Visiting India – A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I have a confession to make.  I’ve never been to India.  It’s incredibly annoying to try to spend an entire month focusing on a place that you’ve had no first hand experience with.  Which is why I’ve decided to call in a ringer.  Erica Derrickson not only spent a significant amount of time wandering around India…she came back with a book full of photographs.  Which, by the way, you can purchase (but more on that later).

The photos in India:  A Thousand Words are beautiful.  The perspective joyful.   They show a landscape and culture that is tangible – as if you could step through the image and into that world without missing a beat.  In her introduction Erica describes India as a place of contrasts.  She cites “poverty and privilege, abundance and scarcity, empowerment and disenfranchisement, purity and filth, the ancient and the modern, enlightenment and ignorance, and life and death.”  But looking through the photographs I could see only the positives in that statement.  So I asked her – did she do that on purpose?  Here is her answer.

India is indeed a country of extremes, and yet while my book does reference that in the opening pages, this book is not about directly portraying those extremes. While moments can be labeled as ‘joyful’ or ‘depressing’, the way I see it is that the images I take are moments that occur in the ambience of the contrasts of these labels.

If you were to look, for example, at the picture near the end of the book of the young child wearing the orange top and a strange scowl on her face. I took this image on the banks of the holy Ganga river in the ancient city of Varanasi, aka Benares, one of the most sacred and ancient urban sites in India. Mark Twain once commented that “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” The child is seated on the steps of one of these ancient bathing ghats (a set of stone carved steps and platforms created for accessing the river) from which the local population has been bathing for generations spanning across centuries. In this same holy city, along the same holy river, there are other sacred ghats that do not host the activities of the living, but rather the Hindu rituals of the dead. Every day, for the past two thousand or so years, hundreds of bodies are burned on grand pyres and ceremoniously interred in the waters of the sacred river. Hindus come from all over India to have their remains laid to rest in this sacred city; to have your body buried in the holy Ganga is to instantly attain Nirvana and end the cycle of life and death, and to wash your living body in its waters is to wash away your karma. Considering the ambiance of these extremes, bathing the bodies of the living in the same waters that are receiving the ashes of the deceased, the look on the child’s face reveals something different, or rather, begs some different questions. This moment of beauty, a fleeting expression that questions the origins of innocence, intends to offer a fleeting glimpse into a world so attuned to the cycles of life and death.

You can find Erica’s book (and see more pictures) by following the link to  India: A Thousand Words.

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How & Where: Michael Pollan vs. Witold Rybczynski

The Michael Pollan book I’m reading reminds me of another favorite author of mine – Witold Rybczynski.  Both writers devote themselves to what could easily become unwieldy topics (gardening & cities in these examples),  yet they succeed in keeping the information manageable by dividing it into short, entertaining and self-contained essays.  I found their writing style to be similar, though Pollan is easily the more poetic of the two.  More importantly, both Rybczynski & Pollan display the desire to actively engage the reader’s interest in the topics they, themselves, find so fascinating.

Over a dozen years ago Rybczynski’s book City Life made me care about urban planning.  He introduced me to the concept that cities, like living things, evolve.  American cities are the way they are for a reason; we adapt  where we live to how we live.  And because we live differently from Europeans, Africans and Asians – our cities are different from theirs.

Just like there are layers of complexity to the natural world , the same is true of the man- made.

Rybczynski describes the American city in its many incarnations – New York, Chicago, D.C., Boston, etc.  He discusses how parks, public transportation and civic art came into being.  How the events of history shaped our landscape.  He makes connections that aren’t as obvious to the rest of us.  For example, Rybczynski discusses the famous visit of  Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831  and how the Frenchman did not find the America he had expected.

He had read James Fenimore Cooper’s novels set in the wilderness, and he anticipated that a nation that included pioneering settlers as well as urban patricians would display cultural extremes even more striking than those between the rustic French provinces and the sophisticated capitale.  A travel essay he published describes how a visit to the frontier (present day Michigan) confounded his expectations.  “When you leave the main roads your force your way down barely trodden paths.  Finally, you see a field cleared, a cabin made from half-shaped tree trunks admitting light though only one narrow window only.  You think that you have at last reached the home of the American peasant.  Mistake.  You make your way into this cabin that seems the asylum of all wretchedness but the owner of the place is dressed in the same clothes as yours and he speaks the language of towns.  On his rough table are books and newspapers; he himself is anxious to know what is happening in Europe and asks you to tell him w hat has most struck you in his country.”  Toqueville continued:  “One might think one was meeting a rich landowner who had come to spend just a few nights in a hunting lodge.”

This uniform national “urbanity”, Rybczynski points out, was due largely to the fact that the majority of early Americans dispersed into the wilderness (later into the suburbs) from cities/urban centers.  The reverse was true in Europe – the more established peasant class often making their way into the big cities from the countryside.  So, a defining aspect of the American character and culture is directly linked to how the country was geographically settled.

Pollan & Rybczynski  look at social norms which, for most of us, seem too mundane to question…  tending a garden, mowing a lawn, moving to the suburbs, visiting the park.  In doing so, they cause us to see and understand our lives in new ways.  They lead us to ask questions:  Pollan about how we live with nature and Rybczynski about the way we live among our fellow men.