India photo essay: an aftertaste of conformity

We weren’t ready. A few minutes after leaving the airport, at the first red light, the taxi driver shouted at us, worried, and told us to roll up the windows. Without time to understand his reaction, a group of kids approached us to ask for money, kicking the window panes and begging for a handout. Although we had mentally prepared for the trip, India managed to hit us hard.

India is a vast country plagued with inequalities. The middle classes and above live in residential areas that you can’t even see, the TVs broadcast idyllic ads that don’t correspond to the reality in the streets, where the tourist becomes a good that can be a source of profit at all times.

But let’s get going on our India photo journey. Our route started in New Delhi, a kind of hell. A capital city that represents well the chaos, disorder and inequality of a country far too big.

We were off to the North, our first stop being Chandigarh. And Chandigarh is not India. A city projected from scratch with urbanistic standards that oppose those of the rest of the country. In India, public space is conformed by the remains of whatever has been built, with no room nor consideration for rules and guidelines. Chandigarh was projected by Le Corbusier, a rationalized city built form a blueprint that has translated into order, ‘cleanliness’ and structure.

Amritsar was our second stop, our first contact with real India. The Sighs have the city as their peregrination point, and the Golden Temple will embrace any visitor. The spirituality of the place can be noticed at all times.

The colonial past of India is the key to understand the country nowadays. The territorial separation traced by the British administration before its disappearence explains the patriotism felt in the borderlands. The daily ceremony of lowering the flag that takes place in Wagah Border, a one hour tuk tuk drive from Amritsar, is a good proof of it. On the other side of the border, Pakistan, a muslim country, represents the most tense relationship of a nation that in the past, under her Majesty’s rule, was once unified.

The charms of traditional craftsmanship can be found in Jaipur (Rajasthan). The work method, the degree of difficulty of its creation and the beauty of the result becomes dulled when you realise that everything is, nowadays, a show to sell overpriced items to tourists. The magic of the moment is spoiled since you’re always on the defensive, because you feel like a human-sized dollar bill with legs.

But Jaipur has much more to offer: monuments, temples and history encapsulated in the city and its surroundings. Also, sacred cows and stray dogs populate the landscape like in most parts of the country.

We leave Jaipur behind en route to Agra. It’s shocking to discover the location of Taj Mahal, one of the world’s seven wonders. Its complex structure and inestimable value contrasts with the absolute misery that surrounds it.

There is nothing more to see in Agra, so we choose to catch a train in the wonderful Tundla Junction station (an experience by itself) and head towards Varanasi. A city that has nothing and yet has everything. Its everything is the river that compensates the dirtiness, the chaos and the extreme poverty. The Ganges emits a unique aura, and the ritual and spirituality that surrounds it make the beauty stand out amongst the rest of elements piling on the riverside.

Another night train takes us to Calcuta, the capital of Occidental Bengala. A city with a trademark identity, with a relevant colonial heritage that hides harsh stories. You don’t need to scratch much of its surface to find the same misery than the rest of India. A metropolis that stands out for its urban weave, yellow taxis, trolleys and upbeat rhythm.

But it’s time to go. A three hour flight leads us to Mumbai, and Mumbai is Miami. It doesn’t transmit a thing, it doesn’t relate to anything we’ve seen so far… It’s not worth it.

Despite the weight for the economy and the growth perspectives, India doesn’t show any progress. There is an aftertaste of conformity all around. Everyone accepts the state of things and looks, consequently, after their own interests. The idea of collective improvement is nonexistent… and that is, here and anywhere, a shame.

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