Monday, May 25, 2009

Jazz Republic

I was rather put off by the title of the article, but I'm glad I gave it a go anyway -- the writer perfectly sums up my own opinion of Bangladesh. Of course, he is writing about India, but I suppose South Asia never gets very far away from itself.

Will India Lose Its Charm as It Becomes ‘World Class’?

By ANAND GIRIDHARADAS

... India has long been a jazz republic, functioning without a written score. People involve themselves in each other’s lives without regard to propriety or privacy. They insist on feeding you even when you want nothing. They insist on paying a price other than the price listed.

They pack as many cars onto a road as possible, without regard to the painted lanes. They pay as little tax as they can get away with.

If you call Domino’s after closing time, you can sometimes cajole them to reopen and deliver a pizza anyway. Everything is a negotiation; everything is improvised. Things are a “no” in India until they are a “yes.”

Anand goes on to say that India is changing. Modernity is eroding its charm.

And yet now when I visit America, where I grew up until moving to India six years ago, I wonder if this is where India is bound: a society that is fairer and more ordered, but in which something of the warmth of improvisation is gone.

Although he refers to America, the last sentence seems to me a pretty accurate characterisation
of Singapore.

During my trip back, I was taking pictures for my brother in Victoria Theatre. He was taking part in a national competition, and I had photographed his events in the past when they were held at less prestigious locations.

When it was his turn, I left my place in the aisle alongside other photographers to go crouch in front of the stage, next to a 'official' event photographer, taking care to keep low so as not to block anyone's view.

I barely began clicking before a woman -- the theatre security -- came up and spoke to me in a tone which I thought would be more apt used on a terrorist trying to hide a bomb under a stage. She growled that I was not allowed there and that I had to leave. Immediately. Security concerns. I must have been living in Bangladesh for too long, because I turned to her to explain: I only needed a few minutes, I was blocking no one, and it was my brother up there.

What was I thinking, trying to negotiate with her? Our society seldom allows for exceptions. You think you're so different? That you should get special treatment? That we will bend the rules for you? You've been misinformed.

But I suppose it was a habit I had picked up. In Bangladesh, your access is determined by your determination, your ability to convince, persuade and lie. As the writer put so succinctly, its a 'no' until its a 'yes'. It's survival of the fittest, and here I don't begrudge others for getting ahead of me because they were smart enough to do so. I don't think -- not fair! He broke the rules! I think, fuck! Why didn't I think of that?

In a way, I've been so spoilt by Bangladesh, where a smile and an explanation lets me get away with just about anything.

We don't allow for this in Singapore, and lest anyone think I am criticising the existence of our myraid of rules, I'm not. I can understand that the same charming system that lets me get away with photographing anywhere is the same system that allows for inefficiency and corruption.

The security woman wasn't persuaded, of course, and continued to growl at me. After a while, I got so irritated I snapped at her and said loudly, "My god! Give me a break!" Then she said there were more security personnel coming to remove me. Well, my brother's segment was over, and I left -- to collective relief.

On the last night before I was due to fly back, we had dinner with my uncle and his family at the nearby foodcourt in Hougang Mall. I had with me one of those small video cameras to record the antics of my two young cousins.

I had forgotten the sacred rule of never photographing/videoing indoors, and was taken aback when the manager suddenly appeared out of no where, putting her hands to block the video lens. We were in front of the drinks stall, and I had been videoing Reuben talking general gibberish.

"You CANNOT take video in here!" she said, as she forcibly lowered my camera.

In both of these incidents, it wasn't so much the request that shocked me. Both of these women were just doing their jobs and it is their right to tell me to stop photographing/videoing.

It was their tone, and the way they spoke to me, that left me slightly dumbfounded. Their ferocity, anger and aggression made me feel like such an utter criminal, like I had been caught setting fire to the place. Well trained. If I were a terrorist I'd be shit scared.

Anand writes about how the 'modernity' and its rules have changed Indian society.

But one senses something robotic at work, cutting between what are, at the day’s end, just two human beings.

And yet, with India as the foil, one can see a deeper meaning in the brusqueness and coldness. So much of this behavior seems intended to draw a red line of dignity around the individual, to declare to the world that she is somebody whom no one can push around, that no one is better than anyone else.

But which is more real, this cold dignity or India’s warm servility?

And one wonders whether, as modernity comes, India will lose a certain warmth, a certain tender involvement of everyone in everyone. Is the warmth that lingers just a product of this stage of history, residually feudal and agrarian and poor, a stage from which India will eventually move on?

It seems undoubtedly so. And I particularly loved his last line.

Is destiny the barriers between us?

This, I'm not so sure. Perhaps, the barriers that exist between people can be removed by the people themselves. It does make it all that difficult to connect with one another, to break the ice of initial hostility, but it doesn't make it impossible.

After both incidents, I talked to the women after putting away my offending equipment. We laughed together, and we apologised to each other. So sorry about it, just doing my job, they said. I'm sorry too, I said, for having been so difficult.

I guess, a smile goes a long way in Singapore too.

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