Journalist Snigdha Poonam’s first book, Dreamers, is a timely and important study of aspiration in contemporary north India – of its fulfilment and its discontents. Her approach is reminiscent of Suketu Mehta’s in Maximum City – seven case studies, each focused on a single individual or small group, but intended to represent a particular aspect or manifestation of aspiration.

The ‘success stories’

In the first, Poonam profiles WittyFeed, an Indore-based “content farm” that hires young people whose only skill is hunger to create viral content for American Facebook users. WittyFeed makes no pretence to the second part of “clickbait journalism”, and it is run like a cult by Vinay Singhal, a 24-year old whose unironic ambition is to rule Mars, but whose entrepreneurial ingenuity and capacity for motivation are remarkable.

“The English Man” tells the more representative story of Moin Khan, who teaches spoken English at the Ranchi branch of the “American Academy”. For Khan and for his students, English is both a vehicle for social advancement and a source of glamour and self-respect. In part because Khan is a little older and more reflective than Poonam’s other subjects, he is the book’s most rounded and subtle character, a charismatic autodidact who both loves English and considers it a pernicious colonial imposition.

“The Fixer” turns to the Indian state, and to Pankaj Prasad, a particularly entrepreneurial example of the pyraveekar, the man who gets things done – the undeniably corrupt but often essential link between ordinary citizens and the administrative state.

These three chapters, which form the book’s opening section, are essentially success stories. In every case there are complications, and what these men call ambition, others might see as desperation. But Singhal, Khan and Prasad are all characters of unusual resourcefulness and industry. Each has made for himself a life and a social position far beyond the supposed constraints of education or family background, and many others have benefited from their success. And none of this would have been conceivable, much less plausible, before 1991.

The tragic dreams

But for these three cases, there are three others that expose what Pankaj Mishra, in the blurb for Dreamers, calls “the treacherous Indian gap between extravagant illusion and grim reality”.

Vinay Singhal and Moin Khan often express dreams that seem fantastical. But they never lose their grasp on the practical demands of incremental advancement. But Poonam encounters dreamers of the tragic sort as well: Azhar Khan, who wins the first “Mr Jharkhand” pageant and is convinced of his future as a Bollywood star, and Vikas Thakur, whose sense of historical purpose involves both a career as “MP or MLA” and as a philosopher studying how paranormal activity shapes the world.

In two chapters, the consequences of unfulfillable aspiration are terrifying. “The Scammer” is an exposé of entities that pose – including to new recruits – as “call centres”, but make their money committing various kinds of fraud and extortion against gullible Americans. In “The Angry Young Men”, Poonam gets to know a range of Hindutva extremists, from gau rakshaks who live out a Hollywood fantasy of guns and car chases, to Arjun Kumar, who wanders the parks of Meerut carrying an iron rod with which he terrorises young couples.

Dreamers does have a heroine, of sorts – Richa Singh, who took on the combined forces of upper-caste Hindutva and virulent patriarchy to become the first woman president of the Allahabad University student union. But the overall impression of the book’s second half is of social and moral collapse. Poonam’s dreamers, whether successful or frustrated, entrepreneur or thug, have an unshakable belief in their own impending tryst with destiny.

Shaky morality

While some profess a vague patriotism, they don’t believe in or care for anything but themselves. They want lives that are “uncommon”, “out of the ordinary”; to transcend their surroundings and have their triumphs recognised by their families and their peers. They are indifferent to the many others they may have to trample over on their way. A few see morality as relative, most don’t bother with it at all. All they see around them, from a broken education system to the scarcity of good jobs, is a society conspiring against the achievement of their dreams.

Each narrative is accompanied by shorter bits of context or analysis, placing these young men and women in the wider arcs of Indian history and society, and drawing from their lives generalisations about the predicament of India’s youth. In these moments Poonam’s hand is less assured. There are factual slips (Macaulay certainly did not “supervise” the syllabus of Allahabad University, which was founded three decades after his death) and dubious judgments (the entire corpus of Indian literature in English is dismissed as “big words, long sentences, literary pretension, heavy with Orientalism”).

There are, too, some curious omissions: we hear a lot about the cultural markers of Ranchi’s new prosperity, but very little about the political economy behind it. And Poonam’s generalisations make no allowance for those parts of India, such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where the gap between aspiration and prospects is narrower. Provincial Hindi-speaking India cannot stand for all of India, except by the arithmetic logic of majoritarianism.

A masterclass in journalism

But these are really quibbles that do little to diminish the book’s achievement, which is founded in reportorial skill of the highest class. Reporting is not, traditionally, a craft that is valued or rewarded in India. The insufficient space newspapers and magazines grant serious reporting has shrunk further in the face of adapting business models. Talented young reporters are supposed to “graduate” to jobs like columnist, editor, or novelist.

The craft behind Dreamers extends, at times, to physical courage. Throughout, it involves patience, intelligent curiosity, sympathy, and doggedness. To all these virtues Poonam adds one that is less often heralded but just as important; she knows what to leave out. “Long form” journalism can, too often, mean pieces padded out with every fact or quote the reporter gathered, with no discrimination between the telling and the irrelevant. The seven case studies here must have come out of countless others; the faultlessly tight narrative bears the mark of ruthless selection.

Dreamers joins a growing group of essential books on the changes in Indian politics and society after 1991. Vinay Sitapati’s Half-Lion is an account of how liberalisation was achieved politically; the edited volume Defying the Odds illustrates, through the lives of 21 Dalit entrepreneurs, the inspirational reality of social mobility. The characters we meet in Dreamers embody both the unprecedented aspiration enabled by liberalisation, and the consequences of our collective failure to enable its fulfilment.

Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World, Snigdha Poonam, Penguin Random House India.