North India's angry young men: Snigdha Poonam examines a generation's anxieties in her new book, Dreamers
In Dreamers, Snigdha Poonam chronicles the stories of young Indians, who have grown up with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — and the 'cultural values of their grandparents' | #FirstCulture
Upon reading Dreamers, Snigdha Poonam's splendid cultural study of a generation's appetite for ruthless ambitions and change, it's apparent that India's young men from the north are driven by a peculiar hunger. They chase fame, fortune, power and lofty dreams just like every other millennial but these small town youth are unlike their city counterparts. It's an unquenchable anger that sets them apart — anger that their country was spoilt by the Congress, anger that corruption was at its peak, anger over their lost izzat, anger over the lack of jobs… Enough anger to make them want to be famous, important and rich beyond their dreams. And while some of them are lucky enough to realise their dreams, some others are stuck in an illusion forever.
Poonam, who writes for Hindustan Times, travelled to India's towns and villages in the north, besides her own hometown of Ranchi, to find out what these young Indians wanted. "The idea was to [go to a small town] find out four or five people whose stories stood out and follow them for a year to see how close they get to their dreams. As I progressed with that brief, it became a larger project," she says. Initially, Poonam chose four people in and around Ranchi, but as she travelled to other places, it became 6-7 people in 3 or 4 locations, to whom she kept going back for anywhere between a year and three years.
South India and its millennial population feel like a glaring omission from the book, but Poonam says she chose north India for a reason — that it was "representative of the frustrations of this generation because it does more badly than south India; its level of education and employment is poorer. More logistically, the book was never meant to be a sequel to Butter Chicken in Ludhiana [Pankaj Mishra’s travelogue on small-town India]. I was doing the opposite thing; I wanted to limit the number of people and places," she says.
Among the people Poonam meets is Pankaj Prasad or 'The Fixer', an entrepreneurial young man in southern Jharkhand, who is a small-time lobbyist and liaison — an important link between the state administration and citizens — or rather a go-to man for villagers ready to pay him for sarkari services. Then there's the founder of WittyFeed or 'The Click-Baiter', a startup that thrives on American obsessions from Kim Kardashian and lip-sync battles to banal listicles on Katy Perry's weirdest faces. To match success stories, Dreamers also has a chapter on the disputers — the angry young men complaining about the future of this country and turning to various Hindu groups who tend to their anxiety. Like Vikas Thakur, with his funky tattoo and beach sandals, who wants to become a politician because he wanted to stand up for Hindus. Or 19-year-old Arjun Kumar who cannot wait for Valentine's Day year after year because it's the only day he can deal with couples the way he wants, with an iron rod.
Poonam also gifts us with a rare chapter on an angry young woman — Richa Singh, who fought the Allahabad University elections and won and moved on to mainstream politics. Just like the south Indians who are absent from this book, women too are very obviously missing. But it wasn't intentional, says Poonam. "I met young women too who had dreams, but when you talk to young men about their dreams, they're not just talking about their own dreams but also what they want for their country and what they want from the world." For many young women dreamers, "it was about changing their own lives and in some sense that itself was a huge leap for them to take and they weren't going to talk about how India should go back to becoming the glory of world civilisation. A lot of the anxiety about their place in India and India's place in the world was very manly," she says.
To round off, Poonam has the strugglers as well — men who dream big, plan elaborate and push hard but still remain at the lowest possible level, men like Mohammad Azhar who dream of becoming Bollywood superstars but instead get exploited.
The underbelly of Dreamers not just gives us a peek into toxic masculinity and anger, but also uncovers the appeal of religion, specifically Hinduism, to these men. What does it offer them in a way of appeasing anger or giving them something to move forward? According to Poonam, it offers them a basic sense of identity, honour, and masculinity. "When I spoke to these young men, they were not speaking about religion per se because I knew more about religion than they did and they didn't connect with any texts, they didn't have the most basic understanding of what they were fighting for, starting with cows," she says. And most of the angry men just ended up being Hindu. "I was looking for anger in general, but what I found was that the minorities — young Muslim and Dalit men — were busier looking ahead in terms of opportunities, whereas the Hindu men were looking at the past, at what they had lost, and wanted to restore the old order. Religion had very little meaning in their lives…"
Essentially, these men always saw a society that's constantly conspiring against them and their Hindu heritage. They also saw a leader in Narendra Modi — someone like them who'd made it, from tea vendor to Prime Minister — who promised them the India they wanted, whose politics aligned with theirs and whose rhetoric reeked of Hindu nationalism. Modi would transform their beloved India back to its glorious past, they believed. Poonam says that the growing young population she talked to were political in an ambitious, idealistic way in that that there should be smooth roads, no corruption, and trains running on time. "But there was a general hope in Narendra Modi and a lot of disappointment in how Congress had steered the country since independence. That is very common and a lot of that was borrowed perception," she says.
Poonam writes that less than 17 percent of India’s graduates are immediately employable and only 2.3 percent of the workforce has undergone formal skills training, which means that the country needs to educate about 100 million young people over the next 10 years, "a task never before undertaken in history". Yet these young Indians, who have grown up with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and "cultural values of their grandparents", are creating opportunities for themselves in various fields with the help of the ubiquitous internet. Facebook especially, Poonam says, is a tool through which young people are able to manage how other people see them. "The sense that they can manage their perception is very common among young people even in the villages. Even if you want to have the slightest of part to play in politics — and these are the people who are doing this at the block, tehsil level — Facebook and WhatsApp is where they like to do that and they're becoming really good and smart at it."
Perhaps this is how young Indians will change the world, one status at a time.
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