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How Young Indians Are Changing Their World
There are 600 million Indians under the age of 25.
Can they usher in a new future for humanity?
Snigdha Poonam is both skeptical and honest in her masterful debut:
Who Should Read “Dreamers”? And Why?
Dreamers is for everyone who wants to learn the reality of being a young Indian man.
And it is also about people who are interested in how India’s millennials can contribute to a better future for all humans.
About Snigdha Poonam
Snigdha Poonam is an Indian journalist.
A long-time writer for the Hindustan Times, Poonam has also contributed articles to The Guardian, The New York Times, and Granta.
Her article “Lady Singham’s Mission Against Love” was runner-up in the Bodley Head / FT Essay Prize in 2015.
Dreamers is her debut book.
“Dreamers PDF Summary”
Reminiscent of Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, Snigdha Poonam’s debut, Dreamers, is both a well-timed and massively important study of Indian youth – for reasons stated in full in the “Some Stats Beforehand” chapter of our summary below.
In short, regardless of what you think, chances are that what happens in India at the present moment would inevitably shape the future of the whole world – Poonam explicitly states that: “the world’s future depends on young Indians meeting their aspirations” – and Dreamers is a collection of seven case studies which show both the bright and the dark side of India’s youth.
It is a book about dreamers and realists, about wide-eyed secularists and close-minded cow-protectors, about liberals and conservatives – all of them embracing unprecedented liberty in all forms and manners; and it is a masterpiece of “long form” journalism.
Some Stats Beforehand
“More than half of India’s population is under the age of twenty-five,” writes Poonam in the first chapter of Dreamers. “is the largest number of young people of any country on earth.”
In numbers, this amounts to about 600 million people, twice the size of the USA, making India’s twenty-something the biggest generation in the history of human civilization.
“Never before have there been so many young people,” a 2014 UN report notes in an overwhelmed tone. “Never again is there likely to be such potential for economic and social progress. How we meet the needs and aspirations of young people will define our common future.”
Of course, in more manners than one, India’s 21st century looks not that different from Europe’s 15th; the result: if India doesn’t solve some of its big economic problems, then there’s a high chance that this generation will not only be “a scarred generation,” but also “a generation lost in space.”
And neither a single country – nor the world in its entirety – can (and, more importantly, should) afford so much wasted human potential!
India’s problems are known and are referred to as the 3E problems; in the case of its youth, this means that the majority of India’s 600 million people are either uneducated, unemployed, or unemployable.
In numbers: only 17% of India’s graduates (not even one-fifth of the whole bunch) are immediately employable. Meaning: India needs to immediately find a way to educate about 87% of its youth!
To put things in context, about 80% of Japan’s workforce and 96% of South Korea’s has undergone formal skills training.
The solution: at least 1,000 universities and nearly 50,000 colleges will need to be built in the next decade!
Need some more context: the USA has a total of 4,200 colleges!
Part I: ‘There Is No Plan B’
But not everything is as bleak: in the first three chapters of Dreamers, Singdha Poonam relates three success stories about three people who did find a way to make themselves a life and acquire a social position far beyond the constraints of their family backgrounds or education.
The people – Vinay Singhal, Moin Khan, and Pankaj Prasad – have found a way not only to use each and every one of the opportunities offered by this post-Bombay-plan and post-socialist unbound India, but they have also successfully created an environment in which many others thrive alongside them.
Their dreams know no limits, and their aspirations go way beyond India’s needs.
1: The Click-Baiter
In the first chapter, Poonam shares the story of WittyFeed, “one of the world’s fastest growing content farms.”
Nobody would blame you if this is the first time you ever hear its name, but, just to put things in context, WittyFeed is followed by over a billion people on Facebook, making BuzzFeed the only website of its kind visited by more people.
And it’s only a matter of time – according to WittyFeed’s founders, just a couple of years – before BuzzFeed is dethroned by this unknown company, run by 24-year-old Vinay Singhal and his two years younger brother Parveen in Indore.
Though they were born in a small village in Haryana, they dreamed big ever since their childhoods and hoped to change India for the better.
However, neither of their first two attempts to do that really came into fruition; but then, via Facebook, they realized that people were craving for “junk food for the brain” and they started a site under the maxim “it’s emotion that goes viral.”
Instead of informing India’s youth about the corruption and poverty problems in their country, they are now producing content under catchy titles such as “Why your best friend is your true love, just like Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher” and “This is what you need to know about Amanda – Justin Bieber’s new girlfriend” – and are winning over the world, especially the US.
In fact, over 80 percent of the 82 million people who visit the site monthly are foreigners, and half of them are Americans.
However, Vinay Singhal’s dreams are still as big as Elon Musk’s: “I want to lead humanity,” he says to Poonam. “Humanity is bigger than a country. I want to go outside the earth. I want humanity to be a multi-planetary existence. I want to lead Mars.”
2: The English Man
The second story of Dreamers introduces us to a less extravagant and more rounded character, probably the most subtle one in the whole book.
Born into a poor family – its income came from their two cows, and Moin spent most of his childhood delivering milk from one doorstep to another – Khan was hardly a man one could call educated even in his teenage years.
After all, unlike Vinay Singhal, he didn’t even have the chance to study, i.e., he was “not in a position to waste precious daylight in a classroom.”
So, he didn’t: he enrolled in a local college where he had to show up once a year: for the annual exam.
But then, after he grew tired of selling things (“firewood, toys, anything”), Khan developed an interest in getting a respectable job and some money.
And there was only one he could land without taking an entrance examination: at a call center, “the ultimate cheat’s guide to the white-collar world” for many Indians.
In case you didn’t know – but you do – India houses more than half of the world’s call center market.
Already by 2006, “when Moin Khan heard his first-ever burst of spoken English by making a customer service call on a borrowed cell phone,” over 2 million Indians were employed in the call center industry.
Moin Khan’s opportunity was a direct product of the market needs: he belongs to the first generation of non-English speakers trained to speak English as if they knew the language.
A decade later, Khan is a teacher of Spoken English at the American Academy.
Now at 27, he prepares other young men to follow in his footsteps; they all believe that, even though legacy of an Inglorious Empire, English is their way out of poverty and disrespect.
3: The Fixer
The third guy we meet in Snigdha Poonam’s Dreamers is Pankaj Prasad, a sort of a middleman between the “intimidating,” “inscrutable,” and “inaccessible” government (Sarkar) and the ordinary people of India.
“The gap between the regular Indian and Sarkar is widest at the very bottom,” writes Poonam, “where the government deals with the people least aware of what they are owed… The execution of welfare policies is… tedious; it requires a mastery of paperwork and the energy to run between government departments. Most ordinary people leave it to a fixer.”
Well, Pankaj Prasad is exactly that: a fixer, or “pyraveekar” in Urdu, the link between the poorest and the administration, someone who’s undeniably corrupt but essential as well.
“Rural fixers,” say Poonam, “have been around in India for as long as anyone has tried to govern the lives of villagers. It is, in fact, one of the most lucrative career options available in an Indian village.”
So, what’s the difference between the Generation Y youngsters and the pyraveekar of yore?
Well, unlike their predecessors, Prasad and those like him know that the government needs them more than they need the government.
That’s why, Prasad:
continues to be deeply embedded in the life of a village, but he’s increasingly interested in the affairs of the world. He knows not only how to exploit the utility of a person to his advantage, but also to do the same with technology—mobile phone, computer, internet. His job may currently be limited to dealing with block officials, but he foresees himself as a go-to man for anyone – entrepreneurs, banks, consumer companies – eyeing the disposable income of Indian villages. When he measures his success, it’s not by the standards set by his predecessor, but those of the men the world considers successful.
Part II: ‘I Am Ready for a Fight’
Let’s face it: as it stands, India is not a success story; if it had been, it would have been a superpower, the third one in addition to USA and China, if not the one even these two countries look up to.
However, India is still a country where for every success story such as the three in Part I, there’s a frustrated one, such as these in Part II, and an unsuccessful one – such as the two in Part III.
4: The Angry Young Men
In “The Angry Young Men,” Poonam introduces us to a range of Hindu nationalists and Hindutva extremists, poetically referred to as saffron terrorists by many newspaper outlets.
However, there’s absolutely nothing poetic about the things they are interested in: whether they are members of the Cow Protection Army or merely self-proclaimed saviors, these men think they have figured out the right way for a human being to live his/her life and are interested into demonstrating this to anyone who has wandered off.
The gau rakshaks – aka, the Cow Protection soldiers – are “the most feared men in India” right now; they live out Hollywood movies driving cars with guns in their hands, and waging a holy war against the murderers of holy animals.
The gilded torso of a cow bordered by AK-47s and a pair of swords.
Ever since the election of Narendra Modi’s BJP in 2014, there has been a severe rise in cow-protection violence in India; in fact, just during the last few years, at least 30 people have been lynched (most of them Muslims) and around 125 have been injured by gau rakshas.
Arjun Kumar is not one of them, but that doesn’t stop him from thinking that he’s here on Earth to introduce some holy order in the grand scheme of things.
A member of the militant Bajrang Dal, he is one of many young Hinduists roaming India who hates unmarried couples so much that he spends Valentine’s Day chasing them with an iron rod:
His first instinct when he sees them around in public – in parks, shopping malls, fast-food joints—is to go flying at them with his iron rod. He isn’t allowed to do that every day, so he looks forward to Valentine’s Day for the rest of the year. It’s when the boys of the Bajrang Dal get a free pass to do with young lovers as they please. It’s the only day of the year when the world takes notice of them: Reporters follow them around and the police stand ready to control the damage caused. The boys plan their action days in advance, watching the movement of young couples and assigning stake-out positions.
Sometimes, it gets even worse: activists of Bajrang Dal have been known to force unmarried couples to tie rakhis or apply sindors against their will, thus, essentially forcing them to marry.
5: The Angry Young Woman
Notice the singular in the title: there are many angry young men in the previous chapter, but Snigdha Poonam has opted for a single angry young woman here.
Her name is Richa Singh, the only heroine of Dreamers.
Becoming a president of the Allahabad University Students’ Union.
Well, that’s not really something, you’d think!
However, as Poonam states, this is “one of the most important elections in Uttar Pradesh,” comparable to “the one to the assembly in Lucknow or to the Parliament in Delhi.”
“The election to the students’ union of Allahabad University,” Poonam goes on, “doesn’t just decide which student party gets to call the shots in the campus – and by extension the city – but is also known as the most reliable indicator of wider political currents.”
But even then – it seems as if nothing special.
And yet it is: never, in the history of Allahabad University, has a woman been elected to the Students’ Union, let alone becoming its president.
Well, read the previous chapter yet again: guys like Arjun Kumar (or the unmentioned Vikas Thakur or Sachin Ahuja) have a vision of what a lady is supposed to do and look like, and, these are not
However, Richa Singh decided to take on the upper-caste Hindutva extremists and the patriarchy of the University – and won.
And as the president, she resisted the ABVP and two years before he became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Singh managed to stop Yogi Adityanath from entering the campus of Allahabad University.
You go, girl!
Part III: ‘Nothing Is What It Looks Like’
Sometimes things are not as great as they seem at first sight: the last part of Poonam’s book tells two stories which reveal the dark interior beneath the shiny surface.
6: The Star
In “The Star,” Poonam introduces us to Azhar Khan – but not the one you know as Mobley from Mr. Robot.
Nope: this Azhar Khan still dreams of becoming someone as famous as the first one.
And at the age of 21, after winning the first “Mr. Jharkhand” pageant, it must have seemed to Azhar that his dreams are not unrealistic: if not a Hollywood darling, he was destined to become a Bollywood star.
Like his role model John Abraham, Azhar Khan planned to start with modeling and use this as a springboard to a film career.
And for a while, he was the king of the world: he won a prize, took part in a few modelling sessions, and was wanted by some important people; he even had a beautiful girlfriend for a week or two.
But then everything went downhill.
After learning that he had won a prize (the inevitable price of being famous, ha?), some people started asking him to pay out his debt to them, which Khan had amassed because of a few failed business ventures (selling shirts and running a fast-food restaurant) from the time before he became a local TV star.
To make matters worse, suddenly his brother lost his job, so Azhar was stuck with working to pay off this debt; eventually, he had to apply for a loan so that he could set up an enterprise to earn the necessary money.
In the end, Azhar Khan had no option but to run away to Mumbai and find support there from his now-few Facebook followers.
7: The Scammer
“The Scammer” is Snigdha Poonam at her investigative best: to understand what’s happening on the other side of India’s booming call center industry, she went undercover as a job aspirant, interviewing four times for a single job without even knowing what she would be selling if she ever got in.
And the things she found out?
As widely suspected and even more widely known, some of these call centers weren’t call centers at all, but double-dealing and extortion schemes committing various kinds of fraud against naïve American citizens.
The worst kind of way to earn money.
But, in the India of today, sometimes it’s either that or absolute poverty.
In the “Epilogue,” Snigdha Poonam informs us where the people mentioned in the seven chapters of her book are now and what this means in relation to India’s present and its future.
And, in a way, we realize that she has already written out the conclusion of Dreamers in the first chapter of the book:
This is the most desperate generation of Indians since Independence—86 per cent of them have been found to feel ‘anxious’ about their future—but also the one most bent on world domination. No matter how poorly placed they find themselves now, they make up the world’s largest ever cohort of like-minded young people, and they see absolutely no reason why the world shouldn’t run by their rules. The consequences for the rest of us, inside and outside India, of young India’s determination, won’t just be economic. The idea that only they can help themselves will lead this generation of Indians to redefine everything according to their perspective: work, success, morality. It will change our world in ways we can’t yet imagine.
Key Lessons from “Dreamers”
1. India’s Generation Y, the Biggest Generation in History
2. The 3E Problems: India and Its Young People
3. The Future of the World Depends on the Young Indians of Today
India’s Generation Y, the Biggest Generation in History
Over half of India’s population is under the age of 25.
Meaning: there are 600 million young Indians treading the Earth in this very moment, making India’s Generation Y the biggest generation in all of human history.
And they are either destined for greatness or utter failure.
The 3E Problems: India and Its Young People
India’s Generation Y has been dubbed “scarred generation” by the International Labor Organization.
Due to India’s economic problems, about 87% of the young Indians are either uneducated, unemployed, or unemployable.
For comparison, in Japan and South Korea it is the other way around: no more than one-fifth of Japan’s population and merely 4% of South Korea’s workforce isn’t highly skilled.
The Future of the World Depends on the Young Indians of Today
Even though it is “a pipe dream at this point,” Snigdha Poonam believes that “the world’s future depends on young Indians meeting their aspirations.”
The sheer number of them reveals the magnitude of their potential.
However, that very number is the problem: in the next decade, India will need to build 1000 universities and at least 50,000 colleges to educate about 100 million people.
And that’s something that’s never been done.
Unfortunately, as an Economist review states, “If young Indians really are changing the world, it may not be for the better.”
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“Dreamers Quotes”The world’s future depends on young Indians meeting their aspirations, butit’s a pipe dream at this point. Click To Tweet At the moment, fewer than 17 per cent of India’s graduates are immediately employable. Click To Tweet Only 2.3 per cent of the Indian workforce has undergone formal skill training (compared to 80 per cent in Japan and 96 per cent in South Korea). Click To Tweet The majority of India’s youth bulge still lives in its backwaters. The provincial masses make up the heart of modern India, but one rarely hears about them. Click To Tweet Young Indians are using their imagination to create options—economic, political, cultural—in the unlikeliest of spaces. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
“Diligently reported and crisply written,” writes Pankaj Mishra, the author of Age of Anger, “Dreamers is an eye-opening guide to India’s troubling present – and future. No recent book has so astutely charted the treacherous Indian gap between extravagant illusion and grim reality.”
We feel the same: “wise, timely and, alas, deeply troubling,” (Financial Times), Dreamers is a masterpiece of long form journalism, and covers one of the most timely and important subjects at the moment.
Regardless of whether you’re Indian or not.