Roving thoughts and provocations

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Hyderabad in Five Colors

Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images
Laborers in front of an apartment complex for technology workers, Hyderabad, India, March 3, 2012

When I flew into Hyderabad’s new Rajiv Gandhi International Airport not long ago, I was excited to visit a city that had become my ancestral homeland’s latest technological showpiece. A well-traveled American businessman I met in Singapore had told me about the elevated expressway running into town from the airport—like Silicon Valley, he said, only cleaner. Great glassy boxes saying “Oracle” and “Microsoft” and “Google” did indeed fill the skyline in places, and design hotels were lit up in turquoise and purple after dark. Sudden clusters of shopping-malls were like nothing I’d seen—or imagined possible—in India. Even one of the palaces of the late Nizam, the ruler of Hyderabad once said to be the wealthiest man in the world, had recently been turned into a $700-a-night Taj Group hotel that society matrons from New York’s Upper East Side were flocking to pay homage to.

And yet the state-of-the-art expressway, in the parts I visited, seemed to be still under construction, and the kids who abducted me from the “Pre-Paid Taxi” line at the airport and thrust me into a rickety car—the only one to get pre-paid was the official they bribed—had not a clue how to negotiate either the vehicle or the road. The meal I ordered at the design hotel has yet to arrive, and the “Free Internet Terminals” around the airport were either malfunctioning or taken over by bored security guards; I could use one only if I paid, I was told. When I thought back to the India I had known in the 1980s, it was exhilarating to see how many channels were on TV, how glossy were the magazines (and the people in them), how Thums-Up Cola has been joined by Coke. But as I drove along the ill-lit streets, under ads for MBA courses and “Veg Supreme McMuffins,” the place still looked strangely like a scene out of some vanished age, infinitely more crowded and revved-up than before, but no less chaotic.

The beauty of India, I thought, lies in how little it ever changes, deep down; it clings to the ways of a thousand years ago, and to the multifarious customs it has adopted in the centuries since, with an intimacy that many a neighbor might envy. No one in search of the old in India ever comes away disappointed. But that is also, famously, the exasperation of India, especially for those (in business, say) who want reality to keep pace with possibility. For centuries the country has enthusiastically taken in every new influence from abroad and woven it into a pell-mell design that seems as Indian as ever. Its people got cricket, Dickensian paperwork, and the English language from their British rulers, and now all those could almost be mistaken for Indian inventions; they took in Parsees and Jews and Christians, with the result that a thousand religions flourish in India, often shouting their opposition to one another at the same time. Now India is drawing from some of the global order’s latest fads, but only by superimposing them upon what still, poignantly, remains one of the most uncared-for and impoverished populations on earth.

The mark of a deep culture is its closeness to its roots; when I look at my adopted home, Japan, for example, I see a place that isn’t sure how much it belongs to its past, how much to the future, and sometimes seems to be doing the splits. I don’t think this is the case in India—yet—though many traditionally oppressed groups (whether women or gays or the Dalits) are now given some freedoms, while being reminded daily of how many they still lack. But it also speaks to how resistant the place is to being altered, even if its surfaces are constantly shifting.

Every visitor who goes to India—and I’ve been back twice in the past seven months—knows how the country refuses to conform to plans or international expectations; the only way to survive is to give yourself over to its way of being. Fight against the Indian way of doing things, wish that things were different, and the only result will be tears. Just as you have to turn your watch forwards by half an hour when landing in India, just as you have to check in the batteries from your camera as separate pieces of luggage, just as it can prove impossible to find a working Internet connection in a proud center of high-tech like Hyderabad, so every foreigner has to surrender and realize that things will get done in their own, unexpected ways. The very qualities that make India so culturally alive, textured and itself make it uncommonly reluctant to adjust to the economic rules and geopolitical norms of the world. India most happily changes the lives of those who have no thought of changing India.

* * *

Perhaps many an Indian who still lives there will say that this is the typically ignorant and incomprehending perspective of a “Non-Resident Indian,” and perhaps he will be right. Like more and more across the planet I am entirely of Indian origin, but I’ve never lived in my parents’ homeland, merely visiting it at regular intervals since 1959. And because of India’s unique way of doing things, the gap between Indian perceptions and those of the outside world may be as great as in any country this side of China or Japan. “Reimagining India” is always going to be very different from remaking India, especially if that act of reimagination comes from abroad. The country’s extraordinarily resourceful and creative people have always given rise to brilliant ideas that the place’s collective institutions and weight of tradition have not always been able to make space for. It’s the very inertia of the system that sometimes keeps individuals so nimbly on the move, in fact.

In my own field, writing, those of Indian origin have, in a single generation, begun to dominate the Western world’s major prizes, a reflection of their formidable talent, ambition and—often—humanity; and when it comes to those on whom we writers rely—readers—I’m confident that even if every publishing house and newspaper in the West closes down, India will still be generating new ones. Every time I meet an Indian businessman or doctor or engineer—and it’s graduates of the Indian Institutes of Technology that have been behind 40 percent of Silicon Valley’s recent start-ups—I’m struck not just by their accomplishments, but by the fact that, very often, they’re reading more novels (and even writing them) than I am, though it’s my sole business to do so.

But then I think of the crowds along those roads in Hyderabad, where the number of vehicles seems to have increased ten-fold, even as the number of pedestrians, bicycles and cows may have increased even more. Every night, as I inched through the streets in a taxi, I saw bodies lying in the road, or beside it, surrounded by circles of wildly gesticulating bystanders in the dark, as if to speak, too literally, for the victims of uneven or over-rapid development. I think of the hundreds of millions of Indians living within sight of those gleaming malls and Facebook offices whose lives have not changed at all, except that now they can see all that they may never enjoy.

India has long been a place that defies logic and analysis as resolutely as anywhere; long before its recent growth rate began to stall, it had been a graveyard of well-intentioned dreams. When I took my trip to Hyderabad, it was, as it happened, to visit Ramoji Film City, acclaimed in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest film studio complex on earth. The place also calls itself the most visited site in the country, outside the Taj Mahal. More than two hundred and seventy films were projected to be shot there that year, and with its zany mix of Hollywood sign and Wild West town, “Japanese Garden” and replica of, in fact, the Taj Mahal, it’s a memorable location. The man who built it, Ramoji Rao, has also founded a journalism school and a film-and-TV school on the premises, not least because he owns the largest newspaper in the state, along with twelve TV channels.

But as I spent a few days on the property, magicked out of the scrubland sixteen miles outside Hyderabad, everything I saw was very different from what the facts and figures had prepared me for. Nearly all the visitors were Indians, often from nearby, understandably enraptured to see an amusement-park-cum-production-facility-cum-enormous-botanical-garden that was as close as most of them would get to Universal Studios. A sound engineer I spoke with seemed as professional, as technically accomplished as any counterpart I’d met in Hollywood—and more articulate and thoughtful besides; but in fifteen years only a handful of Western companies had tried to make films here, although the cutting-edge facilities were available at a tenth the price. And when I visited some sets where movies were being filmed, I noticed, not without delight, that these were exactly the same movies—with the same mustachioed villains, star-crossed lovers, and song-and-dance routines—I might have seen in 1975, when I spent a whole summer as a teenager traveling across India, watching films.

This very changelessness, and loyalty to Shakespearean laws of entertainment and instruction, make Indian movies popular from Russia to Peru and Egypt to Bali; they speak for human dramas that anyone can relate to. Ramoji Film City was affecting precisely because its properties seemed so hand-made and indigenous and improvised—ladies from the villages sweeping the gardens, their saris over their head. It couldn’t begin to live up to its hope of luring international film-makers—after all, the boys at the airport couldn’t even find the most visited site in the country outside the Taj Mahal—and yet it was engaging and unique because it was so Indian.

Finally, not far from where Chairman Rao lives in a Citizen Kane-worthy palace overlooking the site, I was ushered up to the top of a nine-story building, and let in to see the man himself. He was sitting, modestly, in an open-necked white shirt in front of a huge, completely empty desk, a friendly-seeming man of seventy-five. At the far end of his enormous office eighteen TV monitors projected programs, most of them from one of the channels he controls. There was no computer or high-tech intercom service on his desk; nothing, in fact, but a tiny notebook with lines written out in a rainbow of colors.

A habit of boyhood, perhaps, that guided and steadied him even as he became one of the richest men in the state. Anyone who’s been to India could recognize the scene: a tycoon running a multi-media empire and overseeing what he called “the world’s dream facility” with a notebook and five colored pens. India is not going to change at its core anytime soon, and the challenge for all of us who love it is to see the blessing in that and not the aggravation.

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