Journalist Snigdha Poonam’s Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World is a startling report on the young people of Modi’s India. Their exposure to possibilities is unprecedented, but not their access to these possibilities. What happens when young people without too many resources dream of bettering their lives? The first character we encounter in Dreamers starts off wanting to be the richest person in his village, followed by wanting to become the richest person in the country. The outcome of such grandiose dreams is varied. The means used to achieve these ends range from legal businesses to scams. Poonam talked to Scroll.in about touring the country, the surprises that awaited her during her research, the journalists she admires, and a lot more. Excerpts from the interview:
How did you decide Dreamers would be the title? It’s such a redemptive term – it drew me right in. I wanted to see young Indians as dreamers.
At a very late stage into the production of the book. I had finished a few drafts and was still struggling with a title when, reading the stories all over again, I was struck by how many times “dreams” came up, not just what the characters in the book were dreaming about but what they thought dreams should be like. As one of them, a motivational speaker, says at some point, “‘Our biggest problem today is that our dreams are turning into desires. What’s a desire? A dream without fire.”
When did the idea of this book take shape? Were there moments in your journalistic career that led you towards this research?
Many. I had written several stories about young Indians and their attempts to make sense of a world rapidly changing around them. I sat in “personality development” classes in Delhi where young men from villages in Haryana and Rajasthan learnt how to present themselves. I spent nights chatting to men in distant corners of the country – from Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh to Salem in Tamil Nadu – on the first Internet dating website to try the Indian market. I spent days reading self-published novels in which young Indians who had made the journey of self-discovery through jobs, places and relationships addressed other young Indians about to undertake it.
When you took on this story as an Indian journalist (to use the term liberally), were you driven by a desire to understand the nation a little better?
Certainly. As a journalist specialising in stories of change, I knew that decoding young Indians – perhaps six hundred million people – is crucial to decoding contemporary India. Everyone agreed the country is going through the trickiest phase of its transformation – political, economic, cultural – and no one has more at stake than people starting out their adult lives.
The definition of dreamers is enlarged as the book proceeds. Did your findings about young Indians surprise you?
By the time I discovered the world of call centre scammers in 2017 – I began reporting the book in 2014 – I had started to think a little like the people I spent three years talking to. If I had to boil their philosophy down to two words, it would be: whatever works. Like it or not, young India is what it is – unsatisfied, unscrupulous, unstoppable. Few young Indians I met had a clear sense of right and wrong; fewer gave a damn about it.
At one point in the book, you mention that your subjects aren’t at all surprised by your interest in them. How did you decide which leads to follow, which stories to investigate?
The characters needed to be interesting, they needed to let me follow them for a long time, and their stories needed to be representative of the aspirations and anxieties of their generation.
Were there stories that didn’t make it into the book?
Many. The one I feel saddest about dropping is the story of an “elite” wedding planner in Ahmedabad, especially since she took me into the closed-off world of the city’s super-rich. I will hopefully publish it as an independent essay one day.
I’m intrigued – what do you think the role of book-length journalism will be in the age of hot takes? Are there examples of book-length journalism you’ve enjoyed and could tell us about?
I can’t think of a better time for book-length journalism. Globally, people are feeling a hot-take fatigue and there has been a surge in subjects worthy of lasting investigation. Some of my favourite books from the tradition are John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart, and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Are there models for this kind of writing? Were there journalists or other sorts of writers who influenced the form this book took?
I had to find my own approach, somewhere between Hunter S Thompson, the template for male reporters, and Katherine Boo, the template for female reporters. I hope to write like Susan Orlean, who isn’t afraid to go deep into the lives of her characters but is equally open to being humorous and opinionated.
Who are you hoping the audience of the book will be?
Definitely everyone contesting the 2019 general election.
What’s next for you and your writing?
For me, sleep and shopping; for my writing, daily journalism.