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Tales from India – Rewriting the Story

Rebecca Mqamelo – Old Delhi street scene, India
Photography by Ram Brandwain

The scene

Lakshmi is late.

She wears a simple, earth-toned sari. Every now and then, her graceful movements reveal a pale, fleshy stomach beneath the folds of patterned elephants trekking across her shoulder. Despite the sweltering Hyderabad heat and her frazzled hair, her demeanour is calm and she exudes a lively humour. Her smile is warm and her eyes quick and kind.

There is a value in examining people; observing every crease in their clothes, the movement of their eyes, the glint of gold in their teeth. Too often our impressions are based on vague memories and constructed projections.

Lakshmi has no gold in her teeth. She laughs a lot and when she speaks, her modest humour and motherly gaze bring to mind the words “Indian aunty”. Except Lakshmi is no Indian aunty. She is a Bay Area tech-veteran and a venture capitalist, and has her name on a Forbes list titled "Women to Watch in Asia".

We’re betraying ourselves with our wildest dreams, because – we’ll never admit it – they rest on an essential qualification: that we Westernize.

“The trouble with journalism,” she begins, “is that you tell someone else’s story in your own words. I’m trying to empower people to tell their own stories, in their own way, in their own accent, with the fullness of what is in their own heart. It has to be authentic.” For the first time in a long time, the word “authentic” doesn’t make me cringe. Perhaps it’s because it isn’t coming from someone trying to help me tweak my LinkedIn profile. It’s coming from an Indian aunty in a sari, and that makes all the difference.

The backstory

Before I moved to India, my cultural knowledge consisted of cricket, Shahrukh Khan, and the odd scene from Slumdog Millionaire. My best expectations lacked ambition – I’d be happy if the highlight of my stay was four months of affordable access to butter chicken. But sometimes, ignorance can be a good thing. Your preconceptions are shallow, yet minimal, and are perfectly positioned to yield to a transformed perspective.

Chandni Chowk street scence, Old Delhi, India

Lakshmi is just one more encounter edging my view of India away from malnourished children and perilous driving habits towards wealth, and not just because of the numerous Lakshmis I’ve met – all named after the Hindu goddess of prosperity. India’s wealth lies in its innovative ideas, diverse people, rich culture, and mind-bogglingly complex history. Travel up north and you step into the antiquities of the sprawling Mughal Empire. Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan are a maze of ancient forts, temples and palaces interwoven with the eclectic face of the second-most populated democracy in the world (1.3 billion people – imagine how many election booths that requires). Here, the evolution of a civilization isn’t confined to history books but is a flourishing narrative taking place all around you. In the south, cities like Hyderabad and Bangalore are a testament to the rapid change that modernization and economic development have enabled. And yet Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “India lives in its villages”, are as true today as they were at the beginning of the 20th century; 80% of the population resides in rural areas.

To live as a foreigner in India is to assume total ignorance. After reading works like Patrick French’s India: A Portrait and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger – works that together offer the good, the bad, the ugly, and the morbidly sinister of modern India – it comes as no surprise that I have encounters that totally disarm my preconceptions about the people in this country. When I hear stories like these, my pitiful understanding is gently prodded to a place of modest enlightenment:

  • Arunachalam Muruganantham, or, quite simply, “Padman” is the inventor of a low-cost sanitary pad-making machine that has now been rolled out to villages across India. He humiliated his family with his obsession with menstruation. They say his sisters avoided him and his mother even moved out of the family home, but his entrepreneurial efforts and the public attention his business attracted are now recognized as a driving force behind national dialogue on the taboos surrounding female hygiene. Period. End of Sentence., which is a short documentary about women in India fighting the stigma around menstruation and features Padman, won an Oscar at the 91st Academy Awards.

  • Just outside my city of residence, Hyderabad, a “Victoria’s Secret Man” is the owner of a factory supplying lingerie for Victoria’s Secret. He provides employment for over 18,000 people, 16,000 of whom are women.

  • PayTM, India’s largest mobile commerce platform, is revolutionizing e-commerce. Not only have they managed to expand to a 300-million user base, but they’ve also achieved the seemingly impossible by servicing vendors in remote rural areas. Of PayTM’s 7 million merchants, 850,000 of them operate offline.

  • And for the more humorous side of India, check out Doctor CK’s cover of Michael Jackson’s “Beat it” on YouTube. This retired octogenarian medical practitioner became a global internet sensation by singing over 1,400 covers of popular songs. His “Beat It” cover has garnered the alternative title of “The Real Killer of Michael Jackson”, for reasons that will leave you in stitches.

I could spew out thousands of words describing the marvels of Indian business strategy and the idiosyncrasies of the subcontinent. For now, I can only say how much my own country, South Africa, has to learn from a place like India.

Rebecca Mqamelo – Old Delhi street scene, India

The lesson

There is a problem all over the developing world; our education systems are so Eurocentric and our aspirations so narrow, that we grow up truly believing that if only we set our sights on America, or the UK, or Germany, we’ll get there, somehow. We’re betraying ourselves with our wildest dreams, because – we’ll never admit it – they rest on an essential qualification: that we Westernize.

It dawned on me recently, through taking a global development economics course and living in India, that “development” is a misleading word. I’d even call it dangerous. Kenya will never be what Denmark is – there, I said it. South Africa really shouldn’t be looking at Swiss policies for inspiration, and nor should India imitate US business culture.

Too often, when we discuss so-called emerging markets, our reference to “development” might as well be substituted with words like “Westernization” and “neo-colonialism”. We can achieve 100% literacy rates, run free and fair elections, foster environments of innovation and growth - but we don’t have to emulate models that were never intended to work in vastly different contexts. It’s all about framing and principles, but when the only frameworks we’ve ever taught to value are of a specific kind, we set ourselves up at best for eternally stunted progress and at worst, for outright failure.

My two and a half months in India have taught me volumes about what I think I know and what I clearly don’t. This is why travel is so, so, so important! (Could I ever stress it enough?) Pico Iyer says, “We do not travel to move. We travel to be moved.”

Yet I am so aware that travel itself is a luxury – not only for those who can afford it or who (like me) are thrust into it as an unexpected byproduct of their circumstances – but especially for people for whom the concept of travelling has been culturally ingrained as foreign, wasteful, and even suspect. Travel writer Lola Akinmade illustrates this poignantly when she reflects on her own experiences as a Nigerian woman navigating her way through Eastern Europe before the saving grace of the Schengen visa:

“I had to elaborate this unbelievable concept of a Nigerian travelling for the sole purpose of enjoyment. [That] explanation — the deep enrichment travel brings into our lives — was too easy an explanation for every immigration officer reviewing my … passport.”

Akinmade goes on: “How many talents lay hidden forever because people were never given the opportunity to explore, to see the world, to learn from other cultures, to be cultural ambassadors themselves, and to use those talents to make a difference in their own way?”

The re-write

I am privileged to be a traveler. It has allowed me to see nations’ stories unfolding in front of me and to be a part of them, too. Now, as Lakshmi speaks about her efforts to empower Indians to tell their own story, I can appreciate that this quest isn’t a marketing spin or an effort to tell tales of success packaged for the Western world. It’s about ownership; of culture, of identity, of the future of her country.

Just as I tell my own story through speaking and writing, I must acknowledge that I indirectly tell the stories of others. How I choose to frame those stories is shaped by my biases and beliefs. But the beauty is that when two stories merge, they offer another side to the mirror, an alternative path, a new chapter to the book of human development that we thought we knew so well. Many are ready to reimagine new lead characters and an entirely different setting. Isn’t it time we had a plot twist?


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