I was sitting with a young friend last evening at a Barista in Gurgaon. Being the day after Diwali, the malls were nearly empty—the great Indian consuming class was taking a break. As far as I could make out, the coffee shop was functioning with only one staffer.
In many ways, my friend (let’s call him Gaurav), in his mid-20s, represents that cliché—”New India”. He was born in a lower middle class family in an unauthorized colony in North Delhi (let’s call it Sudesh Nagar, or SN), and was the first (and perhaps the only one till date) from his neighbourhood to make it to an IIT. He has lived for the last 10 years in Mumbai (he went to IIT Bombay) and works in an investment bank. He has recently bought a big SUV and drove down to Delhi for Diwali.
Sudesh Nagar’s original settlers were migrants from Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. In the early 1990s, the colony was given legal status. The real estate people moved in, and within years, one had a New Sudesh Nagar and an Old Sudesh Nagar. The streets were broader in New SN, the drains didn’t overflow, and a police vehicle was permanently parked there (the police had never bothered with Old SN). The residents of New SN had big cars, their sons had funky motorcycles and their daughters were sexier.
Every evening, it became a ritual for the teenage boys of Old Sudesh Nagar to cross the unmarked border into New SN, hang around and watch the New SN girls and the boys who came on their two-wheelers and took them to fast-food joints. The men in Old SN had jobs in the local mandi, worked in the nearby factories, or ran small shops. The men in New SN owned larger shops and larger factories.
Then, by Supreme Court order, all the factories had to shut down, since they were in a residential area. Old SN inhabitants never really recovered from that economic shock, while the New SN factory owners shifted their factories some miles down the adjoining highway.
Gaurav’s family still lives in Old SN. “Every time I come, I see so much change,” he told me. “We talk about India’s demographic dividend. In Old SN, I see the demographics, but I can’t see the dividends.”
“I’ve spent three days there now,” he said. “And believe me, every two hours, there’s a fight on the street outside.” Fight? Between whom? For what? “Most of the boys I grew up with—they either didn’t finish college or got some useless degree,” he said. “So they are all doing something on their own—small shop, minor trading business. I suppose they are now old enough to figure out that they’ll never achieve whatever ambitions they had in life. There’s a lot of energy inside them, but with no positive outlet, it turns into resentment and anger. They need something, any excuse to get it out of their system. The fight could be about something very trivial—why did you park your scooter in front of my shop? Or—I heard you’re undercutting me on that deal? Or some imagined insult—so you think you’re a big man now, just because you earn a bit more than me? And they invariably come to blows.”
“But what about these huge job markets that have opened up in the services sector—BPO, organized retail?” I asked, the man who lives in a condo in a place called Cyber City, and a stone’s throw from the heaviest mall-multiplex concentration in India.
“Not for these guys,” said Gaurav. “Also, they have this thing about not working for anyone. They must have something of their own. Even if they get a job, they quit in two-three years to be an entrepreneur. Trouble is, the dice are loaded against them. Banks won’t give them loans, they try to take shortcuts and get cheated by the big guys, and then there’s always this anger against their parents, their peers who’ve done better than them, against whatever they see as the system.” And this is not unique to Old SN, Gaurav said. He has friends in corporate India, who are from small towns all over north India. “These fights I’m talking about, every two hours, are also happening in Meerut, in Jhansi, in Gorakhpur.”
“Politicians who keep talking about the power of youth don’t see the fault lines inside this thing they call ‘young India’,” said Gaurav. “Young India is getting more and more stratified. They keep seeing this gap between aspiration and reality growing larger. And most of the time, they can’t get their hands on people from the higher strata, so they fight among themselves.” It’s growing dark by now. We watch all the neon signs lighting up all around us, hiding the fact that New Gurgaon has no street lamps, none at all. “In our generation, everything’s got defined so much by money,” Gaurav muses. “It’s like everything we are can be measured in rupees. As a result, a lot of stuff’s happening at the ground level, at a sort of molecular level of society, but no one is paying attention.”
That’s scary, I say. Yes, it is, he smiles, but the look in his eyes confirms the fear. We pay our bill. My home in Cyber City is just round the corner, but Gaurav has a very long drive ahead, back to Old SN.
Sandipan Deb is is a senior journalist and editor who is interested in puzzles of all forms.