Fred Pirkey of Salon Ishi recently travelled to India, a destination he has frequented over the years. Here he shares his observations, experiences and personal connection to a land that has changed immensely over the years.
Because I’ve gone to India so many times over the course of many years, I have come to think of it as “Old India” and “New India”. Old India was a dream. It was nothing that I’d ever experienced elsewhere. All that I had ever been taught had to be thrown out the window because India was operating in the opposite way. It was an eye opener…and I couldn’t get enough of it. There was so much beauty…the people, the colors, the primitive life, the forts with their palaces, the pleasure pavilions, the land. Then, in what seemed like a very short time span, everything changed, the traditional garb, language and even the very landscape. Poverty was everywhere. But the poverty cannot be judged by our standards; there was always joy. The poor didn’t know what they were missing, so they found joy in what they had. The simplest things kept them smiling.
Over the years the gradual changes to the Indian style of life brought nomads into the cities where they lived in cardboard shacks along the roads. Through the doorways you’d usually see a TV powered by a direct wire to an electrical pole. The cities were smoke filled from the cow dung-fueled cooking fires. The walls of houses had a pattern of cow dung that the women had formed into patties and slapped on the walls for drying. Almost all of this has vanished.
New India still has some remains of what I loved, but is fast losing itself to the western style of life. The streets of the cities are still unpleasant. Trash is dumped onto the streets where it’s left, driven oven, eaten by wild dogs and roaming cows and picked through by people who make their living selling recyclable paper. Highrise apartments now dot the landscape in fields that once grew crops where women in bright colored and metallic shawls would periodically break to stretch, their clothes glistening in the sunlight. Men in dhoti, kurta and large turbans plowed fields with their water buffalo or teams of bulls. Now, the women still work the fields but in less color and the animals have mostly been replaced with tractors. Some of the older men wear their traditional dress but most are in western shirts and pants. In Rajasthan, mostly in the desert, the men – even though more western dressed – still wear their earrings and many rings. They wear their birthstones on their pointer finger as their astrologer has directed them to.
Poverty is Waning
Less women with their dirty children are begging at car windows at each intersection where you’ve had a stop light. Or waiting outside your hotel in hopes you’ll acknowledge them and give them 10 rupees. The biggest mistake you could make in old India was giving into your guilt and giving them something. They’d get the word out and there would be many more waiting for you. Even before cell phones, India had a communication system unlike any other. Still today, if you let someone know you are coming, other people that person doesn’t even know, already know when you get there.
The young are moving into the cities to find work. The generational traditions of work are being lost. Entire modern cities have formed as offices for American telephone and call centers spring up. All the old arts and handicrafts are disappearing. The gemstones are now cut by machine. The embroidery work is no longer done. Weaving and block printing are being done by machine. Highways are under construction everywhere making access to tourist destinations more accessible. But this is at the cost of small villages where the roads have no provision for the locals to cross from one side to the other. People and animals are killed just trying to cross the street. In many places there are flyovers that form walls of cement tiles.
Preserving The Old While Making Way For The New
One great thing going on now is the recycling of items. Silk saris are being stitched together to make new saris, stoles and shawls. The embroidered, mirrored and beaded skirts and tops are being made into patchwork for wall hangings, table runners and handbags. It’s time to collect this work because it will not be done again. Even the saris industry is in the decline as women dress in western styles.