Chennai in the New Yorker

I subscribe to The New Yorker, but my issues arrive a little late. It's better than in the old days, when every two or three months I would get a stack of them. Before the Internet, they were my preferred link to the Big World, so I waited for them like a cargo cultist.

Anyway, the point is that kind Language Hat informs me that the latest issue contains an article about Chennai, "The Company Town," about a worker in the IT industry here. There has been a lot of media attention to Bangalore in recent years, but little about Chennai, which, along with Hyderabad, has been struggling (fairly successfully, I gather) to compete as an IT resource center.

The article itself is not included on the New Yorker website, but there is an audio presentation, with a slide show:
In this week’s issue, Katherine Boo tells the story of Harish Kumar, a worker in the Indian city of Chennai who is coping with the promises, and the problems, of American outsourcing. Here Boo discusses her article, accompanied by photographs by Samantha Appleton.

I didn't find the black and white photographs very extraordinary, but there were two which show one version of middle-class life here:

Harish Kumar eats with his family

Harish Kumar with his grandmother

(Not everyone eats on the floor, but some do -- we do, sometimes. In the older houses like this one in the crowded Triplicane area, it makes a lot of sense -- small rooms, big families -- the spaces are often multi-purpose.)

The most striking thing for me about Boo's audio commentary was the beginning, in which she says that Chennai has changed so much and so fast in recent years that it's hard for its residents even to grasp it. I recognise this change every single day: in the many construction sites; in the daily increasing traffic on the roads; in the availability of products which one had had to buy from smugglers, or go abroad to shop for; in the way young men and women interact with each other... in the increasing desperation for water... Sometimes I feel that I'm watching stop-motion photography -- it's that rapid, and that disturbing.

And she points out the obvious: that even in the colonies of people who earn their livelihood by breaking rocks by hand, hammer-tap by hammer-tap, into gravel -- even there, people dream that their children will learn computers and enter the IT industry. And they pour into the city seeking that dream. And the city struggles to accommodate that burden. I imagine that that is the story of every Third World city. But it's something to see unfolding before your eyes, I can tell you.

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