Gilded Age India

Gilded Age India

The Beautiful and the Damned:
A Portrait of the New India

by Siddhartha Deb
Faber and Faber, 2011, 272 pp.

In referring to his book as “a portrait of the New India,” Siddhartha Deb has opted to engage in a debate about recent Indian history. After more than forty years of protectionism and centralized planning, the country has, in the past two decades, privatized and deregulated large sectors of its economy. International trade has been prioritized, often at the expense of domestic industry. Urban development schemes, frequently the result of partnerships between business and government, have been implemented without much debate.

There can be little doubt that India has succeeded in creating a dynamic and growing market economy. But economic success has had its costs, and writers and civil-society activists have begun to call into question the wealth disparities and rural displacement that have accompanied liberalization. In five self-contained narratives, Deb, a novelist and journalist, skillfully delineates the displacements that have come with privatization and deregulation. His contribution lies in his insistence that this story be told, no matter what one thinks of India’s metamorphosis. Deb wants to remind those thriving under this new order of the underbelly of their success.

The Beautiful and the Damned begins with a quote from Mark Twain about the Gilded Age and is followed by a chapter entitled “The Great Gatsby: A Rich Man in India,” which allows Deb to compare the India of 2011 with the United States of Twain and, later, Fitzgerald. Deb’s Gatsby is Arindam Chaudhuri, a writer, entrepreneur, and management guru—a man who has founded consulting firms, invested in Bollywood films, and started his own health and development charity. Deb writes that Chaudhuri has “achieved great wealth and prominence, partly by projecting an image of himself as wealthy and prominent,” which is not the only time that Chaudhuri calls to mind Donald Trump rather than Jay Gatsby. Trump is hardly a Gatsby-esque character; nor, in Deb’s telling, is Chaudhuri. Both lack Gatsby’s pathos and romanticism, thus making the comparison a strained one. Chaudhuri’s unconventional charisma can be found on display at one of his lectures to young businesspeople:

[It] was the juxtaposition of this homeliness with his wealth, success and glamour that created a hold over the leadership aspirants in the audience. By themselves, the Bentley Continental, the ponytail, and the designer glasses, or the familiar way Arindam had of dropping names like Harvard, McKinsey and Lee Iacocca, would have made him much too remote. But the glamour was irresistible when combined with his middlebrow characteristics. He was one of the audience, even if he represented the final stage in the evolution of the petite bourgeoisie.

What interests Deb is that, unlike Gatsby, Chaudhur...