Somini Sengupta, a George Polk Award–winning journalist, covers the United Nations for The New York Times, for which she was previously the bureau chief in Dakar and New Delhi. She was born in Calcutta but left, with her family, in 1975 for Canada. Eventually Somini and her family settled in California. Today she lives in Brooklyn.
Fun facts: She lives to feast. Best baba ghanoush with rose water: Monrovia, in the last days of the Liberian civil war. Best shrimp curry: Tamil Tiger guesthouse in Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka. Many other bests if you ask.
The book is about three generations of Indians:
- My father’s generation; a generation born just before India’s independence in August 1947 (at midnight). They are what are known as “midnight’s children.”
- My generation; had I grown up in India, I would have come of age in the 1980s, before the economy opened up to the world.
- Most importantly, the generation that my daughter belongs to and that’s the generation that came of age after 1991. I call this generation “noonday’s children.” Noonday because they are a red-hot, demanding, impatient generation, and they are bringing to light to some of the sharpest fault lines in Indian democracy.
FPI: What compelled you to write this book?
I’m a daughter of India and my daughter is a daughter of India. I wanted to better understand the country that made us, and I figured that she could one day ask what I still sometimes ask: Who might I have been?
The one thing that I found during my time as the New York Times bureau chief in India is aspiration. Indians were born with one destiny and they are trying to make another. In different ways they are trying to overcome their past. That’s why it’s called The End of Karma.
Take Anupam, whom I profile in the first chapter of the book. Anupam, the son of an auto rickshaw driver from a tough neighborhood in a tough city, called Patna, in northern India. He did not want to be an auto-rickshaw driver. He wanted to get into the network of super competitive universities called the Indian Institutes of Technology. Considering Anupam’s circumstances this appeared to be an improbable goal. First, schools in Patna hardly functioned as schools. Teachers rarely showed up to class. And so, Anupam dropped out in the 4th grade. He taught himself. He pored over textbooks for hours every day at home. He did not do this alone. His mother was his champion. She found tutors for him. She made sure that had the time and space to study. I watched as she, using a bamboo fan, fanned him as he read, so that flies and mosquitoes would not distract him. Anupam ultimately made it. He cut a hole in the fence and crawled right through. But in getting to the other side of the fence, he also began to discover how his country failed children like him. To me, Anupam’s story is the story of an exceptionally determined and smart child, and equally the story of an exceptionally determined mother.
FPI: What are some of the changes and challenges that India faces?
To start with, the staggering challenge of meeting the enormously high expectations of the young. India must create somewhere between 10 and 17 million jobs a year, and this at a time when it must grow its economy faster than it grows its carbon footprint. That’s a staggering challenge.
Related, it’s hard to imagine how India can fulfill its economic potential without offering equality of opportunity for its young. By that I mean addressing the basic health needs of its young (30 percent of Indian children remain clinically malnourished and millions are not vaccinated against childhood diseases); fixing schools so that children who come to school learn the basics (millions don’t); and ensuring that young people, both women and men, get the skills they need to work in the global economy. All these are political challenges for a democracy, at a time when young people are fast becoming the bulk of the electorate. And third, there’s a civil liberties challenge. The one aspect that I look at closely is free speech, especially in the digital age. India has to balance the right to free speech, enshrined in the constitution, with the need to prevent unrest if that speech (or an artwork, or a Facebook post) so offends a religious or ethnic group that it leads to violence. I look at this question through the story of a young woman named Rinu, who was arrested in 2012 for a Facebook post.
FPI: Could you talk about India and its place in the world?
India is a country of tremendous importance for a variety of reasons. It is the 9th largest economy in the world. It is poised to be come, according to some projections within six years, the most populous country in the world. Most importantly, India is already the youngest country in the world. Indians between the ages of 15-34 exceed 420 million. That is more than the combined populations of the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.
The impact that India’s young will have on the rest of us is enormous – from the global economy to climate change to political stability to global health pandemics. As a friend of mine says, “We have seen the future. And it is India.”
FPI: The title, The End of Karma, can you talk about that?
The End of Karma reflects the impulse of India’s young to overcome their past and create a new destiny for themselves and their country. The generation I write about is full of high aspirations – and hope. But it is still a place where those aspirations are thwarted – by state and society, and thwarted aspirations can produce great fury.
FPI: What can we learn from your observation and experience in India?
Demography can be destiny. That’s true for Germany and Japan, which are aging very very fast. It’s true for China, which is lurching towards a demographic cliff because of its one-child policy. It’s true for virtually every country in the Middle East, where the high expectations of a youth have collided with authoritarian or corrupt rulers (or both). And its certainly true for India, which is poised to reach its demographic sweet spot very soon – where there’s a bulge of young, working age people, with fewer children and young people to care for.
If there is one lesson I learned in telling these stories is is that it is important to pay attention to our young, and especially our daughters. Indian women and girls are today very visibly pushing their country to live up to the promise of freedom, made 70 years ago at independence. Women are no longer staying quiet about sexual assault, for instance, whether that’s in the home or workplace. They are longer staying in the shadows. That’s a profound shift.