I left India early yesterday morning bound for Edinburgh, where I landed last night. I already miss it. This always happens, by the way. Even when I lived in New York, I’d come back from India and feel… underwhelmed. Not that there’s anything wrong with New York. There isn’t. And there’s nothing wrong with Grinnell, Iowa, where I live now, and where I’m headed next. I like New York; I like Grinnell. I sure as hell like Edinburgh. But India is different, and not in the ways people on the outside looking in tend to think.
I almost feel sorry for the foreigners who buy into the idea of India as some mystical, other worldly place, where ordinary people are isolated from material concerns. It’s a fiction sold by political and economic elites to unsuspecting or perhaps just willfully ignorant tourists. Everyday life in India is anything but other worldly. Indeed, it’s very much of this world, all the more so because of the size of the population and the number of cultures and languages represented therein. There's more than a billion in all across India, most of them in the countryside, but not for long. Soon there will be ten million in the city of Bangalore. Twenty-plus already live in metropolitan Delhi and Mumbai. And nowhere—not in the cities, not in the villages—is there a singular vision or plan to pull these masses of people, cultures, and languages together.
All of which makes for tough living, certainly, not least for poor and working people. It also makes for great sociology, which is why I keep coming back. Living in India, I’m on, all the time, criss-crossing cities (mostly), visiting with rich and poor alike, sometimes when and where their paths intersect, other times not. In India, my sociological imagination—what C. Wright Mills refers to as the effort to mingle history and biography to understand the social world—is tapped on a near daily basis. It’s intellectually, emotionally, and physically stimulating, yes. More than anywhere else I’ve lived or visited, I must say. It’s also, perhaps, why, every now and again, I need a break.
Till next time, India.