Reasons for focusing on India and its young are established from the get-go in Somini Sengupta’s “The End of Karma: Hope and Fury among India’s Young: That India is poised to be the youngest-ever country in the world, that its population is set to overtake that of China, and that its economic size and growth will only continue to increase. And it is the young – with their aspirations and achievements – who will determine whether the trajectory continues. Describing the young as “a tipping-point generation” (and as “noonday’s children”, a neat play on Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”), the writer said they are now demanding change in at least three important ways: “Genuine equality of opportunity, dignity for girls, and civil liberties”.
Invoking “karma” in its colloquial sense, she further referred to the demands of India’s young to “break free of the past”: “They are no longer willing to put up with their lot. They are also, profoundly, changing the destiny of their country”.
Interwoven with this exposition at the start is a brief narrative of Sengupta’s life as a NRI, or non-resident Indian, who moved to the United States at a young age. In the next seven chapters, the book then provides fascinating accounts of seven principal characters, whose stories are instructive and perhaps representative portraits of young Indians. And given the writer’s background in journalism, each story reads like a well-thought-out feature article, using the character and his or her history to tease out broader themes. Recurring themes include culture, caste, gender, and government or policy issues.
But each chapter – of each individual Indian character – also zooms in on a more specific theme which affect the young. The first chapter, on schooling and the quality of instruction and the education system. The second, on privilege and poverty, the social divide and inequalities, and the dynamics of gated communities (not unlike those in Singapore). The third, on insurgencies and the Maoist conflict. The fourth, on race and religion, politics and corruption, including an interesting account on the rise of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (in relation to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh organisation). The fifth, on free speech and the Internet. The sixth, on love and marriage, inter-caste and arranged marriages, and honour killings. And the seventh, on crimes against women, rape and sexual assault, and the growing aspirations of Indian girls and women.
A lot of ground is hence covered across these chapters, yet the transitions within each chapter from exposition to narrative were generally seamless. In this vein, “The End of Karma” – with its overview of Indian society, its dynamics, and the implications for its young – makes for an informative. A minor quibble would be that the substantive depth of each chapter does vary. I thought the first, second, and seventh stories had a lot more depth, and it felt like Sengupta had covered their lives over a longer period of time, and had spoken to more individuals in the lives of the three characters, creating deeper feelings of intimacy. Even so, there are few other negatives in this enjoyable read.