements and amplifying his voice to the masses. Such a persona could not expect already public information about him to be disguised for the sake of a book.
Deb boldly depicts Chaudhuri as the meretricious scammer that he is, sneaking snippets into his writing that wonder about his unexpected popularity and influence:
The mannerisms gave Arindam an everyday appeal, and it was the juxtaposition of this homeliness with his wealth, success and glamour that created a hold over the leadership aspirants in the audience…He was one of the audience, even if he represented the final stage in the evolution of the petite bourgeoisie…after about thirty minutes into the leadership session, as I began to be drawn into his patter, I felt that Arindam was telling the rising Indian middle class a story about itself, offering them an answer to the question of who they were.
Chaudhuri, a business man, business school founder, public speaker, entrepreneur, Bentley owner and global consultant—among other things—was outraged when Deb’s book was completed. He has since sued for defamation, insisting that the chapter about him is inaccurate and tainting. Quite creatively, Deb tells us, he has filed an injunction in Silchur, a dot of a city in Assam in north-eastern India, hundreds of miles away from the courts, publishing houses and newspapers of Delhi. Not only has Chaudhuri taken great pains to travel this far to file a lawsuit for Rs. 500 million, but he is filing it against four parties: Siddhartha Deb, Penguin Publishers, Caravan Magazine (that printed an excerpt from Deb’s book featuring—or exposing—Chaudhuri) and Google India!
Deb deadpans that Google India’s probably auto fills the word ‘fraud’ when someone types ‘Arindam Chaudhuri’ into the search bar, and this must make Chaudhuri very angry.
Anger is prevalent throughout the book, not surprisingly, as Deb talks to the marginalized, the invisible, the unpaid, the evicted, the toiling, the cheated, the rip-offs and the jaded. In the final section featuring a north-eastern girl working as a waitress in Delhi, the anger matures into gritty determination and hard-earned independence. Esther (not her real name) is optimistic about making a life for herself in a metropolis, but she tires of the superficial, ultimately inaccessible, glitz of her job in food and beverages (F&B) The redundancy of routine and responsibility wear her down.
‘I feel like a thief,’ she said. ‘When I come home, everyone’s sleeping. It’s a strange job that requires you to be up when everyone else is in bed.’
Esther’s section is sympathetic and admiring, prompting the reader to wonder, did Deb get more involved with her than with his other characters? The moderator says that many reviewers have suggested a romantic relationship, which Deb corrects: “One!”
Gesturing animatedly, Deb insists that there was no romance: his sole aim was to “dissolve the boundaries between the observed.”
These days Esther spoke differently about her job. ‘I wanted to be a doctor, not this F&B. Sometimes, I want to go back home, but what is there back home? If I go home, what will I do? But this job has no security, no pension.’…what Esther sometimes wanted, after all her independence, striving, exposure and mobility was a simple repetition of her mother’s life.
Questions follow his reading. Deb advocates for his narrator, who is “pretty angry and pretty skeptical about what he’s seeing.” This first-person narrator is a microphone for his characters, for the four years of research he has done all over the subcontinent. “I am not pretending to be objective,” he says.
Deb defends his preference for fiction over non-fiction. “I actually prefer the novel as a form,” he explains, but thought initially that non-fiction would be more effective for such a subject. He thought it would be quicker, too, and that he would “make a ton of money, come back to fiction.” So much for that, he laughs. “Here I am, six years later!”
When asked about the seamless transitions between characters, villages and personal contemplations, Deb describes the tiring, painstaking attention to detail a writer must have, especially since it yields richer, truer stories. “A lot of the shaping happens in the writing as well,” he says—the mark of a practiced and accomplished writer.
Writing a book of such ambitious scope takes commitment, curiosity and, ultimately, a profound need to capture the world in your own words. “If you hit it,” he promises, “it’s the most transcendent thing. It comes alive.”