Freedom Inc.: Gendered Capitalism in New Indian Literature and Culture, part 1

By | September 4, 2023

Freedom Inc.: Gendered Capitalism in New Indian Literature and Culture documents a profound shift in the meaning of individual freedom in India. This change has occurred largely since the 1990s, when the Indian economy was liberalized. The idea of individual freedom, once capacious enough to include notions of political sovereignty, individual agency, and social and economic liberty, has contracted to mean market freedoms tied to the spread of global capitalism and to the endless consumer choice it makes possible. I term the discourses of individual freedom tied to economic liberalization, ‘Freedom Inc.’

Freedom Inc. is defined by the idea that it is possible to achieve complete autonomy from one’s restrictive life circumstances. Within this discourse, freedom from caste if you are a Dalit entrepreneur, from gender restrictions if you are a woman who works for a wage, and from poverty if you are a man who embodies an enterprising masculinity, are all achievable. All you need to do is embrace free market capitalism. Since the 1990s when the Indian economy was liberalized, these dreams of freedom have been marketed to Indians by the government, by popular culture, by big corporations, and by international organizations like the World Bank. For instance, in 2019, the World Bank began its “Working for Women in India” campaign for gender equality, telling Indian women that they could be free of patriarchy if they worked for a wage in the global economy or accepted one of their start-up loans;[1] countless news articles in the Indian media celebrate the claim that the free market is liberating Dalits from centuries of caste-based oppression; and the Indian government continues to launch efforts to free youth from poverty through Prime Minister Modi led campaigns like “Start Up India.”[2]

“Freedom Inc.” is not just a discourse that encompasses a set of free market principles but also an organization of subjectivity, personhood, and consciousness within which people think of themselves as free when they can: (1) compete in a free market shorn of any regulations; (2) sell their labor for a wage and consume whatever they desire with those wages; (3) choose, with choice reduced to consumer choice; and (4) freely make and remake themselves endlessly in an entrepreneurial pursuit of profit.

This book stresses the contradiction between Freedom Inc.’s claims and ground realities through a reading of post-liberalization Indian literature and culture. Popular and literary storytelling has emerged as a primary vehicle for registering as well as commenting on and critiquing the prevalence of Freedom Inc. The writing that critiques Freedom Inc. decenters the myth of absolute autonomy that is central to the discourse. Within this myth, individual actors are imagined as having complete power over their circumstances; they are conceptualized as free to mold themselves into revenue streams and as being completely unimpacted by the oft insurmountable social constraints and obstacles they face. I argue that the texts that counter this myth are more likely to be literary and realist and to adapt and modify the bildungsroman form, for it is this kind of storytelling that narrates the individual’s actions in terms of their relationship to their social world, throwing into relief the shaping power of context, circumstance, and relationships on individual co-constitution and decision-making, and presenting what Charles Taylor calls a “life in story.” The latter is a plot structure that narrates a life by organizing and clarifying which constraints and circumstances bring humans to the particular junctions that they face and that influence their actions. For example, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008) satirically notes the impossibility of simply overcoming crippling poverty or underemployment by becoming an entrepreneur. Adiga captures the horrific reality of what would be required from someone in his protagonist’s social position to succeed:

You are listening to the story of a social entrepreneur … one who killed his own
employer (who is a kind of second father), and also contributed to the probable
death of all his family members. A virtual mass murderer … only a man who is
prepared to see his family destroyed—hunted, beaten, and burned alive by the
masters—can break out … That would take no normal human being, but a freak,
a pervert of nature. It would, in fact, take a White Tiger.[3]

Similarly, the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2014), which I include in this study of Indian writing because it is widely read in India as part of a shared regional history,[4] overturns the myth that one’s life trajectory is fully in one’s own control when its narrative voice asserts: “There are forks in the road to wealth that have nothing to do with choice or desire or effort.”[5] Stories like this perform freedom in context and also often posit and perform oppositional, emancipatory ideas of freedom that resist and go beyond Freedom Inc.

To explore the power and workings of Freedom Inc., I also read the texts that, in line with Freedom Inc., conversely emphasize freedom from context. In an example of the latter, bestselling author Chetan Bhagat’s One Night at the Call Center (2014) represents the myth of absolute autonomy through its God character, who saves the life of the disillusioned protagonist on the condition that the boy becomes an entrepreneur. God tells the protagonist, who is stuck in a dead-end, exploitative call center job servicing rich American consumers: “Listen, I will make a deal with you. I will save your life tonight, but in return, think about what you really want and what you need to change in your life to get it. Then, once you get out of here, act on those changes.”[6] This kind of storytelling willfully overlooks the socioeconomic constraints that trap the protagonist into his job in the first place.

In reading the post-liberalization literary and cultural scene in India through texts like these, but also through regional film, reality shows, and the Dalit memoir, this book asks: How does Freedom Inc. appear in popular and literary texts and how do these texts reinforce or represent and critique it? How does storytelling in the new India posit other more expansive notions of freedom against Freedom Inc.? How do texts capture the collective normative horizons and interdependencies that shape these more expansive kinds of freedom? I point to how various post-1990s novels and cultural texts refashion the idea of freedom to better enable and support a fuller range of opportunities for human flourishing.


Mukti Lakhi Mangharam, author of Freedom Inc.: Gendered Capitalism in New Indian Literature and Culture, is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, USA.


[1] World Bank, “Working for Women in India,” March 8, 2019, https://www.worldb ank.org/en/news/feature/2019/03/08/working-for-women-in-india (accessed April 8, 2021). Similarly, in 2016, in another bid to free women from patriarchy by participating in the market economy, the online consumer giant, Amazon India, launched its “Mom, Be a Girl Again!” advertising campaign. The campaign suggested that women could liberate themselves from their self-sacrificing roles as mothers or wives through exercising their consumer choice and buying hobby related items from the Amazon.in website.

[2] Ivanka Trump, speaking at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in 2017, endorsed these ideas of freedom through entrepreneurship, claiming that India has lift ed millions of “people out of poverty by promoting entrepreneurship under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi.” “Complete Text of Ivanka Trump’s Hyderabad Speech,” NDTV India, November 28, 2017, https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/complete-text-of-ivanka-trumps-hyderabad-speech-1781045 (accessed January 5, 2021). In 2020, the Indian government shift ed their focus from freeing youth from poverty to freeing farmers. In support of a move to lift state protections on agricultural prices, Modi claimed that “farmers will now be masters of their own will.” Agricultural sectors would be “freed from many shackles” because farmers would have the “freedom to sell not only fruits and vegetables, but anything that they grow like rice, wheat, mustard, sugarcane, to anyone paying a better price. As endless mass protests continued to show, farmers disagreed that the free market has freed them from anything. “Mann Ki Baat: Farmers Will Now Be Masters of Their Own Will, Says PM Modi on Farm Bills,” September 27, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FyLz-LAPQ9Q (accessed February 1, 2021).

[3] Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), 173.

[4] Hamid is a Pakistani writer who I include in this study of Indian writing because he deliberately sets his fiction in nameless yet identifiably South Asian rather than specifically Pakistani cities and because he is widely read in India as part of a shared regional history rather than as a “Pakistani” writer. This became clear during a recent session of the Jaipur Literary Festival, during which organizers attempted to frame Mohsin Hamid as a “Pakistani” writer in opposition to the category of the “Indian” writer. This move was largely rejected by discussants and participants, who privileged a co-constituted South Asian literary history against a regionally competitive model divided between different nation-states. See Sushil Sivaram, “(Re)Staging the Postcolonial in the World: The Jaipur Literature Festival and the Pakistani Novel,” Comparative Literature, 71 (4), 2019: 333–56.

[5] Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (New York: Riverhead Books, 2014), 32.

[6] Chetan Bhagat, One Night at the Call Center (New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2014), 204 .

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