Book Review

Dreamers by Snigdha Poonam

Dreamers by Snigdha-Poonam

“With more than half of India under the age of twenty-five, the country is set to have the youngest population in the world by 2021. But India’s millennials are nothing like their counterparts in the West”.

As an Indian in my forties, today’s India baffles me – it is not the politics (that’s always confusing) but what drives it? When I was growing up, things were simple, I was excited by Rakesh Sharma going in space – I and my schoolmates dreamed of an India that will be a superpower in space missions. Our school textbooks were still resonating with Nehru’s Panchsheel, Patriotism & Victory over Pakistan in the wars we had fought with them, the ill effects of illiteracy and population. The to-do list was already written for us by wise men, it was simple and a future that was assured. Education was the “only” ticket to everything good that’s going to happen in our lives. Our parents advice to us was straightforward, you study well, you will be happy forever – the more you study the more success you will get. But today’s India doesn’t resemble anything like that.

To understand what motivates India in the present, you need to start looking at the people who matter the most – the youth of this country. And a good starting point for that will be this book – Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World by Snigdha Poonam. Exploring these young Indians will also help you to understand the forces that brought victory to the BJP and Narendra Modi in many of the recent elections across the country.

In a connected world in which American tech giants are said to control everything that our youngsters hear, consume, and even think, you will assume you understand India’s youth, if so, you are wrong! Snigdha Poonam, an International Journalist living in New Delhi, shows us how different India’s youth really are, in this deeply researched book. Poonam dispels the conventional stereotyping of the youth living in India’s towns and villages – she argues in the 21st century India it is not the tradition and puranic values that define them but by their personal economic success. In other words, it is a materialistic world out there too – after all, we all are living in a global village aren’t we?

Over the course of last few years, her job has taken the author to parts of India that national media rarely covers and if we are living in any of the metros even our social graph largely ignores. Her travel takes her to Indore (Madhya Pradesh), Ranchi (Jharkhand), Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh), Meerut (Uttar Pradesh) and so on.

Her first stop is on how a company called WittyFeed in Indore is deciding what Americans read for the day. The company hand-crafts headlines like “Why your best friend is your true love, just like Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher” and “Fifteen times Donald Trump was trolled hilariously” that are viewed millions of times every day. These are not to be discounted as click-baits – though in the strict sense they are – the young writers of WittyFeed are not casually throwing these, they get meticulously analysed, deliberated and decided based on the same “Data” that VCs of the world are pouring money on. The company is hugely profitable, living expenses in Indore are much lower than say Bengaluru, for many a job at WittyFeed is a sure path for monetary success. Surprisingly, they are not hiring the best and the best of Indian engineers – they hire only if it is your first job, you have poor education and only if you can answer the question – who are you? In short, WittyFeed is a successful Buzzfeed clone, an Indian model, one that was built by Vinay Singhal, his brother and their friend, all in their mid-20s. And Vinay Singhal came from a humble background but is dream is to change India, change the world and enter politics!

Next stop is Ranchi where we see RJ Shanky, whose Josh Factory is a local radio broadcast that’s a sensation there. He too offers Poonam on his ideas on how to fix the country, he wants to run the country like a company!

For young Indians, English is not a mere language, it is an aspiration, it is a key that opens economic successes for them. Capitalizing this need are the millions of English language tutoring institutes that exists across the length and breadth of the country. We get to go to one of them, located in Lalpur Road of Ranchi run by one called Moin Khan. For a mere sum of ₹ 1800, he can teach you Basic Communication, Personality Development and how to succeed in Interviews. You will be mistaken if you thought Moin Khan to be an English Pundit – in fact, he is not even a graduate and he hadn’t even heard a word in English spoken till he was seventeen and was still selling balloons in his village market. Moin Khan starts his journey with English not by paying fancy fees for a class in a metro, but by paying ₹ 350 to a local coaching centre, convincing the owner for a steep discount of ₹150 from the normal fee. Now, Moin Khan who is twenty-seven years old is an authority on the subject in Ranchi and is a successful entrepreneur running houseful batches. Moin Khan maintains a Facebook page, where he regularly posts his pearls of wisdom and has thousands of followers who hang to every word he has to say there.

Poonam, then traces the roots of similar English coaching in the region – leading her to the American Academy of Spoken English started in 1991 in Meerut by Vikram P.Lamba, a reject of Indian Army due to his poor English. At the end of the chapter, she raises a valid question – is it possible for an Indian to love both the English, a foreign language, and the motherland? Indian youth aspire to learn English, but also feel it is a language that was used to enslave their forefathers, a language that was forced on them after the ancient system of gurukuls where destroyed and Lord Macaulay’s colonial education system was implemented.

The next character we see is the most interesting, Pankaj Prasad, a fixer in southern Jharkhand. If you are wondering who is a fixer, read on. For most Indians, especially villagers, ‘Sarkar’ or the Government is an intimidating thing. You will fail interacting directly, instead you need to go through a “fixer” or “Pyraveekar” in Hindi – derived from the old Urdu word Pyravi, it is the act of furthering one’s case before a government authority, and the fixer is mostly a man like Pankaj who is skilled in persistence, lobbying, liaison, and most importantly the building and peddling of influence. Starting in 2011 with one table, a PC and a Printer, serving as a photoshop and a photocopier, the arrival of Government schemes like MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), AADHAAR (Unique Identity) and Jan Dhan bank account have changed his fortunes. Within a few years, Pankaj living in a small village has been able to buy a Bolero SUV costing ₹8 Lakhs, which directly raises his value in the marriage market to over ₹ 6 Lakhs.

The author’s journeys across three years involved as she says to mostly listening to young men ranting, about how seventy years of freedom has been wasted, blaming Gandhi and Nehru on not developing the economic and military prowess of the country, instead focusing on abstract ideals of secularism, democracy and social inclusion. These people believe that foreign invaders from the Mughals to the British are the one’s who destroyed everything Indian like in the statement floating on the Internet that says “India was the largest economy in the world until the seventeenth century A.D.”. This sentiment is captured by the next person Poonam interviews and tags along with – he is Vikas Thakur, at twenty-nine years old in 2014 he was the convener of the BJP’s first social media war room in Jharkhand. Vikas is urbane, English-speaking, upwardly mobile and intellectually curious. Like millions of Indians, Vikas too was inspired by Swami Vivekananda and his “Arise! Awake! And stop not until the goal is reached” slogan. Vikas joins ABVP (Student wing of the RSS) during his college days. During that time he was active in preventing Hindu Girls in falling in love with Muslim boys. Lacking Vikas in sophistication, but believing in the same world view, and more forceful was Arjun Kumar, a member of Cow Protection Army in the state of Haryana, who go on night patrols and violent raids in preventing cows headed for the slaughter house, a practice normally associated with Muslim traders. Arjun’s colleague include Suryavanshi who currently manages six Facebook pages and 100 WhatsApp groups, all for political branding.

Next Poonam takes us through an election season in Allahabad University, where we see Richa Singh, a girl, fighting and winning the students union election (held on 29 Sep 2015) against all odds. Winning the Student’s President seat is a key to dispensing influence and contracts in the University and the area surrounding it. We see an election fought with the blessings of major political parties (Congress, BJP, Communist Party, Samajwadi and so on) in the state through their proxies, their student wings. After her victory, Richa Singh claims media attention by preventing Yogi Adityanath, who went on to become the Chief Minister of the state, from entering the University for a scheduled event. After her tenure, Richa becomes a full-fledged politician joining the Samajwadi party, casting a shadow on her “independent” victory.

Next in the list of our young Indians is Mohammed Azhar from Ranchi, on how he goes on to win Mr Jharkhand title yet unable to find any meaningful modeling job and is now struggling in Mumbai for a living. When Poonam first meets Azhar he was confident, changing the shape of his hair and its size faster than it takes for most people to comb theirs. We then see Tabrez Khan who is running an event management company called “Ramp” organizing fashion shows and charging the participants for their two minutes of glory under the spot light. Tabrez says this – “Marketing, I slowly realized, was a risky business. You never got paid on time and sometimes not at all”. Then, we meet the duplicate “Salman Khan” – Shan Ghosh, who goes to events dressed up as the famous Bollywood star and how he has built a career and a following in social media.

Lastly, we see Poonam and her colleague pretending to fall prey for an elusive call centre job with a pay of ₹15000-25000 per month, after a day of training costing ₹1000. Researching this, leads her to Pawan Poojary who was a whistle-blower for a call centre scam that was cheating Americans of their money over phone claiming to be representing the IRS (Tax Department of the USA).

“In Delhi, you can’t become an important man without pulling some kind of fraud”, says Sunil Kumar, a scam call centre recruiter.

Young Indians are living their own dreams, not everyone is successful yet but they are not living their parents’ dreams, they don’t care a damn about their leaders’ promises, not believing in what their gurus preach and certainly not what their teachers told them. Overall, “Dreamers” published by Penguin India is a must read for anyone who wants to create a future for them in India.


Also published on Medium.

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