It’s all maya

May 12th, 2009

Metro2.jpgOn my way home yesterday I paused for half an hour or so atop the pedestrian railway bridge at a minor local station in Delhi. Watching the people below in constant and reassuring motion, and caressed by a gentling, diesel-tinted breeze — now here comes the dreadfully trite thought — I thought: is it possible that India is globalisation-proof?

Not in terms of infrastructure and economics, certainly, but culturally? To the implied order of globalisation we happily oppose the multifariousness and extreme individuality of our cultural selves. We’ll buy your cars, in other words, and take your jobs, but we won’t become like you. Heck, we won’t even become like each other.

From my railway bridge, the view encapsulated this contradictory non-contradiction. Immediately below was the evening commuter crowd and the various pavement professionals who serve their needs. The place and the people were at once drab and extremely lively.

Beyond the station were the yellow-painted residential lines of junior railway officials — old and pleasant single-storey quarters, their uniformity defeated by the residents’ “customisation”.

Above the trees beyond the railway quarters, a glimpse of passing Metro trains, with their neat, contained, mathematical outlines and all their human cargo held within — nothing like the well-worn commuter trains at my station, each carriage with its fringe of passengers travelling al fresco.

In the distance in the other direction, the police headquarters skyscraper — the police, rarely respected, sometimes lawless, and generally either feared or held in contempt; the DDA tower, falling apart like everything the DDA builds; the Indian National Science Academy, which looks permanently asleep…

There’s really no gap at all, in other words, between the rational perfection of the container and the natural imperfection of the human contents — except in the case of the Metro. Unlike elsewhere in the globalised world, law and the will to homogeneity are not sufficient to hold the ideal and the real apart. That’s an irrevocable, culture-specific thing. And culture usually wins; when it doesn’t, the price paid is very high.

The Metro brings this contradiction to a tingle-inducing peak: so neat, so clean, so foreign and expensive — how long can it last? It will be a constant struggle against habit and apathy to keep it looking good and running well. This kind of thing can only work because India pays for Delhi, and will continue to pay. It’s all maya, in other words.

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