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.”