Rural India Disappears
The photograph above was taken twenty years ago, up the road from my childhood home in rural South India. This one I took recently, from almost exactly the same spot.
Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, famously described the country as an “ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer” of history had been inscribed, without ever fully effacing the previous ones. Sometimes, though, I can’t help feeling that this place is less a palimpsest than a brutal, erasable slate: layer upon layer of newness, the past a commodity, disposable and easily forgotten.
The dirt roads and fields, the sense of openness that I grew up with—nothing of their spirit survives in the cramped concrete blocks that today house yoga centers, guest houses, pizza shacks, and trendy boutiques. Everything seems to be succumbing to the same processes of development, of modernization—and, eventually, of obliteration.
Not too long ago, I paid another visit to the shandy, or cow market, that I write about in this week’s issue and discuss on The New Yorker Out Loud. I went with Sathy, a landlord and farmer who is in the article, and a man named Krishnan. I went because I wanted to take a few pictures, to capture the scenes I had been writing about, but it was quickly clear that the place I had been visiting for years no longer existed. A real-estate developer had bought the adjacent land; rumor had it that he was going to develop an industrial park. As a first step, the developer had cut down most of the tamarind trees that bordered—and provided shade to—the shandy. A casuarina forest at the edge of the shandy had also been felled.
Standing in that denuded clearing, the mid-day sun beating down hard, Sathy and Krishnan talked about all the farms in the area that were becoming real estate, the fields that were turning fallow as their owners abandoned agriculture. “I have been coming to this market since I was a boy,” Krishnan said. He pointed at the gnarled stumps of tamarind trees ringing the clearing. Some of those trees would have been a century old. “Those trees have always been here,” Krishnan said. “The first time that I saw they were cut, my heart felt heavy.”
“Just leave it,” Sathy said. “Everything is being lost. Soon this shandy probably won’t even exist anymore.” He, too, had been coming to the shandy since he was a boy.
Sathy started to walk away, back to his car. He called over his shoulder. “Just leave it,” he said again—and I wasn’t sure whether he was trying to console Krishnan or himself.