The Dreams of India’s Restless Generation

The Dreams of India’s Restless Generation

The Dreams of India’s Restless Generation

Snigdha Poonam’s Dreamers examines the ambitions of India’s youth.


In early August, a video surfaced of two twentysomething farmers in southern India performing the “Kiki challenge,” an Internet meme born from a song by the Canadian rapper Drake. Where their counterparts in other provinces of YouTube and Instagram danced alongside moving cars and on highways, Anil Geela and Pilli Tirupati strutted through a paddy field in the wake of an oxen-driven plow. Suburban Americans in culs-de-sac had nothing on these lungi-clad men sashaying in rice paddies. Their muddy gyrating not only reached regional and national TV but also made it to BBC broadcasts and won the Twitter endorsements of The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah and Billboard magazine.

The video went viral because it seemed incongruous, with its strains of Drake’s “In My Feelings” layered over a scene of ancient rural toil. But it wasn’t some missive from a remote universe. It shouldn’t be surprising that people in India’s hinterlands are not only connected to online trends but aspire to be part of them. The video’s director had tried in the past to post popular videos from his village. “Nothing clicked,” he complained to The New York Times, “and suddenly this one small video became the rage. My father was flummoxed and asked me, ‘Why did this click?’”

The currency of the “click” has real value even in parts of India where the electrical grid is threadbare and Internet access spotty. Thanks to the smartphone, young Indians—and there are many of them: Over half of India’s population of 1.2 billion people is under the age of 25—tend to have a frame of reference that transcends their physical contexts. “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,” writes the journalist Snigdha Poonam in Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing the World. “[Young Indians] see no connection between where they live and what they want from their lives.”

Poonam profiles several young men whose aspirations belie their circumstances and whose thirst for recognition seems at times all-consuming. They include Azhar Khan, an aspiring model, who still in his early 20s had already tried his hand at a dizzying range of jobs—from running a Chinese restaurant to selling hardware door-to-door to operating a shop that sold shirts—before he was encouraged by winning a provincial pageant to try his luck in Mumbai. There’s Pankaj Prasad, whose hustles including work as a fixer for local newspapers and as an intermediary for villagers seeking government services in the mineral-rich, insurgency-plagued state of Jharkhand, who has been on the make ever since he was a child selling calls on his cell phone to his neighbors in the village. There’s Vinay Singhal, the founder of WittyFeed, a website based in the second-tier city of Indore that rose to prominence a few years ago when its clickbait content regularly snared millions of American viewers with posts about Justin Bieber’s latest girlfriend or “Fifteen times Donald Trump was trolled hilariously.” Coming from a modest rural background, Singhal put no cap on his ambition. “I want to lead humanity,” he tells Poonam, before channeling Elon Musk. “Humanity is bigger than a country. I want to go outside the earth. I want humanity to be a multi-planetary existence. I want to lead Mars.”

Poonam’s subjects are all from smaller towns and villages strung across north India, where the country’s “youth bulge”—its preponderance of young people—is particularly acute. For over a decade, analysts have fretted about India’s “demographic dividend,” when a country’s working-age population outnumbers those dependent on them. In 2020, India will be the world’s youngest country, with an average age of 29. Sixty-four percent of the population will be of working age. Traditionally, a glut of eager workers has offered countries an opportunity for accelerated economic growth, as in South Korea and more recently in China. But in India, where over 40 percent of the country is still working in agriculture and only 2.3 percent of the workforce has formal skill training, the youth bulge is invoked with a palpable, anxious gulp. What can be done with all these aspirational, restless, connected young people?

Numbers in India are frequently overwhelming. One million Indians enter the job market every month. The country has to educate 100 million young people over the following decade, a figure made all the more staggering by its corollary: There will need to be 50,000 new colleges to teach all these students.

Even if both government and the private sector were able to expand the educational infrastructure quickly, there’s no guarantee that it would produce workers the economy can use. Recent studies suggest, for instance, that 94 percent of engineering graduates are not qualified to work, unable to write basic lines of code. In the bald terms of economists, many young Indians are often “undereducated” and “unemployable.”

More importantly still, it is unlikely that there will ever be enough jobs to soak up the growing ranks of workers. Earlier this year, the government opened 90,000 new positions in the railways, for which it received 25 million applicants. Two years earlier, 19,000 people, including several with MBAs, applied for 114 jobs as street sweepers. These are particular cases, but they’re indicative of a lopsided supply-and-demand ratio for jobs. The private sector cannot be relied on to make up the shortfall. Job growth in the business-process outsourcing industry (the much-caricatured world of the Indian call center) has slowed, dropping by close to 50 percent from 2016 to 2017. India’s hopes to follow in China’s footsteps as the workshop of the world are only hopes; despite a boom in the automobile sector, manufacturing still only accounts for about 17 percent of India’s economic output, the same proportion as when India began to open up its economy with free-market reforms in 1991. When it comes to the production of low-cost clothes and shoes, for instance, India finds itself losing out to competitors like Bangladesh and Vietnam. And with the looming specter of increased automation, it cannot expect to absorb its young people into a new mushrooming of factories.

Successive governments have struggled to get to grips with this reality, including the current ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His much-vaunted “Make in India” initiative to boost investment in manufacturing has had modest results, with manufacturing actually shrinking as a proportion of GDP and new project investment dropping. His deputy, the BJP president Amit Shah, admitted in 2017 that “it is impossible to provide employment through jobs in a country with more than a billion people.”

As Poonam writes in Dreamers, Shah’s admission was tantamount to telling youth: “We can’t deal with your dreams—but we are very happy to leave you in charge of them.” Some few young people will manage the astronomic leap from agricultural upbringings or small-town tinkering to white-collar professional-service industries, but most others will join India’s vast informal economy, scrounging and scrambling for work. Dreamers takes for granted that it’s already too late for millions upon millions of young people, that no economic miracle will scoop them up smoothly from poverty and obscurity. What interests Poonam is how they make do in the absence of an economy that works for them, the ways they try to make better or at least bigger lives for themselves.

In addition to the handful mentioned above, the figures that populate her book include an Internet scammer, a motivational speaker, an English tutor, a right-wing thug, a BJP social-media strategist, and a vigilante cow protector. They are almost all men (the lone outlier is Richa Singh, the first female student-union president of Allahabad University), a fact that Poonam chalks up to the relative scarcity of women in public in provincial northern India.

One of the more interesting characters in Dreamers is Moin Khan, an English-language coach in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand. Khan recognized early on that beyond religion, class, or caste in India, another barrier holds the ranks of the striving apart from the successful: knowledge of English. Having functional English opened the possibility of a range of service jobs; not having any English at all kept you in an invisible prison of inferiority. Khan grew up in a poor village, cobbled together the means to take an English-language class, and would go to imaginative lengths to practice the language, for instance by calling every day the toll-free number of the cell-phone service of his father’s mobile and babbling at the obliging call-center agents. A decade later, he has opened his own coaching enterprise in Ranchi. The aim of his coaching is not to teach his students the ins and outs of grammar, but to give them enough conversational skills and confidence to feel in possession of the language. Part of Khan’s ambition is to produce not just functional English speakers but people ready to succeed. Khan peppers his classes and his Facebook page with motivational candy floss like “How far you will go in life will depend on how far you can see” or “I don’t want to compete, I want to complete.”

It’s telling that “motivational speaking” is a recurring theme in the book. There exists a huge market for self-help books and videos in India, channeling the anxieties and aspirations of young people unsure of their place in the world. The prime minister, too, pointedly fills his speech with motivational aphorisms. Poonam lists some of Modi’s nuggets of wisdom: “The glass is full—half with water, half with air.” “The youth of this country can rule the world with a finger on the mouse.” “Dream to do something and not to become someone.” Modi’s garrulous ease in Hindi sets him apart from the era of Congress party rule, which has long been associated with the English-speaking ruling classes (in the interest of full disclosure, my father is the Congress party member of Parliament representing Thiruvananthapuram). As a compelling orator in Hindi, his victory in 2014 seemed to strike a blow against the secular elites, constituting a kind of return of the native.

Khan retains a fundamentally ambivalent relationship to the language that has given him a profession. He bemoans English’s arrival in the subcontinent with the British and how it limits the ambitions of so many Indians today. He laments that Indians seem convinced of the language’s superiority and are “embarrassed about everything Indian, our culture, our traditions.” But English still gives him joy, he tells Poonam. “When I speak English, my heart sings.”

Other dreamers have darker hearts. Take, for instance, the rather extreme case of the loveless Arjun Kumar, a member of a militant Hindu-nationalist youth group in Meerut in the state of Uttar Pradesh. He longs for Valentine’s Day every year, when he and his fellow hoodlums harass and attack couples. “It’s the only day of the year when people take notice of them: Reporters follow them around and police stand ready to control the damage caused,” Poonam writes. “The whole of Meerut is his battleground on Valentine’s Day and he a caped commander saving it from ruin.” His almost puritanical hatred for couples and public displays of affection smacks of the smoldering resentment of “incels” in the West, the young men who blame society for their own private alienation from sex. When pressed on what he gains from being involved in this kind of violence, Kumar shrugs. “People give you izzat,” he tells Poonam, a sense of reputation or prestige.

That quest for izzat appears again and again in the book. Sachin Ahuja, a gau rakshak or cow protector, beats up cow “traffickers” to “feel like a complete man.” “People listen to you,” he tells Poonam, “you don’t feel the lack of anything.” Poonam is sensitive to the deep insecurities beneath his and Kumar’s vitriol and that of the many “angry young men” she meets. “Kumar is not sure he will find a job he’d like or find a girl who’d like him. On an elemental level, he doesn’t know if he matters to the world.” He is “what think pieces explaining the Trump and Brexit verdicts term a loser of globalization, one of the millions of leftover youths whose anger is transforming the world.”

Many of these “losers of globalization” in Dreamers are broadly supportive of Modi and his government, despite its ongoing struggle to provide meaningful economic change. In the 2014 elections, the BJP swept much of the generally Hindi-speaking Gangetic plains in the north of the country, and it is this vast area—with its burgeoning youth population—that remains a core zone of support for the Hindu nationalist party. The toppled Congress party and its dynastic leadership under the Gandhi family were seen to represent an encrusted establishment of metropolitan elites, who sung the hymns of secularism to pander for minority votes. Much as Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party tapped into the cultural resentments of the Anatolian heartland of Turkey, the BJP knew how to appeal to the sentiments of the higher-caste Hindus in the region. Poonam describes the upper-caste Hindu political sensibility: “You wish everyone else would see what you see—that you are India and every blow to its ancient order has been a blow to your place in it.… Irrespective of whether they are rich or poor, young Hindu men I meet want the same things: economic growth over social justice, majoritarian democracy over liberal democracy, cultural nationalism over secularism.”

Poonam might have arrived at a somewhat different picture of this restless generation had she spent time in other parts of the country like the south, where the BJP is much less popular, and where religious communities live in considerably greater harmony. A country of India’s size is always more than its heartland.

But what she finds roiling young people will have echoes not just in other parts of India but also in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa where the demographic dividend is in full effect, and where creaking economies (not to mention the consequences of violent conflict and climate change) threaten to stymie the aspirations of generations. What animates many of the young men in Dreamers is something far more basic than ideology: “a rage against irrelevance.” When Poonam astutely parses the bluster of Kumar and Ahuja, she lands on a poignant truth. “They have enrolled themselves in the battle to protect Hindu identity, but what they are really fighting for is their shot at any identity at all.”

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