Although I live in Bangalore, I am the most technologically challenged person on earth. I can—just about—change a light bulb, but I cannot operate an oven or microwave without burning or blowing up something. For my ineptitude I am a continuous source of merriment to my (in this respect) more talented wife and children. Fortunately, they are also indulgent—coming to my aid when, for example, a file containing a manuscript has to be transferred from hard disc onto CD.
Among the artifacts of modernity that I find impossible to operate is a camera. This is a lack I feel most keenly, for in everyday life in Bangalore, and while travelling to other parts of India, I often come across scenes and juxtapositions that capture, in striking visual form, the antinomies of a land that (as the writer U. R. Anantha Murty once remarked) lives simultaneously in the 12th and 21st century—as well as in all centuries in-between.
I wish I had a camera with me when, some years ago, I drove from Shimla to the valley in which I was born and raised, Dehradun. As a boy, I had sometimes gone on family picnics to the gurudwara in Paonta Sahib, on the banks of the Yamuna. To get there we went westwards from Dehradun town, driving (and even, on one occasion, cycling) the thirty miles to the shrine through paddy fields and sal forests.
This time I was coming from the west, driving east. I left Shimla after breakfast, and after stopping en route at a dhaba outside Nahan, reached the gurudwara in the early afternoon. I walked around the halls and down to the river, and then up again to the car, living anew the memories and friendships of an almost idyllic boyhood.
We left the gurudwara, into the narrow streets abutting it, before finding our way out to the highway that links Himachal Pradesh with Uttarakhand. Soon we were on a new bridge, built across the river that divided the two states. On this bridge we passed a Nihang Sikh. In past times he would have been riding a horse; here, in the mundane present, he was on a bicycle. He looked splendid nevertheless; dressed in the glorious blue robes of his sect, a high and stylishly pointed turban on his head and a kirpan by his waist. The setting sun glinted off his sword and onto his face, which was already shining with religious devotion (and perhaps something more).
As we left the bridge I turned to take a last look. There he was, cycling stiff-legged, now left alone on the road, the river beneath him and the Himalayan foothills beyond. Would that I had a camera with me, and known how to operate it; that image of the Sikh coming into my valley would have served for ever as the screen saver on the computer on which I write.
A year after I left the Sikh on the bridge, I was in Patna. A friend who had grown up there took me on a tour of the city: the Golaghar, the Gandhi Maidan, Jayaprakash Narayan’s home in Kadam Kuan, the Patna College. As we broke for lunch she ran into a colleague. When we described what we had seen, he enquired in courteous puzzlement: ‘Aap Gangaji nahin dekhe kya?’
After the meal we set out to repair the omission. My friend thought a good view of the river was to be had from what once used to be the palace of the Maharaja of Darbhanga. So we walked past the university, and into a side street that would take us to our destination. I was struck, en route, by what I saw on the boundary wall of the palace. God knows what the wall looked like when the Maharaja lived there; now, it was covered with dungcakes, and with posters advertising coaching classes for admission to engineering colleges—these running side by side. There was a pattern, of columns of dungcakes alternating with columns of posters, that spoke of a friendly co-operation between those who kept the buffaloes that supplied milk to the city’s residents, and those who ran the classes by which Bihari boys, and, increasingly, girls, wished to leave behind their traditional callings and become part of a modern, globalized, economy.
A sturdy Nihang on a smart new bridge bore testimony to U. R. Anantha Murthy’s claim that Indians, unlike Europeans or Americans, live as much in the past as in the present. But the wall in Patna took in the future as well—built in the 19th century, it now advertised 21st century occupations alongside patterns of resource use that had endured across millennia.
That drive across the Yamuna, and the walk to the Ganga, were both conducted in daylight. On another occasion, I was driving home around ten p.m., when due to an accident the traffic was diverted through a road that passed through the Halasuru Market, one of the oldest settlements in the Bangalore Cantonment. A landmark on this street is a small, tasteful, Wesleyan Church, built in the early 19th century. The church was closed and shrouded in darkness, but the shop opposite was open and brightly lit. I turned to take a look. Piled high on a long low table were hundreds of undergarments in various shades of pink. These were divided into segments, priced at five, ten, and fifteen rupees respectively.
This shop normally sold what are called ‘export rejects’. But these were something else. I was in a hurry to get home, so did not stop to enquire, but my guess is that the pink chaddis had been acquired from a certain Pramod Muttalik, who a few months previously, had received an estimated eighteen thousand undergarments by post and courier, these sent by the democratically minded citizens of Bangalore.
Readers will recall that Mr Muttalik and his Sri Ram Sene had attacked young women in various towns in Karnataka. They now threatened to attack young couples anywhere who dared to be seen together in public, despite not having been married according to Brahminical rites. The threat provoked widespread revulsion, and an inspired protest, whereby a group of Bangalorians sent Mr Muttalik all those pink chaddis by post. Now the chaddis had been ‘remaindered’, for—one presumes—a consideration.
Had I been more technologically adept, I could have captured those three moments—the Nihang Sikh on the bridge across the Yamuna, the wall in Patna poised between past and future, the pink panties on sale opposite an old church in Bangalore—captured them in pictures, in a form far finer, and more enduring, than this hesitant essay in words. There have been other occasions when I wished I had the skill or courage to operate a camera and take photographs. I excuse my inadequacies on the grounds that I started writing and travelling in a pre-digital age, when the use of a camera required some amount of physical dexterity. My daughter tells me that the models now on sale are comprehensively idiot-proof. There may still be time to get her to show me how to use—or abuse—one.
by Ramachandra Guha
(published in The Telegraph, 25th February 2012)