The SceneThe Alibaba Restaurant, a popular, family-owned Turkish restaurant in Midtown East Manhattan, near the UN headquarters.
Afshin: Turkish tea
Somini: Turkish tea
When I arrive a few minutes early at our appointed meeting spot, the Pennylane Coffee shop near the UN, it looks like familiar terrain: The hipster-cum-professional coffee and tea joint, all wood and high ceilings, with organic baked goods on display and yoghurt drinks touting their probiotic content. A yoghurt drink costs me $8. It is that kind of place.
It seems pleasant enough, though, oddly, I feel a sense of relief when I learn they close at 6.30pm, meaning we need to find another spot. I think the non-descript Chinese food joint next door will suit us fine, but Sengupta guides us to a nearby restaurant, Alibaba, and I’m glad she does.
“I’m not a serious tea drinker,” Sengupta says as we settle into our seats after a bored-looking woman with a vaguely Balkans accent offers us a place near the window. But, for me, the tea hits the spot. It is served the traditional Turkish way, in a tulip-shaped glass, the crimson red colour a fine representation of the black tea with a hint of cardamom that is loved across Turkey, the Caucasus, and the Iranian plateau.
Sengupta apologises for being slightly harried. “[US Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson is coming to the UN tomorrow, to talk North Korea,” she says. She covers the UN beat now, after a career that also included covering war zones in West Africa and Iraq, winning the prestigious George Polk press award for her coverage of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, and other war-torn areas in West Africa.
She has settled back into life in the US with her daughter, who spent her early years in India. “I returned to the US shortly after the [2008-09] financial crisis,” she says as she sips tea, “and I was struck by the fact that so many mothers thought their children’s lives would not be better than theirs. This was the opposite in India, where there was more optimism.”
But the India that Sengupta paints cannot be reduced to a single thread of optimism or pessimism. She casts an unflinching but empathetic gaze on the Indians she meets, telling their stories, and, in the process, creating a mosaic of a diverse and eclectic country that can never be essentialised.
We start with her memories of Calcutta.
The ConversationLeaving Calcutta
I had a lovely childhood in Calcutta. I was the first grandchild on my father’s side and mother’s side, so I had the full attention of my grandparents. My father was a state civil servant, a labour inspector, who would inspect factories in West Bengal, and my mother was a high school maths teacher, so we were part of a small, urban middle class. We were unusual in that we did not live with our extended family. We had our own place. It was a one-bedroom apartment for the three of us but it had a little front porch and we had a piano, and I remember the piano teacher coming once a week to give me lessons. I went to a Montessori school for pre-school, and then a girls school for 1st and 2nd grade.
“We left just months after 'the Emergency' was declared in the summer of 1975 when, for the first time in [the post-independence] history of India, democracy came to a grinding halt.”
We left just months after 'the Emergency' was declared in the summer of 1975 when, for the first time in [the post-independence] history of India, democracy came to a grinding halt. But it wasn’t politics that prompted their decision to leave. I think it was everyday frustrations, not privations. We were not deprived people at all, but I think my parents had a sense that perhaps there was something else out in the world and my parents were ready to go out there and have a whirl.
I think they thought about going back one day. I remember they left these green glass dessert custard cups and my mother’s saris in a cabinet in my grandmother’s house, and I never lost touch with India as we would always go back every few summers. It didn’t necessarily feel like home, but I was always familiar.
“I found my own path, sort of stumbled across it, but when I landed in a newsroom, I knew I was home.”
I didn’t know anyone growing up who was a journalist. My parents didn’t know anyone who was in the US news business. I found my own path, sort of stumbled across it, but when I landed in a newsroom, I knew I was home.
I did my undergraduate [degree] at Berkeley and didn’t quite know what I was going to do; I did a little bit of this and that, and someone suggested I try an internship programme at the Los Angeles Times and I was like a fish in water, and I knew that was my tribe. That’s who I felt I wanted to grow up to be.
“It was a very challenging assignment, because anyone who has kind of been a first, as a woman, as a person of colour, there is a great deal of pressure we all face to show that we can do the job and do the job well.”
‘Where is The New York Times bureau chief?’
(Editor’s note: In 2005, Sengupta became the first person of Indian descent to take over The New York Times New Delhi bureau. This, coupled with her gender, made her a pioneer.)
It was a very challenging assignment, because anyone who has kind of been a first, as a woman, as a person of colour, there is a great deal of pressure we all face to show that we can do the job and do the job well. And, so, I was working all of the time and did not want to give anyone a reason to say that I could not do the job. I know what it feels like for many of my subjects in the book to cut a hole in the fence and walk through it. To make your own way to the other side. That’s how it felt for me.
I remember occasionally walking into a government official’s office and I had an appointment to see him – usually a him – and he would sort of look around and above me and ask: ‘Where is The New York Times bureau chief?’ And I would say (she chuckles): ‘I’m all you’ve got.’
“Putting people to work today is an enormous challenge.”
‘Every month, a million Indians turn 18.’
India is the youngest country in the world. More than half of its 1.3bn people are under the age of 34. The population has this tremendous youth bulge. That’s a great asset, but it is also a huge challenge to create jobs for so many people who are coming into the labour force. To give you one example of the colossal challenge, every month, a million Indians turn 18. Not just this year and next year, but from now until 2030. Putting people to work today is an enormous challenge.
China and South-east Asian countries experienced a youth bulge a generation ago but the manufacturing sector looked a little bit different then. Putting people to work is an enormous challenge; educating those young people and making them ready for the global economy. Getting public health and just basic health and sanitation right. These are enormous challenges.
Sources of aspiration
Aspiration comes from that fundamental fact that in the population today there is a tremendous bulge of young people. Is it because of very high fertility rates? No, they have gone down very sharply. In my grandmother’s time, Indian women were having an average of six children each. Today, they are having fewer than three. So, the growth rate of the population has plummeted tremendously since independence.
“We are also at a time – 25 years into the opening of the Indian economy – that has unleashed all kinds of expectations.”
It is also true that people are living longer, but we are at this unique moment in India’s history that there is this very large mid-section of working-age people.
We are also at a time – 25 years into the opening of the Indian economy – that has unleashed all kinds of expectations.
Aspiration is also a byproduct of 70 years of democracy, which is fundamental. It’s not just that the economy is not closed anymore. For 70 years, the Indian republic promised equality before the eyes of the law, so for a tremendously hierarchical, stratified society, people on the bottom have been told you are in the eyes of the law equal to those at the top of the pecking order. Of course, in real life, it’s a different matter but I think the aspiration meme that has infected India’s ideal of itself is a result of these three things: Democracy and a remarkable constitution that promises the idea of equality, an economy that has opened up to the world, and this tremendous youth bulge.
Uneven playing field
These young people that I write about really do want to escape their past and that is the subject of my book, the way in which they try to shape their own destiny and all that stands in their way.
“The story of young India today is the story of aspiration and all that stands in its way.”
There is that hope and many quickly learn that they are not going to escape their lot because there is no level playing field, and there are social norms that keep people down. The story of young India today is the story of aspiration and all that stands in its way.
I tell the story of a young woman who is the eldest of six children. She is treated something like a beast of burden. Her family owns a pressing stand, and this young woman thinks she can get out of her circumstances by going to school and doing well. Her father, as it happens, finds a school that teaches English and so she has kind of won the lottery because she has access to an English-speaking school. She is tremendously ambitious. She goes to school, she helps her mother, she takes care of her siblings, and she really wants to be a police officer. When she is 16, her ambition is to be a police officer because she sees the rampant violence against women around her and she wants to serve her country and she thinks she can do it best by being a cop and, in fact, there are jobs available because city police stations in India are looking for female police officers.
But her ambition comes crashing against her father’s idea of what is proper for a woman. Her father is in a way her champion because he wants her to do well in school … but also knows that he has to get her married off by a certain age. He is very wary of her talking back, wary of the autonomy she is displaying from time to time. So she must douse her own ambitions constantly, and she must rewrite her own aspirations and her dreams because of the social pressures that she faces as a girl.
“India has consistently over the course of several decades showed tremendous optimism for the future.”
I returned to the US after the financial crisis and one thing that struck me is the contrast between how many American mothers did not necessarily think their children’s lives would be better than theirs. India has consistently over the course of several decades showed tremendous optimism for the future. I can’t give you a great reason for why that is. It is not just a result of the opening of the economy, but poverty rates have continuously fallen in India. It still remains the largest concentration of poor people anywhere in the world and way too many Indians are just on the edge of life. There is a destitution that is very stark. Yes, poverty persists and it’s a real problem and India has had a really difficult time addressing the poorest of the poor.
“Beware of drawing any generalisations of India.”
Why India matters
India will call out the facile in anyone. Beware of drawing any generalisations of India. It would be folly to predict where India is headed, but, having said that, I do know that for the West, India is increasingly important and there is a very simple reason why: It is soon going to be the most populous country in the world. It is due to overtake China by 2022 as the most populous country. It is already the youngest country in the world. The world is demographically very lopsided. The richer global North is aging very quickly, with somewhat the exception of the US because we have immigrants coming in and replenishing the population with young people. Europe, Japan, even China, are aging, while you’ve got this country of 1.3bn with an enormous youth bulge.
'That should matter to us for all kinds of reasons'
Let’s look at migration. Indians are already the largest diaspora in the world, one that is sure to grow. Climate change: How India handles climate change will be extremely important. How India curbs poverty, creates jobs in this increasingly automated economy, will be very, very important, and how it handles such a fractious, stratified democracy will be a lesson for others.
“Part of the reason I love to be a reporter is that I can constantly be an itinerant and step into other people’s lives.”
I have been an itinerant all of my life, and I have had an insider-outsider perspective my whole life. I came to the US when I was eight and then I went back to India and lived there for a while, not definitely as an Indian, but as an outsider, and then I came back to the US a few years ago with my daughter, who was then kind of an immigrant like I was. Part of the reason I love to be a reporter is that I can constantly be an itinerant and step into other people’s lives.
I’m kind of a nosy person and I like this incredible gift we have as a journalists to step into other people’s shoes and ask them what it is like to be them. I think of it sometimes as the other me. What if I were born into another person’s shoes, another woman’s womb? In reporting in India that feeling is most stark, as I would often ask myself the question as I was reporting: Who might I have been had my family not left? I can’t tell you for sure if my life would have been better or worse but it was constantly a question.
“These are the lives of Indians. They happen to be voices that are not often heard.”
'These are Indians, too'
I certainly heard from readers who did not like what they considered to be negative stories about India but I don’t see them as negative or positive stories; I say to them: These are Indians, too. The villager living amid an insurgency caught between Maoist guerrillas and state forces, or the daughter of this press-walla who must negotiate how far she can go with her parents: There is nothing negative or positive about these lives. These are the lives of Indians. They happen to be voices that are not often heard. I have a feeling of empathy and sympathy for these voices that are not heard and people whose stories are not told, and, especially when they are girls, it is very important to tell their stories.