Thursday Thought – The Indian Tapestry: No Single Story
“You will always cherish it. It’s like India – you’ll never see only those old, broken, and dirty threads again, Jake; you’ll see the whole carpet, the good knots and the bad knots that make it whole.” With that, Javid ceremoniously wrapped the two foot square carpet in brown paper, and handed it to me. Like many of the carpet wallas in the narrow alleys of Kathmandu, Javid hails from Kashmir, the war-torn state in northwest India, and he is a great salesman. He had just talked me into buying an old, Afghan saddlebag carpet, beaten and abused from years on horseback in Central Asia. I didn’t want to buy it; I could see only the stains and tatters, the years of use and abuse that told me but one aspect of the item’s story. But, Javid’s lecture – and my carpet purchase – started with a discussion about India. It was 1994, I had just come back from my first trip there, and was trying to make sense of it all.
“India is like a carpet,” Javid said earlier in the day. “You have so many fibers, so many threads. Some are old and nasty, covered with the dirt of a million feet, frayed at the ends. But, some are also beautiful, fine threads of silk and gold, vermillion and turquoise and saffron. It’s these threads we need to see, but we only see the dirty ones.”
And so it is. When I told people our plans to spend six weeks this past autumn in India following the Ganges River from source to sea, they looked at me like I was either masochistic, insane, stupid, or perhaps a bit of each mixed together. Many of the responses went like this:
“Good luck with that one.”
“Did you get sponsored by Ciprofloxacin?”
“I’m sure it’ll be fun, but I wouldn’t sign up for six days in that intense poverty and dirt, let alone six weeks!”
And, in all honesty, I can’t blame them. We tend, as humans, to apply one narrative to a given people, place, or thing and call it good. For India, it’s long been the narrative of squalor: too many people in too small an area with too few resources and too many problems. Photojournalists, like myself, are often at the heart of this narrowed view, turning our lenses more often to the troubled spots that jump into our faces and senses than to the nuanced beauty woven into the tapestry.
I admit that I, too, am guilty of this mono-dimensional view of India at times. As excited as I was for our Ganges: Source to Sea Expedition (#GangaS2S, made possible by Eddie Bauer, Microsoft Surface, National Geographic, Ambuja Cement Foundation, and our other sponsors and partners), my mind wandered consistently to the horror we would see on the great river: toxic chemicals pouring indiscriminately from the sewers of factories; human waste spewing from open pipes; partially burned corpses bobbing down the river, putrid flesh clinging to charred bones; wastelands of environmental tragedy, voiding the region of biodiversity which sustained its past and benchmarks its future. These were the visions in my head as I packed in late-August, and they mixed with the conflicting emotions of excitement and inertia.
And, of course they were accurate: those were indeed the tattered, dirty, frayed threads we encountered over 1,500 miles of river and six weeks of travel. They jumped from the carpet of India, assaulting our senses and directing our attention. But, there was more, much, much more – we just had to open our eyes to see it.
Within that great carpet, the gilded tapestry that is India, lies beautiful strands, just as Javid told me. For every chemical spill and sewage pipe, we saw an equal amount of thriving beauty and intense humanity. The industrial pollution of the subcontinent is countered by the admirable work ethic of a people striving to bring themselves out of poverty. The river’s pollution is matched by the reverence of a billion Hindus, with hundreds of millions of them paying glorious homage to her waters each night. Dams and barrages and diversions and canals are the industrial masks of an attempt to bring to India that which so many around the world enjoy: a secure life, a light in the evening, a full belly to start the day.
It’s always easiest to see the broken threads, the tattered fabric of a place. That is what shocks us, and in a weird way, that is the “otherness” that attracts us like bugs to a light. But, there’s always more than just a single story. In her Ted talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said: “When we reject the single story, when we realize there is never a single story about any place or people, we regain a kind of paradise.” Peter McBride, David Morton, and I were determined from the outset to reject the single story of the Ganges, to look deeply and fully at the river, to take in all its beauty and all its tragedy and attempt to understand its waft and weft completely. And, by doing so, we did regain a kind of paradise.