Back in 2003, when I lived in a small, liberal California town near Berkeley, the prospect of George W. Bush’s re-election filled my neighbors and me with palpable dread. At our annual block party some of us facetiously repeated things he’d said, Bushisms like “I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.” What we really meant was that we could not coexist with Bush, peacefully or otherwise.
By then I’d spent a few years in America, and the possibility of returning home, to India, flooded me with an exit-clause relief my American neighbors at the block party might only dream about.
Soon, my sister also insisted that I return; our parents, she said, were not well. I’d published a vaguely successful first novel, and I could work on the second in the country where I’d grown up. So I returned to Mumbai.
Things had certainly changed back home, but not always for the better. For one, my sister had neglected to tell me that where there was once a seasonal pond, at the back of our family house, there now stood a giant parking lot. All the same, I warmed to glimmers of our public progress.
At great expense, a massive bridge — now commonly known as the Sea Link — was being constructed to join the midtown enclave of Bandra to the southern tip of the city. This was not a one-off. Across the country, roads were being built. Villages were getting access to water and power. We Indians were now one of the largest consumers of cellphones in the world. And the Right to Information Act was being used to make government officials accountable for their actions (and inactions).
In spite of all the rumors of shoddy infrastructure and insidious corruption, with my boots on the ground, it appeared to me a healthy, hopeful time to return to India.
I was in my 20s at the time, and I thought a lot about what it meant to be a “young person in India.” I was a part of our largest demographic (over half of the nation is under age 25). This fact was billed as something attractive by the liberal press. Although later I came to think more deeply about the other things we also associate with youth — bad credit, for instance, and binge drinking — for the moment, inexperience and healthy knees formed an exciting counterpoint to the traditional Indian veneration of old age and senility (our incumbent prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is now past 80). Youth, the new malls told me, was king. To fit in, I even bought a pair of jogging track pants. I almost bought a hoodie, too.
I’m in my 30s now — still young, yet old enough to be fabulously bitter. When I go out now, the talk at the bars is about which Maldivian island is best for diving. People in Mumbai say they want to get out of the “slum capital of the universe.” They want to go deep-sea diving instead. I’m told I’m part of India’s privileged elite, the powerful, unconscionable ruling class that says in public, “Actually, get four bottles of that red.” It’s a little like being stuck in a Bret Easton Ellis novel, where the protagonist orders chai after a night spent on Special K. With this lot of new friends I sometimes cruise down the now-completed Sea Link, all the while listening to the Icelandic rock band Sigur Ros, which my friends claim “speaks to their pain.”
Though rarely used, the full name of the bridge is the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link, so called for the former prime minister, who was assassinated in 1991. A few weeks ago, Rajiv Gandhi’s son, Rahul, publicly criticized legislation supported by his party, the Indian National Congress, that would allow legislators convicted of crimes to seek public office. Regretting his public outburst, the former hope for change in India said that his mother, Sonia, had pointed out that his choice of words to denounce the ordinance — “complete nonsense” — was strong. “But I am young,” he countered (he is already in his 40s, although in Indian politics, 81 is when you get your driving permit).
I’d have liked to ask Mr. Gandhi what that means: “I am young.” I myself no longer have a clear idea. Perhaps it means being so disillusioned with life in modern India that, quite frankly, never mind the Congress’s election promise of eradicating poverty, I’d like him to buy me a Scotch and soda now. It may mean being so angry at the larger failure of the system, the physical failure — the potholed roads, the power shutdowns — that one’s anger can become utterly mute from its weight. And it may also mean being so bored by the failure of cultural originality — the absence of anything beyond Bollywood, and the fact that most of our contemporary art is shamelessly derivative of Western work — that the inertia of imagination can knock you out cold.
If Mr. Gandhi believes youth is given to impetuosity, I’d say to him that it is also marked by restlessness: Young people drift. Sometimes the forces in a country, be it corruption in the political classes or bad grammar in the national press, provoke a revolution. And sometimes, when it appears the revolution will exhaust itself before ever beginning, the computer servers in India for Getmeoutofhere.com will crash.
Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi is the author of the novels The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay and The Last Song of Dusk.