In a van, we gently rattled along both paved and dusty streets, flanked on both sides by colorful, boxy houses that hosted drink stands, sewing machines, barber shops and areas to stack cow paddies for fuel – a never-ending panorama of pastoral activity occasionally interspersed with the odd four-passenger motorbike or a man in a turban reading a newspaper. Women sat beside the road draped in jewel-toned cloth or tended to agricultural fields in the distance. Every few miles, a construction project was taking root, but mostly lush gnarled trees and short, bricked walls dotted the flat earth, disappearing into the hazy background. I will never forget the blue doors that were so electric and evocative, nested within turquoise walls, or the woman in the bright orange sari with a hand-woven basket encumbered with fruit atop her head practically floating into the golden doorway of a magenta house. This is what I remember during my journey from Delhi to Agra in the countryside of India: the endless palate of evanescent color.
Here, in this rural scene, population size is not an observable problem, albeit for the intermittent chip bags lodged in the ground along the road and the communities full of bicycles, heavy clothes lines and local building materials. However, closer to the urban centers, one begins to notice the thickening smog, the congested traffic, the make-shift shelters beneath bridges, alongside the other gut-wrenching indicators of poverty – the choking gridlock of bodies, cars, bicycles, Vespas, cows, rickshaws and trucks locked in a battle for space that favors no one.
Of course, the Western perception of India is nestled comfortably in both visions: one of swarming, surging population growth and the other of the quintessential charm of spices, elephants, gurus and mirrored skirts. Certainly the two visions coexist on some level, but here they are rather intermingled in a constant and intricate web within the larger frameworks of globalization, climate change, Western influence, strong local cultural identities and multifarious spiritualties. What is at work here is a beast far greater than the tourists, politicians, economists, environmentalists and scientists have been able to define and properly model: development. India’s middle-class is growing like never before: an incredible success for the well-being of millions of men, women and children. In the spirit of modernity, India has accepted the same luxuries enjoyed by Americans and Europeans. Today, while men will sometimes tap on your car window hoping to sell souvenir trinkets like mini chessboards and incense, they will also offer the latest issue of British Vogue and brand-new scooters. It is clear that population and consumption are exponentially gaining momentum within India’s maddening, labyrinthine quest for economic stability. One can only stand back in awe and dread of the resources that one day might be required to nurture India’s growth.
The photos that accompany this essay document the expansion and proliferation of an India sitting snugly in the lap of Ronald McDonald; an India where school children are seen wearing crisp school uniforms attending monuments of national and cultural importance; an India where a traditional salwar kameez hangs on a rack beside a Puma track suit in an outdoor market; an India where poverty envelops millions in a polluted embrace; and an India whose diversity shimmers in the reflecting pool beneath the Taj Mahal – a reflection that, in constant flux, marks the face of the future.
India gave me many gifts. For all of the chaos, there was an almost serene acceptance of disorganization, one that forced me to live in the moment and discard my mechanized approach to life. As conflicted as I was when I left that amazing, animated country and returned to England, I found myself suddenly uncomfortable amid complete silence; bored of drab, gridded streets, and never without a nagging sensation of unbearable opulence. I believe that in terms of quality of life there is much we can learn from one another. The key will be to differentiate “fortune” from being fortunate.