You don’t want to come back from India with the real picture. So we crane our necks, hold our cameras in the air, spend hours with our iPhoto editing tools. We crop our experiences. And those of us in the travel-writing and marketing trades also use our editing tools. From the customised Euphemism Dictionary and Panglossian Adjectival Software we select terms like “colourful”, “vibrant” and “chaotic”. Meanwhile, the rubbish gets worse and worse. The cities are getting buried. New Delhi chucks away 10,000 tons a day. That’s predicted to double in 10 years. Neither landfill nor the wretched armies of slumdog scavengers can keep it in check.
In a way, rural India is even more depressing. I drove through the provinces south of Chennai in search of Malgudi, or rather a good approximation. Malgudi is a fictional town. It was created by RK Narayan for his marvellous novels that made many of us fall in love with the India and the Indians that dwell beyond the forts and monuments.
I gave up. Whenever I got a glimpse of a street or a riverside walk that conjured up Malgudi, that view was polluted by another pile of garbage or the tattered remains of plastic bags clinging to fences and trees. After 10 or 12 visits to what the tourist board calls – and which often is – Incredible India, I am, for the first time, getting discouraged from going again.
Inevitably, politics, corruption and bureaucracy have a lot to answer for. But so is the authorities’ unwillingness to address what strikes me as an increasingly typical cultural mindset, which says: “I will keep my front porch spick and span, but once I’m out on the public highway, who cares