Literary Animal: Reading India, Part I

Literary Animal: Reading India, Part I

Over the past several years, there has been a considerable amount of writing about modern(izing) India. From different angles, writers are witnessing and documenting a subcontinent undergoing significant shifts. The New York Times recently launched their first country specific blog, India Ink. At Brighter Green, we’ve been most interested in the social and environmental issues that are emerging with a changing country, a changing diet, and a changing climate. Our recent paper Veg or Non-Veg? India at the Crossroads, and our videos on India’s chicken and dairy industries delve into this further. In this blog series, we hope to highlight writings on India and where they intersect with our work with respect to sustainability, equity, and rights, particularly in the context of food security and climate change.

Part I: Red Sorghum and ‘F&B’

In his recent book, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, Siddhartha Deb examines the growing inequity that has paralleled India’s economic growth. Deb notes:

“Even as the number of millionaires and billionaires has increased, followed by the aspirers from the middle classes, the poor have seen either little or no improvement at all…In 2004-5, the last year for which data was available, the total number of people in India consuming less than 20 rupees (or 50 cents) a day was 836 million’or 77 per cent of the population.”

Brighter Green’s policy paper also acknowledges this disparity:

“Even though the expansion of India’s middle class has encouraged Indian and multinational enterprises to cater to their aspirations through an expanded array of consumer goods, luxury housing, shopping malls, and even fast-food outlets, poverty, low levels of human development, and hunger remain widespread.”

In his piece for the Boston Review, “Feast and Famine: India Is Growing, But Indians Are Still Starving,” Deb further explores this issue. While The Beautiful and the Damned is not exclusively focused on India’s changing diet, we do get a glimpse of the consequences. There is a chapter on red sorghum farmers, which has all the attributes of a thrilling crime story revolving around price fixing, debt, and violence. In this context, Deb compares red sorghum to a “a very cheap kind of cocaine.” Only near the end of the chapter, does he ask “‘What is red sorghum for?’ … ‘Can People eat it?'” And the response:

“‘No, no,’ the people around me cried out. ‘It’s for the bhains, cattle and for chicken.’…’It makes them fat, makes them produce more milk, more eggs, more meat, so that people in the cities can eat them and get bigger.'”

The final chapter of Deb’s book focuses on a woman he calls “Esther” who works in ‘F&B’, the growing Food and Business industry. Deb provides a view of the shopping malls and chain restaurants emerging in India. Deb meets Esther in a McDonalds in Delhi. “The menu had no beef, and mutton had been squeezed in as a replacement for the Mahaburger.” Esther, like many of the women working in this industry, had migrated to Delhi from the northeast looking for work. These economic opportunities for women in F&B have come with risks. A lawyer shares with Deb the types of harassment these women face. Deb writes:

“The harassment moved easily along the bottom half of the class ladder, targeting semi-literate women who worked as maidservants as well as the more educated ones with jobs at restaurants…It was the sudden explosion of malls and restaurants that had created jobs like the ones at Pizza Hut where men and women worked together; it had drawn thousands of women from the north-east, pried for their English and their lighter skin it had also stoked the confused desires of men from deeply patriarchal cultures.”

Through a series of profiles, Deb unearths some of the complexities arising from wealth and globalization in the New India.

To read the other posts in this blog series, Literary Animal: Reading India, click here.