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In the north Indian city of Gurgaon, a young woman hopes education will be her exit ticket from a life of service

IN HER NEW BOOK, The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s Young, Somini Sengupta, a former New Delhi bureau chief for The New York Times, explores today’s India through portraits of seven young people who, despite many obstacles, aspire to mobility and opportunity. Here, Newsweek excerpts the story of Varsha, a high school student and daughter of a laundryman.


SATURDAY NIGHT, suburban Gurgaon, 20 miles southwest of New Delhi. The sky turns from blue to black, the burnt-toast smell of fireworks blows across the ravine, and tall, broad-shouldered Varsha hauls a hot-coal iron over the shimmering finery of others.

Quietly, quickly, she presses the wrinkles out of a brushed pink chiffon salwar-kameez, a traditional Indian outfit of loose trousers and a tunic top, followed by three button-up white dress shirts. Her cellphone trills. “Yes, didi [sister]. It’s almost ready. Send your driver in 10 minutes.”

Didi is a customer with a wedding to attend, perhaps several, since it is wedding season. Firecrackers begin to boom-snap in the distance. They will go on past midnight. It is Varsha’s job to make sure didis don’t show up to their parties all rumpled.

And so she presses their clothes, places them on hangers, one after the other, racing against the clock. Left hand on cloth, right hand on iron, she removes every crease, every wrinkle. If only she could press away her worries this way, I think.

Varsha, at 17, is every bit the dreamer. She was born to a family of modest means, to a community of dhobis, washer-men whose ritual occupation is to clean other people’s dirty clothes. The advent of washing machines has tweaked the caste norms. Dhobis have become press-wallahs. They take rumpled piles of machine-washed clothes, press them, fold them and return them to their owners.

Varsha wants to rise. She aspires to go to college and to one day be financially independent. She dreams of being a cop, gold stars on her shoulders, capable of protecting herself from the louts out there who harass and abuse girls. This desire becomes all the more urgent after her country is roiled by the gang rape of a young woman in late 2012. In her head, day and night, she hears a hot, impatient voice: I am not bound by my past. I make me.

Varsha’s ambitions alternately bemuse her father and make him sick with worry. There is no chance of her becoming a cop, as far as he is concerned. By the time she is 20, he intends to find her a husband—from a good family, from the same caste, with a capacity to earn and to protect his child.

Varsha regards her papa as her ally, but he is also her obstacle. He loves her, but he also sabotages her. He too wants her to break free of her past—but not too much. She keeps pushing the bounds, and he has to figure out how far to let her go.

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