I’ve now been in India for a week. Three days at the big Bollywood Conference (Frames 2013) in Mumbai, followed by three days in the holy city of Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges. The two worlds are so far apart that I could have been on different planets. This is my first experience of India, so what follows is a sort of stream of consciousness post.
Mumbai is a big confident city with some of the wealthiest men in India building houses that would have embarrassed the Maharajas for their opulence. I heard that there are more than 100 members of Parliament worth over $1 billion. This may of course be an urban myth,but the perception that the powerful live in a different world seems well founded. Of course this is no different than the U.S., but what does stand out is the understanding that India is a very young democracy. From the point of view of the film makers I met in Mumbai, basic notions of freedom of speech are constantly trumped by the anger felt from certain (often religious) groups who feel offended by the new sensibilities flowing from young secular voices. Every state in India seems to have a different political make up and the politics reminds one of Israel, in which small right wing religious parties have outsized influence. Thus a film may be censored in one state and a hit in another. As a young former student of mine remarked, it’s quite easy for a populist firebrand to get a thousand people riled up about some rather trivial outrage.
By contrast, the life on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi seems not to have changed much from the first millennium. Every night the fires of the funeral pires burn until daybreak. The smell of sandalwood drifts out over the water and there are no tears from the relatives who come to say goodbye. My amazing guide Aman Choudhary says that is because life and Moksha live side by side in this pace he calls Kashi. Moksha could perhaps be compared to the Buddhist notion of Nirvana. If your life in this world ends in ashes on the banks of the Ganges, you don’t have to return. I guess what got to me most was the joy in the faces of the pilgrims as they plunged themselves in the Ganges for the first time in their life. Some of them had journeyed for three days by train and had little more than the clothes on their backs. But their faith was still strong.
I don’t know how India is going to resolve the worlds of Mumbai and Kashi. Perhaps they never will. But close to the banks of the river was a Mosque and the Muslims and the Hindus seemed to coexist with ease. I know there are many battles elsewhere in the country, but in this religous city, there is peace. Farther outside of town was the Stupa commemorating the place where Buddha preached his first sermon. Thirty monks from Thailand stood before a magnificent 5th Century Buddha and chanted. I fixed my eyes on the gentle smile of the Buddha, and was pulled by the chants back in time. The worlds of reality TV, Internet Privacy and dystopian fears faded away.