Why we should not be ashamed of our contradictions
There are times when the vulgarity of modern India is actually a good omen
A benign fraud in art and journalism is contrast photography, the kind where the contrast is not a property of light, but of India. Burqa-clad women walking beside girls in short skirts; the sari-draped scientists of the space programme; a naked urchin at the giant glass window of an upscale restaurant; the homeless beneath a builder’s hoarding; a Bharatanatyam dancer holding a laptop. A meaningful question that we can ask the creators of such frames is: “So?"
Five years from now there will certainly be an addition to the contrast series: a malnourished farmer standing in the foreground as, in the backdrop, India’s first bullet train charges over an elevated rail. Already, cartoonists have lampooned the collision of the idea of the high-speed train and the reality of India. One featured larger crowds travelling on the roof of the bullet train, and in another, which is more probable, a man is taking a dump as the train approaches.
There is an unspoken opinion in the contrast images—that something is odd in the scene, that something is wrong; and in the case of the bullet-train image of 2022, that the poor man is the victim of the train, that it is vulgar for a nation to possess an expensive rail system (even though it is mostly financed by Japan at almost no interest) when many Indians have nothing to eat. At the sight of such contradictions, a class of Indians are trained to feel guilty. But it is time to accept that it is within the limits of decency not to be ashamed anymore of India’s contrasts, that the contradictions are, of course, vulgar, but then they are an honest and fundamental visual quality of a middle-income nation trying to make something of itself. There are times and places when the vulgarity of modern India is actually a good omen.
The lament against any infrastructural shine is an old habit of urban Indian conscience. It may have made some sense in an age when public spending was always zero-sum, but not anymore. The fact is that the bullet train does not steal the resources of slower trains. And swanky airports are in no way responsible for shanty railway stations. But among a section of the population, the instinct to curse the masquerades of wealth is very deep. Last year, the Indian Premier League, too, came under severe attack for hosting matches in parched Maharashtra. The complaint was that because a cricket ground needed thousands of litres of water, cricket matches loot the meagre water resource of drought-hit regions. But the fact is that it is on the day of a cricket match that a cricket ground is not heavily watered. On most other days it is. So the decision people have to make is whether they want a cricket ground, not whether they can afford to host a cricket match. Also, the amount of water that is needed to water an Indian cricket ground, which is between 15,000-20,000 litres, is the same as the amount of fresh water needed to make one kilogram of chocolate, according to a global network called the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Yet, a cricket match would look more vulgar in the harsh summer of Vidarbha than a concerned citizen in the region eating chocolate to alleviate her rage at cruel capitalists.
But then are facts really more important than perception?
Many years ago, my employer lodged me in a chawl (a cheap tenement of one-room homes), in Mumbai, but I objected to living in a place where there were only common toilets shared by all residents. So the employer, who was also the landlord of the chawl, decided to extend my room and build a toilet. The property documents suggested that the landlord had legal rights to build a toilet in my room, but not in any other home. The residents did not mind, except one man who opposed the construction of the private toilet on the grounds that it was a luxury, which will make “the others feel very bad". He successfully inspired the residents to block the plan.
In the larger scheme, too, logic, so often, is not so important or influential as general perception and public emotion. And a poor nation, especially, has to be very cautious and respectful of public sentiments. Grand symbols of progress, like giant cable-stayed bridges and beautiful buildings, can be dangerous for the politicians who build them. They can also create disharmony in society if people feel excluded by them. For instance, in the new disenchantment among Western Europe’s poor, such as in France and Belgium, we should not underestimate the role of the spectacular urban beauty of the great cities in the region.
Also, it would be wrong to assume that all the demonstrations of India’s stark extremes are pointless. The pioneering images of the contradictions are powerful. For instance, the 1966 photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson of an Indian space scientist carrying a rocket’s nose cone on the back of his bicycle. The photograph means different things to different people. Many feel proud to be reminded how impoverished India was when the space programme began, and how valiant India’s vision was. I am among those who are reminded that rocket science is so much easier than poverty eradication. In fact, I propose that all writers replace the obsolete expression, “It’s not rocket science" with “It’s not poverty eradication".
Rockets historically, and even today, erroneously convey the idea of progress. They are sexy in a way the war against malaria cannot be. This is possibly why despots love missiles. This is possibly why India, too, began its space programme—for quick, attainable pride. India was able to flog it as a welfare programme. As a result it did not infuriate the poor, but there are many other symbols of wealth or technology or modernity that do not go down well in a poor nation.
The professional doom of the actor Rajinikanth, too, is in the gentrification of his recent films. Chandrababu Naidu, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, at the turn of the millennium, was always seen with his laptop, but after major electoral setbacks, he was almost never seen in public with the laptop again.
The image of a bullet train, especially of the train juxtaposed with malnourished Indians, will not be popular. Yet, the economic service of the vulgar high-speed train would be immeasurably larger than the street altruism of the good folk.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous.
He tweets at @manujosephsan