‘The End of Karma,’ by Somini Sengupta

‘The End of Karma,’ by Somini Sengupta

In “The End of Karma,” Somini Sengupta delivers a portentous warning that echoes Ambedkar’s, updated for the present. “The End of Karma” shifts in and out of three modes of narrative. The weakest involves Sengupta’s recollections of a childhood in India and North America, as well as her decision, during the stint in New Delhi, to adopt a baby girl. Her interest in India’s youth, she suggests, was quickened by this entry into her life by her daughter, a bona fide member of these restless generations, a unit of India’s demographic dividend. But much of this feels tenuous, the sort of material an editor commonly asks for, reproaching a writer because her manuscript is Not Personal Enough. The book’s second mode is expository — summations of news, history and statistics, which Sengupta delivers in cool, swift language. Two pages about Laloo Prasad Yadav, a powerful politician in the state of Bihar, are a marvel of economy, laying bare his background, his machinery of caste politics, his wrecking of Bihar, and his folksy charisma.

In November 1949, India had been independent for slightly more than two years, and through that duration, a drafting committee labored to devise a constitution for the new nation. The work was nearly finished, but critics grumbled about how long it had taken; one pundit thought the panel ought to have been called the “drifting committee.” B. R. Ambedkar, the Columbia-educated lawyer heading the group, defended his colleagues. Their task was difficult. The constitution incorporated 395 articles and 2,473 amendments, a density that reflected India’s complications — its iniquities of caste, its poverty, its various languages and faiths. India already had political democracy (one vote per citizen), but the constitution also needed to foster social democracy. “How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?” Ambedkar said in a speech. “We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment, or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political ­democracy.”

The lives of India’s poor and its lowest castes have improved in many ways, but the country remains riddled with inequality; in fact, over the last 35 years the gulf between the wealthiest and the most impoverished has widened.

A quarter of India’s 1.25 billion people are younger than 15; every month, until 2030, nearly a million Indians will turn 18, raring for more education and employment prospects. The size and energy of such a work force is a nation’s dream — the celebrated “demographic dividend.” But the state’s failure to supply these young people with schools, universities and jobs, and to help them climb into prosperity, will tug India into perilous waters, Sengupta writes. “In the coming years, India can thrive because of its young. Or it can implode. Or both. There’s little time left.”

Sengupta, a reporter for The New York Times, served as the newspaper’s New Delhi bureau chief from 2005 to 2009. She had first left India 30 years earlier, when her father decided, in the teeth of a nationwide crackdown on civil liberties, to move the family to Canada and thence to the United States. Now, returning to a transformed nation — its economy in bloom, its cities abuzz — she sensed a fresh impatience of aspiration. Sengupta refers to the Hindu notion of karma, a preordained destiny based on the virtues and sins of previous lives, a psychic past that is impossible to escape. The invocation is loose. She avoids making the unwise argument that Hindu fatalism had, in earlier years, persuaded Indians to be resigned to their hardscrabble times. It is only that, right now, “the demands of India’s young are pushing India to break free of its past. They are no longer willing to put up with their lot.”

In the book’s most vibrant sections, Sengupta profiles seven young Indians, shadowing some of them over years. All grew up in poor or lower-middle-class homes — the socioeconomic brackets that hold a majority of India’s populace — and their lives illustrate the ways in which the state is failing its youth.

A young woman named Rakhi from one of West Bengal’s numerous underdeveloped villages joins a Maoist insurgency after her family slides suddenly into penury. She can list the people she has killed: “Each leaves a vivid memory,” Sengupta writes. “The time of day, the season of the year, the name of the victim.” Near Mumbai, the police, provoked by a right-wing mob, arrest two girls who complained, on Facebook, that the city had come to a grinding halt just to accommodate a politician’s funeral cortege. In Gurgaon, a 17-year-old named Varsha thirsts for more education, so that she can become a cop. Her father, who drives an auto rickshaw, has to be cajoled out of his reluctance: Schools cost money and pull his daughter too far out of the orbit of their world. “He loves her, but he also sabotages her. . . . She keeps pushing the bounds, and he has to figure out how far to let her go.”

Sengupta’s finest profile is of Anupam Kumar. In Patna, Bihar’s capital, Anupam grew up in a tiny brick house with a corrugated tin roof; pigs prospected in a trash dump next door. His father, like Varsha’s, drove an auto rickshaw. His mother, recognizing brightness in Anupam, scoured the neighborhood for affordable private schools and tuition classes, short-circuiting the abysmal, erratic government schools. “The latest survey results, from 2014, showed that most Indian children in Class 5 are functionally illiterate,” Sengupta writes. “More than half cannot subtract.”

Anupam studied hard, entered the most competitive engineering school in the country, lost his way there, switched colleges, then got an M.B.A. and began working for India’s equivalent of the Securities and Exchange Commission. “Anupam is no Horatio Alger. His country is not a country of Horatio Algers,” Sengupta notes carefully. His story gains its potency by hinting at the reserves of talent and intelligence within India, but also by revealing how close India is coming to squandering it all, content to watch only the prodigious few burst free of the gravitational field of their past.

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