NOVEMBER 13, 2018
SEVERAL LEDES are buried within journalist Snigdha Poonam’s Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing the World. Three-quarters of the way through, she writes: “Rare exceptions aside, my wide-ranging forays into the madness of modern India boiled down to the same thing: the anxieties of young men who no longer know their place in the world. What they find hardest to deal with are women who do.”
The chapter in question, “The Angry Young Woman,” profiles Richa Singh (no relation), a young politician whose confidence and bravery led her to take on the hostile masculinity she found at Allahabad University, where she won an unprecedented victory. A woman had never dared run for president of the students’ union in the 127-year history of the campus. In Allahabad, men dominated all social spaces around town, from the tea shops to the campus facilities, and especially the ins and outs of politics. By winning the election, Singh temporarily changed everything.
But this chapter is the only one in which a woman is profiled. Throughout the rest of 280 pages, Poonam’s intrepid reportage comes from the depths of young male rage and desperation, where everyone seems determined to out-scam everyone else on multiple levels. Stemming from a “whatever works,” “do-or-die” attitude, the men Poonam profiles will stop at nothing to get ahead, no matter who they have to cheat along the way. The title, Dreamers, is deceiving in its optimism because not much of anything hopeful appears in this book.
Right now, over half of India’s population, perhaps 600 million people, are under the age of 25, making them the largest number of young people for any country on earth. This generation’s male population, Poonam writes, are the most desperate since India’s independence. Every month, one million Indian youths enter the workforce, yet only 10,000 of them get jobs — a staggering statistic. The rest feel left behind and abandoned by their own country, so they turn to scams and violence to make money.
As a result, the men Poonam writes about are not driven by morality, but by how fast can they achieve money and fame. Their ability to flip between right and wrong depends only on what they stand to win or lose. Anxious about their future, these men feel they must succeed now or else risk being left behind. Since India’s infrastructure still operates on a foundation of bribery, scams, and corruption from bottom to top — so much, that corruption is often viewed as a virtue — this generation of young Indian men, Poonam writes, will cheat their way to their dreams because it’s all they ever see from politicians, businessmen, and celebrities. If these young men don’t embark on such an ideology right now, they will lose their shot at 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,” Poonam writes.
The consequences for the rest of us, inside and outside of 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.
The whole book provides explicit examples of this. In one chapter, Poonam brings us deep inside elaborate call center scams where hierarchies of young men are bilking American seniors out of their pensions with the nonchalance of a lazy afterschool project. In another chapter, various men known as “fixers” operate in rural slums, scamming residents for services they can often get for free. We also meet “talent management” companies ruthlessly exploiting wannabe superstars longing for Bollywood-style fame. These young men, often frustrated or rejected, are desperate for notoriety, only to end up with their aspirations destroyed.
She also investigates dubious English-language instruction centers exploiting the beliefs of young people who think that learning even mangled English will convert them from “losers” into “winners” and help them manufacture a global identity. This dovetails with people wanting to learn just enough cut-price English to get jobs writing punchy, obnoxious content for clickbait websites — exactly what happens in many scenarios.
“The version of English they speak — with colleagues, waiters, customer care executives — will define the future of the language in this country, and, in fact, the future of English worldwide,” Poonam writes. “With India expected to have the largest number of English speakers in the world in the next ten years — overtaking the U.S. — the English they speak will be the English of the future.”
If millions of young Indians are learning whichever bare-bones flavor of English facilitates their ability to scam people and elevate themselves in the corruption hierarchy, then it will have dramatic effects on international business, politics, and entertainment. Such gloomy observations appear all throughout the book.
In each case, the level of fraud and corruption does not unfold in just one direction. Those being supervised in how to perpetrate the scams are often simultaneously scamming their bosses, or even hiring middlemen they can exploit in the process. After someone works long enough in a fraudulent call center operation — whether it’s in tech support, insurance, banking, or travel — he might then quit to start up his own fraudulent call center. After spending a few years with such people, Poonam discovered that the scam soldiers were taking over the scams. Once they learned the tricks of the trade, they gave up on the long hours and started their own operation.
“What did you need to run a tech support scam?” Poonam writes. “A team of five, a rented room, computers, mobile phones, a stash of software, a pop-up vendor, and a friend in the U.S. or U.K. to lend you their bank account.”
The tech-support scammers run the whole operation on Facebook, using pop-up boxes to remotely take over someone’s computer and eventually scam gullible American seniors out of millions. Every petty scammer is now a mastermind on his way to an imagined lifestyle of parties, beautiful girls, and fast cars — things he never had before.
Poonam’s investigations also take her into the dark underworld of mob violence. In the most disturbing chapter among many, she embeds herself with the gau rakshaks, vigilante cow-protection armies, whose logo is a gilded torso of a cow flanked by a pair of swords and AK-47s. Commanders are elected, foot soldiers are chosen, and the groups operate as organized fundamentalist Hindu mobs of angry young men targeting anyone, but especially Muslims and Dalits, who might be smuggling cattle somewhere. Out of social isolation, anxiety, sexual rejection, and the “restless anger of a budding dictator,” the gau rakshaks Poonam investigates all seem frightened by the prospect of a global secular society diminishing their religiosity. They respond by finding solace in the power of violence.
As if that wasn’t enough, Poonam also explores grotesque “anti-Valentine’s Day jihads,” where any violent young man might tie an iron bar to the back of his motorcycle for the purpose of swinging it at couples on Valentine’s Day — all just to injure happy lovers for no other reason. Single, broke, and doubtful that he will ever find a job or a woman that likes him, the type of man who does this, Poonam writes, is
what think pieces explaining the Trump and Brexit verdicts term a loser of globalization, one of the millions of leftover youths whose anger is transforming world politics. […] On an elemental level, he doesn’t know if he matters to the world. There’s only one way left for him to make that happen: punish everyone who’s moved ahead of him in that queue. This is what he thinks politics is about.
Which is obviously why Poonam elevates the female politician Richa Singh above the toxic stew depicted in the rest of the book. Poonam describes Singh as someone inspired by true change, someone who can actually call herself a politician. In a landmark series of events, Singh united minority factions and won an election at Allahabad University. She even sat in on a hunger strike to block the right-wing Hindu nationalist preacher Yogi Adityanath from appearing on campus, which later became pointless since he wound up as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh anyway.
At times, though, Poonam doesn’t shy away from taking sides, admitting that she was rooting for Singh, “in guilt and in bewilderment.” In one of several confessional passages, Poonam feels a connection with Singh’s causes, but says she doesn’t have Singh’s guts or idealism.
“Singh’s fight against caste, communalism and patriarchy — what she called ‘muscle power’ — voiced most of my issues with the country’s politics,” Poonam writes. “I was drawn to stories of women putting up a fight; reporting and writing about their fight was almost a compensation for not participating in it.”
With the understanding that Dreamers only represents a tiny sample base, the book does not leave any sense of optimism in the reader. Even though Poonam dangles a few threads of hope near the end — Richa Singh’s success is now inspiring more women to enter university politics — one doesn’t come away feeling that anything good can possibly come from the exploits of millions of young men defrauding their fellow humans. The book functions like a damning, almost apocalyptic forewarning.
Whatever does become of half a billion young Indians will have a dramatic effect on the rest of the world, Poonam writes. For example, in the United States and Europe, many people are just becoming aware of Facebook’s and Twitter’s role in the spreading of hatred, misogyny, and religious intolerance. In India, those scenarios are amplified by multiple degrees, and by millions upon millions of perpetrators who want in on the action. The damage caused by troll armies, endless harassment, abuse, and fake stories are far beyond their counterparts in the West, as are millions of Indian twentysomethings pooling their resources to operate call center scams and professional fraud networks on Facebook.
For these men, if their only ideology in life is to cheat their way to the top — “whatever works” — then the planet needs to pay serious attention, Poonam warns. Americans or anyone in the West who thinks they needn’t keep tabs on the rest of the world are in for a dire awakening.
Gary Singh was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University and is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press). For 13 years, his columns have appeared in Metro Silicon Valley, San Jose’s alternative weekly newspaper.