Siddhartha Deb grew up in a remote town in the northeastern hills of India and made his way to the United States via a fellowship at Columbia. Six years after leaving home, he returned as an undercover reporter for The Guardian, working at a call center in Delhi in 2004, a time when globalization was fast proceeding and Thomas L. Friedman declared the world flat. Deb's experience interviewing the call-center staff led him to undertake this book and travel throughout the subcontinent.
The Beautiful and the Damned examines India's many contradictions through various individual and extraordinary perspectives. With lyrical and commanding prose, Deb introduces the reader to an unforgettable group of Indians, including a Gatsby-like mogul in Delhi whose hobby is producing big-budget gangster films that no one sees; a wiry, dusty farmer named Gopeti whose village is plagued by suicides and was the epicenter of a riot; and a sad-eyed waitress named Esther who has set aside her dual degrees in biochemistry and botany to serve Coca-Cola to arms dealers at an upscale hotel called Shangri La.
Like no other writer, Deb humanizes the post-globalization experience―its advantages, failures, and absurdities. India is a country where you take a nap and someone has stolen your job, where you buy a BMW but still have to idle for cows crossing your path. A personal, narrative work of journalism and cultural analysis in the same vein as Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family and V. S. Naipaul's India series, The Beautiful and the Damned is an important and incisive new work.
The Beautiful and the Damned is a Publishers Weekly Best Nonfiction title for 2011.
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Siddhartha Deb, who teaches creative writing at the New School, is the author of two novels: The Point of Return, which was a 2003 New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and An Outline of the Republic. His reviews and journalism have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Guardian, Harper's Magazine, The Nation, New Statesman, n+1, and The Times Literary Supplement.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A phenomenally wealthy Indian who excites hostility and suspicion is an unusual creature, a fi sh that has managed to muddy the waters it swims in. The glow of admiration lighting up the rich and the successful disperses before it reaches him, hinting that things have gone wrong somewhere. It suggests that beneath the sleek coating of luxury, deep under the sheen of power, there is a failure barely sensed by the man who owns that failure along with his expensive accoutrements. This was Arindam Chaudhuri’s situation when I fi rst met him in 2007. He had achieved great wealth and prominence, partly by projecting an image of himself as wealthy and prominent. Yet somewhere along the way he had also created the opposite effect, which – in spite of his best efforts – had given him a reputation as a fraud, scamster and Johnny-come-lately.
We’ll come to the question of frauds and scams later, but it is indisputable that Arindam had arrived very quickly. It had taken him just about a decade to build his business empire, but because his rise was so swift and his empire so blurry, it was possible to be quite ignorant of his existence unless one were particularly sensitive to the tremors created by new wealth in India. Indeed, throughout the years of Arindam’s meteoric rise, I had been happily oblivious of him, although once I had heard of him, I began to see him everywhere: in the magazines his media division published, fl ashing their bright colours and inane headlines at me from little news-stands made out of bricks and plastic sheets; in buildings fronted by dark glass where I imagined earnest young men imbibing the ideas of leadership disseminated by Arindam; and on the tiny screen in front of me on a fl ight from Delhi to Chicago when the fi lm I had chosen for viewing turned out to have been produced by him. A Bombay gangster fi lm, shot on a low budget, with a cast of unknown, modestly paid actors and actresses: was it an accident that the fi lm was called Mithya? The word means ‘lies’.
Still, I suppose we choose our own entanglements, and when I look back at the time in Delhi that led up to my acquaintance with Arindam, I realize that my meeting with him was inevitable. It was my task that summer to fi nd a rich man as a subject, about the making and spending of money in India. In Delhi, there existed in plain sight some evidence of what such making and spending of money amounted to. I could see it in the new road sweeping from the airport through south Delhi, turning and twisting around offi ce complexes, billboards and a granite-and-glass shopping mall on the foothills of the Delhi Ridge that, when completed, would be the largest mall in Asia. Around this landscape and its promise of Delhi as another Dubai or Singapore, I could see the many not-rich people and aspiring-to-be rich people, masses of them, on foot and on twowheelers, packed into decrepit buses or squeezed into darting yellow-and-black auto-rickshaws, people quite inconsequential in relation to the world rising around and above them. The beggar children who performed somersaults at traffi c lights, the boys displaying menacing moustaches inked on to their faces, made it easy to tell who the rich were amid this swirling mass. The child acrobats focused their efforts at the Toyota Innova minivans and Mahindra Scorpio SUVs waiting at the crossing, their stunted bodies straining to reach up to the high windows.
I felt that such scenes contained all that could be said about the rich in India, and the people I took out to expensive lunches offered me little more than glosses on the above. Mittal, Ambani, Dabur, Swarovski crystals, gold-plated toilets, stud farms, nightclubs, private aircraft. They sounded boring, unlike Arindam, who seemed a little different, with images and contradictions swirling around him: ponytail, controversy, management guru, bloggers, business school, magazines, Bollywood movies.
‘I’ve spoken to the boss about you,’ Sutanu said. ‘But the boss said, “Why does he want to meet me?”’
Sutanu ran the media division in Arindam’s company. We met at Flames, an ‘Asian Resto-Bar’ up a steep fl ight of steps with a forlorn statue of Buddha tucked away in the corner, the view from the restaurant opening out to sanitary-goods stores, franchise eating outlets and large cars being squeezed into minuscule spaces by scruffy parking attendants. Sutanu was in his forties, a dark man with thick, clumpy hair parted to one side, a bushy moustache and glasses, his raffi sh 1960s air complemented by a bright-blue shirt and a red tie patterned with elephants. He was accompanied by Rahul, a studiouslooking young man in kurta and jeans who worked at one of the magazines published by the company. Although they couldn’t have been there long, their table gave an impression of a party that had been in progress through the morning and had peaked. It held two packs of Navy Cut cigarettes, a partly empty bottle of Kingfi sher beer and a battered smartphone with a black-and-white screen that rang out in insistent drumbeats throughout our conversation. ‘The boss is a great man, and sure, his story is interesting,’ Sutanu said. ‘The question is whether he’ll talk to you.’
From what Sutanu told me that afternoon, Arindam was very much a man of the times. He had started out in 1996 with a lone business school called the Indian Institute of Planning and Management. Founded by Arindam’s father, it had been – Sutanu said dismissively – a small, run-of-the-mill place located on the outskirts of Delhi. But Arindam had expanded it into nine branches in most of the major Indian cities, and he was now going international. He had an institute in Dubai, had tied up with a management school in Belgium with campuses in Brussels and Antwerp, was opening an institute in London by the end of the year, and would have another one in the United States, in an old factory building in Pennsylvania. And that was just the management institute. Arindam’s company, Planman, had a media division that included a newsweekly, The Sunday Indian, ‘perhaps the only magazine in the world with thirteen editions’. There were three business magazines, a software company, a consulting division that managed the ‘HR component of multinationals’, and a small outsourcing company. The outsourcing company was small only because it was new, but it already did the entire online content of the Guardian as well as the proofreading and copy-editing of the Daily Mail.
‘There’s also a fi lm division, and he’s produced a major Bollywood blockbuster,’ Sutanu said.
‘It was meant to be a blockbuster,’ Rahul said quietly. ‘But it fl opped.’
‘Yeah, yeah, no big deal,’ Sutanu said. ‘He’s on other blockbuster projects. He’s a man of ideas. So sometimes they fl op.’ He lit a cigarette and waved it around, the rings on his hand fl ashing. ‘What he’s doing, he’s using intellectual capital to make his money. But people don’t get that and because he’s been bad-mouthed so much, he’s become suspicious. He’s been burned by the media. You know, cynical hacks they are. They make up stories that he’s a fraud. A Johnny-come-lately. Everyone asks, “Yaar, but where does all that money come from?”’
There was a moment of silence as we contemplated this question.
‘They don’t ask these things of other businessmen,’ Sutanu continued. ‘That’s because when the mainstream media does these negative stories on him, just hatchet jobs you know, they’re serving the interests of the big industrialists. The industrialists don’t like him because our magazines have done critical stories on them. The government doesn’t like him and harasses him all the time. They say, “You can’t use the word ‘Indian’ in the name of your management school because we don’t recognize your school.” That it’s forbidden in the constitution to use “Indian” in the name of an educational institution unless it’s been approved by the government. Something like that. They send us a letter every six months about this. Then, the elite types are after him. The Doon School, St Stephen’s, Indian Institute of Management people. There were these bloggers – a Business Today journalist and a man who worked for IBM – who started writing silly stuff about him, saying that the institute doesn’t give every student a laptop as promised in the advertisements. You want to know how he makes money? It’s simple. There are two thousand students who pay seven lakhs1 each. The operating costs are low – you know how much teachers get paid in India. So the money gets spun off into other businesses.’
We ate hot and sour soup and drank more beer, our conversation widening out into discussions about careers, lives and the unforgiving city of Delhi. Rahul, who had been a television journalist, told us a story about covering the war in Iraq and being arrested by Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard while crossing over the border from Jordan.
When it was time to depart, I felt reluctant to break up the drunken afternoon bonhomie. Nevertheless, I asked, ‘When do I get to meet Arindam Chaudhuri?’
‘The good thing about the boss is that he’s a yes or no sort of person,’ Sutanu replied. ‘You’ll fi nd out in a couple of days whether he wants to meet you.’
The couple of days stretched into a week. Now that my interest in
Arindam had grown, it was hard to miss his presence. Every newspaper and magazine I came across carried a full-page advertisement for the management school, with Arindam’s photograph displayed prominently in the ads. It was the face of the new India caught in close-up view. His hair was swept back in a ponytail, dark and gleaming against a pale, smooth face, his designer glasses accentuating his youthfulness. He wore a blue suit in the picture, and his teeth were exposed in the kind of bright, white smile I associated with American businessmen and evangelists. But instead of looking directly at the reader, as businessmen and evangelists tend to do to assure people of their trustworthiness, Arindam was gazing at a distant horizon, as if along with the business he was promoting, there was some other elusive goal on his mind.
Beneath the picture, there was information about the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, with nine campuses in seven cities that encircled the Indian subcontinent and left vacant only a small stretch of unconquered territory in the east. There were few details about the programme or admission requirements, but there were many small, inviting photographs of the Delhi campus: a swimming pool, a computer lab, a library, a snooker table, Indian men in suits and a blonde woman. Around these pictures, in text that exploded into a fi reworks display of italics, exclamation marks and capital letters, were the perks given to students: ‘Free Study Tour to Europe etc. for 21 Days’, ‘World Placements’ and ‘Free Laptops for All’. Stitching these disparate elements together was a slogan. ‘Dare to Think Beyond the IIMs’, it said, referring to the elite, state-subsidized business schools, and managing to sound promising, admonishing and mysterious at the same time.
I kept pestering Sutanu, calling and text-messaging him. Then it was done, an appointment made, and I entered the wonderland to meet Arindam Chaudhuri, the man in the picture, the management guru, the media magnate, the business school entrepreneur, the fi lm producer, the owner of IT and outsourcing companies, to which we should add his claims of being a noted economist and author of the ‘all-time best-sellers’ The Great Indian Dream and Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch.
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