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18 July 2012

Touched by India

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By Mahmood Sanglay

India is a place of the senses. Colour, flavour, sound and smell. They almost reach out to you in abundance, always an opulence of sensations that promise to overwhelm. Whether it is wealth or poverty, peace or aggression, erudition or ignorance, India is so much more than is conveyed in the cliché “a land of contrasts.” It is at once the birthplace of Satyagraha and the leading nuclear power on the subcontinent. It is at once a melting pot of rapid corporate globalisation and a site of staggering third-world poverty.

Years ago, as a South African youth, I traveled to Mother India. She welcomed me at Mumbai airport with the stench of poverty and industry, and the incessant clamour of traffic. The assault on my namby-pamby senses rendered me sick and useless for days. The experience was instructive. Slum in South Africa suddenly acquired a dignity. Slum in India suddenly acquired a romantic exoticism. In my childish imagination I kept wondering how the Mumbai slumdweller, complete with pitiful demeanour, sari and dhoti will stand up in the worst parts of Khayelitsha. Or vice-versa, how the slumdweller or bergie of our mother city, complete with Kaapse spunk, will navigate the streets of Byculla.

It was the fascination of a naïve South African of Indian descent visiting India. Misplaced, displaced and mesmerised I ventured in my travels from historic sites to the commonplace. A restaurant experience in Jaipur is etched in my memory. We ordered some water after a delicious meal. The waiter took four glasses with one hand, clasping them together with his fingers on the inside. He then proceeded, as in a practised baptism routine, to dunk his hand up to his wrists in a nearby drum of water, filling the glasses and plonking them on our table. I admired the deftly executed move. The spillage was negligible.

Of course, we skipped the water and went for tea instead to a street vendor outside. The order was for “special chai” and I was anxious to observe the operations of this makeshift open-plan street kitchen on a regal raised platform. The loose tea leaves were heated in boiling water on a gas stove. The milk was heated separately. Nifty, I thought. Now, how to strain the tea, I wondered. No problem. Producing from beneath his grimy unshod feet—buzzing with flies—an equally filthy muslin cloth, the old vendor expertly strained the tea, squeezing the bunched leaves with his bare hands. No tea for us.

Our protests were met with Hindi indignation. How dare we, he chided us, insult him like that? “My kitchen is open! Did you observe how the food is prepared in that restaurant you just came from? Had you seen it you would find the fresh afterbirth of a bleeding mother more palatable,” he bellowed. Mortified, yet dignified and wise, the old man continued his occupation. We were arrogant intruders, snobs incapable of appreciating perfectly good tea from a poor vendor. It is an indelible memory.

Equally memorable was a visit to a green and white cottage in beautiful Srinagar. I remember the tour guide saying that the cottage was the location for a song in the 1973 Bollywood hit Bobby. Somehow the seventies Bollywood scene has for me an incorruptible charm that eludes the contemporary globalised phenomenon. Bollywood—which should not be confused with the whole of Indian cinema—today is tarnished with a coming of age and a loss of innocence. The name Bollywood is a portmanteau of Bombay and Hollywood and suggests the corruption of not only a name, but also a culture.

In April this year Bollywood stars Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan forged a private marital union in a closed ceremony amidst a frenzy of media speculation and paparazzi. The family chose to exclude the media. The media chose to show up and invade proceedings as far as possible. A family determined to conduct a private ceremony was assailed by the media wanting to make it a public spectacle. The private life of public people in India is magnified not merely by celebrity status, but by a peculiar obsession of the Indian public with the life of the stars. The Indian obsession with Bollywood is unique in that the character of Bollywood is so radically different from that of Hollywood.

Bollywood may be crudely characterised as an industry primarily producing melodrama. Love triangles, corruption, kidnapping, epic villainy, long-lost relatives, siblings separated by fate, dramatic reversals of fortune and convenient coincidences are typical. These are usually conveyed in sentimental narratives reducable to song-and-dance routines where several instant costume and location changes occur. However, the conventional Hollywood kiss is finally adopted to match the highly suggestive costumes and romantic antics. Up to three hours of overacting, incompetent dubbing, a lack of depth and poor variations in theme are not considered defects in Bollywood. It is a culture itself.

Bollywood is the world’s biggest film industry and its impoverished content speaks to a global audience of 3.6 billion. India also has the world’s largest expatriate population and it consumes more than just good curry. Mass consumerism of hybrid Indian culture outside India is a strange phenomenon. Inside India it is stranger still. Arundhati Roy writes that “India’s growing middle class is reared on a diet of radical consumerism and aggressive greed. Unlike industrialising Western countries, which had colonies from which to plunder resources and generate slave labour to feed this process, we have to colonise ourselves, our own nether parts. We’ve begun to eat our own limbs.”

The image of India, as we typically see it from many little Indian minority communities in the world is one of an emerging economic giant, robust with promise of boom and prosperity. Every Indian expatriate from all parts of the globe talks about how rapidly India has left behind its backward past how it has become a global cultural phenomenon. It is cool to be Indian. It was once cool to be American.

Yes, empires are built this way.

[Mahmood Sanglay is a media activist residing in Cape Town. He is Fulbright fellow in journalism, a postgraduate researcher in Narrative Journalism and he campaigns for the interests of small, independent and grassroots media in South Africa. He is also President of the Association of Independent Publishers (AIP), which is a grassroots newspaper industry association. He may be contacted at mahmood@mviews.co.za]

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