New York Times correspondent Somini Sengupta’s new nonfiction book, “The End of Karma,” chronicles the many challenges facing India’s young people. Sengupta speaks Thursday, March 24, at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.
Those who are accustomed to thinking of India as an ancient land might be surprised to learn that the country is actually quite young. The median age is 26, a “youth bulge,” as it is often called. In 2020, India, home to 1.2 billion people, is poised to become the youngest country in the world. A demographic advantage? Not so, when one considers the prospect of providing job opportunities for the 10 million who enter the workforce every year.
Despite many obstacles, India’s young generation displays an extraordinary amount of talent, energy and determination. Their journey — personal chronicles of ordinary men and women narrated with empathy — is at the center of “The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s Young” (W.W. Norton, 256 pp., $26.95), a nonfiction title by Somini Sengupta, George Polk Award-winning New York Times correspondent. The word “karma” in the title means destiny, what the young would like to push past and perhaps rewrite.
The story starts in 1975 when Sengupta is 8 years old. Her young parents decide to leave Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) and migrate to the United States to seek a better life. Eventually, she pursues a career in journalism.
The author of “The End of Karma” will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 24, at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, at 1400 E. Prospect St., in Seattle’s Volunteer Park. Co-sponsored by the Gardner Center for Asian Art & Ideas and the Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
Three decades later, Sengupta returns to India as the New Delhi bureau chief for The New York Times. It is then that she encounters the generation born since India’s economic reforms of the 1990s. She also adopts a daughter, which sharpens her focus on the young. “From their generation could come an invention that changes the way we live, or a song that blows our minds, or a yearning, a hunger, to which we all have to pay attention.”
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We meet Anupam, the son of an auto-rickshaw driver, who has “fire in the belly,” and studies obsessively to gain entrance in a top engineering institute in the country; Mani, who hails from a village in the jungles and takes a job in the city as a maid, thereby improving her life immeasurably; and Varsha, a high-school student and daughter of a laundryman, who hopes to become a police officer, the embodiment of her “dreams of escape.” Ambition is the common theme here, particularly the thwarted ambition so common in India, which, according to Sengupta, can be as “ruinous as lava.”
Do these individual stories adequately portray India? Sengupta answers this hypothetical question in the following manner: “No single story can reflect the story of a billion Indians — not even seven stories.”
In this gorgeously written, memoir cum sociopolitical study of democratic India, a “love letter” to her adopted daughter, Sengupta views the political impact as well. India’s youth, speaking with a common voice, can attain victories of historic proportions. Such was the case with the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Hungry, impatient, young voters, who wanted to achieve progress much quicker, supported him. Modi’s embrace of social media, already popular with the young, was believed to have helped him win the election.
Toward the end of the book, Sengupta lays out the enormous challenges India faces. But she remains optimistic that the young generation will continue to push the country toward more meaningful progress.