Pondicherry, April 15 They appear out of the dark, right at the edge of the road from Chennai to Pondicherry at 3:30 a.m.: a dozen women in purple saris sitting in a circle, carefully fixing their hair for the day. A man, likely their foreman, watches. In an hour or so, he will lead them to the fields to begin work before the heavy sun of the Indian south rises. They’ll get the equivalent of a little more than a dollar for the day; it will feed, with rice and not much else, a family of four.
As quickly as you glimpse the women from a car, they fade from view in a fog of cooking smoke and truck exhaust. But there are always more people in India, and quite a throng right in the middle of the road, at any hour.
The French photographer Bruno Sauerwein caught the people in motion with his recent “India on the Move” show in the French part of Pondi, as the locals call it. There is never anyone in India not doing something; nothing remains idle. Mr. Sauerwein’s pictures stalk the night and the edges of daylight: Boys on shiny motorcycles and girls on pink bikes; tired men having a quick chai or picking through trash; a pair of young traffic cops smiling, arm in arm, under the blue vault of evening.
Wherever you look, or point a camera, in India, smiles and surprises abound. On the road south of Villupuram, a stop at a tiny roadside Hindu temple one hot morning instantly draws a half-dozen women away from weeding the median of the new highway. Each sports a bright orange safety vest and a bunch of crooked teeth. You can’t tell their ages, but they want their picture taken.
That is what Mr. Sauerwein found, too, everywhere. First, people want to talk, a lot, to know what your name is and, most of all, where you come from. Next, they want to have their picture taken with you; they bunch up shoulder-to-shoulder, giggling, and then crowd around to see the photo on the little screen.
These instant snapshots enthrall and inspire. Everyone here seems to want more, not necessarily in the image of the West, but more. And they are really striving to get it. The nation brims over with effort, good cheer and hope. There seems to be no one who is not thinking of education as the key; every conversation seems to turn to coming exams, or to the college or university one hopes to attend, to failed efforts on one front but new dreams on another.
A young man running a restaurant near Kodaikanal, in the hills a couple of hours northwest of Madurai, outlines his course of school after school to be a better cook, hotel manager, caterer and more. He thanked his parents for helping him by buying them a new cow. He shows off a cellphone photo of the calf it just had, standing splay-legged in a spotless courtyard.
On previous trips here, we had never noticed all the cellphones. Now it has become de rigueur to point your motorcycle into the whirling storm that is traffic in India while talking on the phone tucked between ear and shoulder, with no helmet to protect your head.
The future seems to have arrived full speed when you see an old woman squatting before her palm-thatch hut, talking on a cellphone and gesticulating as if the person on the line could see her.
India is an outlandish show of style and ambition at every turn. Every vehicle is painted to the hilt with symbols and slogans in bright, shining colors, as though a tremendous rivalry in truck or rickshaw art were unfolding on the roads.
The roads themselves are a sign of the times: For every old two-lane track winding through the countryside past one-light homes and endless fields, nearby lie the forms of a new highway cutting its way toward tomorrow. Either side of the cement and asphalt stand jagged ruins of homes sliced in half. Wallpaper flaps in the wind and wires dangle forth.
But the inhabitants of these homes, the people displaced by roads, move on, and fast. There is no time for reflection here; stop and you die, for want of the basics, which still are not simple to come by. To remain in motion is to survive in the mass of humanity struggling forward.
It is a slog through a trash-filled storm; every tree and bush has a plastic bag caught in it, and every field boasts more plastic alongside vegetables and rice. A villager near Pondi tells us that the trash truck (a bizarre concept to begin with) comes maybe twice a year, or not. So the mind-set is: All the trash really isn’t there if you don’t look at it. Sometimes someone lights a pile, but plastic burns poorly, and the soot is oily and stringy.
A green movement, at least as concerns trash, seems far-fetched. But at the edge of Kodaikanal, where the British colonial rulers liked to send their wives and children in the heat of April and May, there’s a sign pronouncing the town plastic-free. And somehow it is — perhaps because you also pay a small toll, 30 rupees, or about 70 U.S. cents, just to get into the place.
There, Indians rush to the lakeside to rent rowboats or pedalboats, and glide back and forth talking on their cellphones as the mountain mist drifts in. Later, they crowd the copycat shops along the lake’s edge to buy bottles of yellowish eucalyptus oil and bags of chunky chocolate.
It is a modern India now that moves to the rhythm of consumerism and acquisition, where men getting married have gigantic posters of themselves and their brides made to put up by the roadside; where huge posters also are thrown up to welcome the agriculture secretary; where an entrepreneur who has had a recent business success stands his own image four meters tall at a traffic circle for all to see for months until the rains melt it down. And even then, more such posters will go up in the downpours, hung high by armies of thin men on rickety wooden scaffolding among confusing tangles of electric wires as they, too, strive to climb upon the shoulders of the newly powerful and also rise.
This is unstoppable India. Outside an Internet cafe in Pondi there is a tremendous explosion one morning. Men swarm in the street. We fear terrorism and venture out only after a while. It turns out to be local police officers wishing their chief happy birthday with enough fireworks to blow out everyone’s eardrums. Tomorrow, one feels sure, will bring yet another unimaginable surprise.
(Courtesy: New York Times)