Today, this generation is changing their country in all kinds of important ways, and it will inevitably have a bearing on all our lives. Why? Because India is on its way to becoming the most populous country in the world: By 2022, its population will exceed China’s. More important, India is already home to the largest number of young people anywhere in the world, at any time in recorded human history. There are 365 million Indians between the ages of 10 and 24—more than the entire population of the United States.
Every month, 1 million Indians turn 18. The challenges are immense.
Modern India was born in 1947. At midnight on August 15 that year, it became independent from Britain, which had colonized it for decades.
Indians of that generation became known as midnight’s children. My father was among them. When he first went to school, only half of all Indian kids were enrolled in class. The average Indian lived to the age of 32. The average Indian woman bore more than six children. Hunger stalked the land.
Much has changed. The average Indian now lives far longer, babies are far less likely to die, and all kids are enrolled in primary school. Thanks to the rise in women’s education, fertility rates have sharply declined: The average Indian mom has just over two kids.
Some of the most dramatic changes kicked off in 1991. That’s when the government began to open up its economy. Slowly, quietly, it unleashed lots of Indian entrepreneurs. New kinds of jobs sprang up. Aspirations swelled, especially among those who have come of age since then.
I call this generation noonday’s children. They are impatient, hungry, burning with red-hot ambition, like Varsha. And their story is the story of aspiration, but also of aspiration thwarted.
Consider these facts: Nearly a third of all Indian children remain clinically malnourished, which means that they struggle to learn and they get sick more easily.
Nearly all Indian children are enrolled in primary school—even girls, who for a long time were far less likely to go to school than boys—and yet, they often learn very little. One study by a national nonprofit called Pratham found that half of all fifth-graders could not read a second-grade textbook, nor subtract.
Not least, India has an imbalance between the number of boys and girls in the population. That’s because many parents prefer a son over a daughter, and with ultrasound tests that make it possible to determine the sex of a fetus in the womb, they often abort females. The 2011 census found 17 million extra men and boys among Indians between age 10 and 24.
And so today, even though India is home to the largest number of young people anywhere, a lot stands in the way for India’s young, especially its girls.
Varsha was a baby in 1998 when her father moved the family from the capital, New Delhi, to a new suburb coming up on the outskirts, called Gurgaon.
He set up an ironing stand. It had a tin roof held up by four bamboo poles, and a flat piece of marble on a cement platform to serve as an ironing board.
Varsha grew up here. As soon as she could find her way around the neighborhood, she began going house to house to pick up and deliver clothes. She learned to load coal into the heavy, old fashioned iron. She learned to smooth away wrinkles.