The Millennial Dream
This book review first appeared in Pragati on June 05, 2018 and can be accessed here.
Snigdha Poonam’s evocatively written Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World offers insights about the Indian millennials you don’t see.
“What do India’s millenials want?” The book asked me. The book wasn’t the only one. My family, my colleagues, people at research conferences, made allusions about how young people don’t want the same things that the earlier generations did. Whenever a new phenomenon cropped up–be it Indo-Anglians, the urban poor, the BJP voters, the AAP voters–curious eyes would turn to me for explanations. But my hand wasn’t up in the air. I had no clue.
So, it was answers I was looking for when I opened Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World. Right away, I knew that this book wasn’t about me or people like me – it wasn’t about young people with privilege. Snigda Poonam chronicled young Indian men in small towns and villages. She talks to a multitude of young men: the CEO of an Indore-based startup, A spoken English teacher, a rural fixer, a gau rakshak, a Mr Jharkand among others. Over three years, Poonam tries to figure out what drives these young men, what they like and dislike and what they want.
What emerges are stories about jobs or rather the lack of them.
The unemployment rate in India has doubled between July 2017 and April 2018, whereas the number of jobs in the country in the last financial year 2017-18 also fell to 406 million from 406.7 million in the previous year, data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy shows. Incidentally, job creation is also one of the stated goals of the Modi government, which came to power in 2014 with a promise to create 10 million new jobs, a goal it is about to miss, risking a popular backlash in the 2019 general election.
Dreamers is as much about false hopes and perseverance as it is about the limitations. It paints a portrait of the people whom the state is letting down. These people know that the system is rigged against them, so have come to accept and work with it in innovative ways. The story of how Richa Singh became the first woman Student Union President of Allahabad University since independence filled me up with the same sort of pride that Jullia Gillard’s 2012 speech on misogyny did. But Richa Singh had worked with odds against her and then used the gains to join the system: after her stint as president, she was inducted to mainstream politics on the Samajwadi party ticket. This is the only story centred around women in the entire book, and it makes you wonder why Poonam would exclude perspectives of an entire gender save one.
Women are not entirely missing from the narrative–Poonam’s own identity as a woman is often a factor in her discussions with her subjects. But they also crop up in the way that Poonam’s subjects view women. The gau rakshak provides examples of what a woman should not be. The local fixer has clear demands about the kind of girl he’ll marry. There is a debate in a spoken-English class on ‘arranged vs love marriage’. But what isn’t reflected in Poonam’s book is that a worsening demographic dividend is going to leave a shortage of women, particularly in the states she has covered. A combination of restrictive policy and preference for a male heir is the main reason that these states have a low sex ratio, and they will soon have to reap what they have sown. This means that more of these men will spend their lives without the institution of marriage–and unwillingly so.
India and China are two countries that are coming to grips with their demographic dividend. Both countries had pushed for restricting birthrates in their population. One of the negative externalities of this policy is that men outnumber women by 70 million in China and India. In China, this has led to importing of brides from neighbouring countries like Cambodia and Vietnam. In Indian states which have a lower sex ratio of women, rampant sexual harassment of women is on the rise.
If I had one point of contention, it is that Dreamers cannot speak for all Indians. As different states have had different political and economic experiences, I remain unsure if these narratives can be extended to States in Southern or the Eastern India. While Poonam’s narrative is engaging, it also contains her own value-judgements, which are quite apparent. While this caters to her urban, financially well-off audience, it also risks patronizing her subjects.
Dreamers, at the end of the day, is a revelatory text. It is evocatively written and has inspiring stories about the millennials you don’t see. Their lives at some point ascend to the political sphere and they all have strong visions for the nation. Its strongest case is providing an insight into what young Indians really want: jobs and fame.