Sunday, August 26, 2007

More on 'Back from India'

Further on this post. While I was in India, I re-read two novels about Indian society -- Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, and Rohan Mistry's A Fine Balance. In both, very bad things happen to some of the main characters, sometimes emerging out of long-standing historical circumstances (such as inter-caste hatred in villages, erupting in small but horrible ways), and sometimes out of pure chance (a momentary halt in a religious procession snowballs into a terrible accident on an overcrowded pedestrian ramp). In both novels, the bonds of love, trust, and cooperation between family and friends are tested, strained, sometimes broken, sometimes reconnected, in the face of big and small events. In both, social causes and "remedies" (such as the drive for voluntary vasectomies as a population control measure in Indira Ghandi's Emergency of the 1970s, or a campaign to give land to landless tenant farmers in the 1950s) are shown to be at best full of unintended consequences, and at worst leading to corruption and evil far worse than the social problems they purported to address.

Being back in India again, I was everywhere seeing the hyper-growth, speedy modernization (in some ways surpassing the U.S.), enormous expansion of a partially Westernized middle class over where the country was on my first visit in 1986, side by side with the remnants of traditional Indian society and culture as well as persistent poverty and struggle mixed in with the tremendous prosperity. Much is being lost, at least partially, along the way, just as it has been in the West, particularly the uniqueness of the culture (it is still there, but infused with Western, Asian, and Indian versions of modernity). People, at least in the cutting-edge sectors of society such as the IT engineers I spent most of my time with, are not as sociable as they were. My Indian colleagues and friends told me that the close-knit communities of families and friends that they grew up with, where everyone lived together and freely intermixed with each other's lives, houses, events, is still there but much reduced from what it was (even though still far more sociable and friendly than most US communities). Religion and ethnic identity are still enormous forces and tremendously more visible and pronounced than in the US, but again more diluted, the edges taken off, for many people. Kids play the same video games as in the US; fancy shopping malls in the big cities look nearly identical to their American counterparts; Western brands (manufactured in the East) are everywhere; personal cars (nearly absent 20 years ago) clog every street; everyone has mobile phones; IT as both employer and culture is pervasive; TV is laden with Scrubs, Mr. Bean, and The Simpsons. It is still unquestionably India, but India is now not as distinctively Indian in character.

And what would the value be if it was? It would be more unique, more poetic, more quaint, perhaps more appealing to visitors if it was more like it used to be, but none of that is of benefit or importance to the people that live there. Unquestionably much is being lost, but what is the value of that loss? Even when I point my camera at an oxcart, a Tollywood movie poster, or a woman making rice flour patterns outside her front gate in the morning, "capturing" some of unique Indian character that I can show to the folks back home, am I being any more than a tourist, consuming a bit of foreign culture, commodifying it for the amusement of family and friends? I like to think there's more to it than that, that I am telling a story, and that my photography is good enough to capture more resonance and character, more intrinsic identity, than just a voyeuristic snapshot, grabbing a piece of someone else's identity for American consumption, but I am not so sure. What is the narrative, the flow of history, which makes sense of what I'm doing when I click the digital shutter and post the results on PicasaWeb, emailing the URL back home?

Seth and Mistry write both from and about the India of the past even as it was changing radically from pre-Independence days. For them it was personal, in a way it can't be for me, but I have always had a personal attachment to India that I don't feel for most other countries. There is something about the way people are emotionally present, feelings and relations more visible and tangible than in many other places, that hooks me. This is not always a positive thing. As the books make all too clear, as I have seen and experienced myself, anger and cruelty and everyday frustration are as conspicuous as warmth, generosity, and openness. Things are less hidden there and that can be painful as well as wonderful, sometimes overwhelming. Both books show both sides, and there is something there that I need to better relate to my work -- there is some intrinsic connection that I feel, but have so far not been able to put into words.

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