There are at least three stories I can tell you of India. One is of magic and warmth, colors and sunlight. Of a land that was once called the jewel in the crown of the British Empire in reference to its beauty and bounty. One is of chaos. Of a massive population and a flawed infrastructure that has collapsed under the weight. And one is of hardship. Of a hard and sometimes cruel world.
THREE. I look through my camera every night after meeting people and taking photographs. I zoom in and out on pieces of the photo, checking for clarity, focus, and items I didn’t see in the moment. By the fourth day I see a theme among many of the street photos and some local industries. It’s in many eyes: exhaustion. A certain deadness. A lack of curiosity and sometimes overt desperation.
Outside Pushkar we meet the lowest Hindustan caste, the nomads and gypsies. In Mandawa we learn of more camps of nomadic peoples who were once part of a thriving caravan trade that has dried up and left ruins like so many ancient buildings. Except these ruins are comprised of people. On the streets are many beggars. But it’s young children in a brick factory that finally break my heart in two. I am stunned by this life and have never been so close to such poverty.
In the afternoons as we bounce across the roads I think about how to describe India. I am finding different threads to untangle across our variety of experiences. No thread can be entirely separated from another, and so I decide to present three equally valid stories with three clear angles. But not even a tale of hardship is as simple as I expect.
By the time we arrived in the brick making factory outside Mandawa, I was somewhat prepared for the hardship. And I am prepared to photograph a difficult life. In fact, I want to tell that story of hardship, to bring that aspect of my trip to India into greater view. Now that I had identified the thread, I want to thicken it. To highlight it. To round it out more thoroughly with more stories and people.
But I can’t tell quite that story. I couldn’t find the exact material to fit. Oh, some of it was there. The flies crawling at the corner of children’s eyes, red and swollen from the constant brick dust, don’t need any words. But the pure story of pain I thought to see didn’t exist. A factory that not long ago was a slave-fueled industry is as complex a story as India itself. Instead of deadness I found curiosity. The workers were fascinated by us. And truly, it was rather entertaining as we singled out some activities and some workers and descended like a swarm of bees.
Young boys crowed and raced around the camp, dragging us to see different things, to take silly pictures of them, and to generally make noise and revel in the attention. Men wanted to show off their wives, their kitchens, and one grandmother wanted me specifically to photograph her as a point of pride. One man in particular loved to pose and he could have been a poster boy for a coffee commercial with his ‘thumbs up’ and cheeky grin.
When I was invited back into the courtyard of homes I met strong women. Women who were not easily impressed or flattered. Women who were similarly confounded by us and debated covering their faces with saris or standing defiantly as 14 photographers poured into their courtyard. Women who couldn’t help smile at our antics despite themselves. I could almost feel their curiosity like a tangible force on me and the other women photographers. Itching to touch, and giggle and perhaps even gossip despite the language barrier. With so many men present though, we settled on complimenting each other, cooing at babies, and generally encouraging the raucous young boys. Such things transcend language.
The brick factory wasn’t the only confounding tale of hardship. Earlier in our journey we had descended on a camp of nomads; a family of the lowest Hindustani caste. Without much warning we arrived, and not only were they gracious about it, but they soon brought out instruments and started singing and dancing. They lit fires and clustered as though our arrival was worth a brief celebration.
But as we left I saw a woman curl up in the sand alone, and as I burrowed into my jacket in the cold I saw again the flimsy tents. Their only protection against the cold.