Saturday, June 2, 2007

A Postscript in Two Parts: Part Two

Let’s go Dutch!

The first thing that strikes you when you start driving out of Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam is how orderly everything seems. Even the trees grow, neatly spaced, in a straight line. That impression is reinforced by everything you encounter. Well, fair enough, one thinks, after all, much of Holland is reclaimed land, and planned construction allows one to impose a linear order on nature.

But what accounts for the people here? As far as one sees and hears and reads, it is the same mad human race that inhabits this space, the one that drives badly elsewhere; will not stand in queues; talks loudly and violates rules; spits, urinates and defecates in public spaces; and evades tax. What makes them so well-behaved here? (Rude, but well-behaved!) I don’t know, but it should be a wonder of the world.

We sat at the window everyday and watched Leiden file by, in perfect order. Traffic is orderly, trains are orderly, people are orderly. (You get the picture.)

And we remembered Ranganathan Street and its chaos. The mad traffic of humans, cows and cars at the entrance of Colaba market. The craziness of trying to get on or off a plane or train in India. Spitting at no-spitting signs. Sticking posters over do-not-stick warnings. Men urinating everywhere unless there is the picture of a god, goddess or saint (the origins of image worship?) before them. “Queues” pressed abreast a teller’s counter. And held our heads in our hands at the memory.

Why do we preen at our bad behaviour? Indeed, why do most humans defend really bad behaviour by using words like: spontaneous, free, open, natural… what is natural about lack of consideration or lack of civic sense? Sometimes we also romanticize it: this is how we are, the world marvels at our functioning chaos, our chaos is colourful, being in India is about experiencing heat, dust and dirt.

It makes me cringe. It makes me sad. It makes me want to step out and try to change things.

One of the things I really want to change is the way we run our museums. The Dutch love their museums and why not, they are everywhere, you can enter free on certain days, they are well laid out and organized and you can actually learn something while having fun.

There are some very obvious problems with museums in India: lack of resources, lack of skilled workers, low priority status in the face of other issues and a public that will neither pay willingly nor take care of existing resources. I have visited the Colombo Museum twice, and it has been a few years now so it could have changed, but to get to the most amazing part of their collection (in my view of course)—their bronzes—you had to walk far into the back, past some very dull exhibits of boats and bats. Contrast that to the Rijksmuseum that we visited a few weeks ago: it is undergoing huge repairs and renovation but instead of shunting a few works into a tent or basement, they have taken the trouble to renovate one wing and curate a smaller collection of masterpieces that they show with the same care and attention to detail as if it were their entire permanent collection. The result: a wonderful, learning experience for the hundreds who walk through everyday.

I have visited some amazing museums in South Asia and they deserve a mention here if only to show that we could do as well as anyone if we cared enough. In no particular order:
  • Lok Virsa, Islamabad, showcases the folk cultures of Pakistan. It is user-friendly, entertaining and teaches without inducing sleep. The staff are very welcoming, especially if you are an Indian.
  • Dakshina Chitra, Chennai, recreates the art, architecture and material culture of South India on a sprawling (and sadly still shade-less) campus. Each reconstructed house is furnished in traditional style, down to the line of family photographs. You become interested in spite of yourself and the heat.
  • The National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi is the first museum I visited that I really enjoyed walking through. This was seventeen years ago and there wasn’t enough text to explain the art, but it was still a good experience because the exhibited works were well-arranged and there was enough light to look at them everywhere.
  • Chennai’s newly re-done bronze gallery is fabulous. Where the other sections are still like dressed up warehouses galleys, the bronze gallery shows what the Museum staff are capable of if someone cared enough to support them.
  • Victoria Memorial, Calcutta, where I first noticed paintings with interest because they were so beautifully laid out that they looked even more beautiful.
  • Dinkar Kelkar Museum, Pune, whose collection of everyday objects is exquisite. I learnt to notice beauty in small things by seeing how Dinkar Kelkar saw.
  • New Delhi’s Railway Museum and Dolls’ Museum are also remarkable little treasures.

I want to stress that the problem is not with the exhibits. There are gorgeous and fascinating objects in the collections of the Calcutta Museum (Asiatic Society), in the Archaeological Survey’s museum in Delhi and in the Museum in Bombay (which has been recently redone, I hear). But when will we learn to enjoy them? And cherish them?

Who in their right mind would deny that India’s, South Asia’s civilization and arts are rare in their antiquity and their excellence? Not Indians, who are justifiably proud of this inheritance. When however, I see how the Dutch (and the Belgians) cherish and showcase every small aspect of their culture (art, musical instruments, chocolates, posters, stamps, trains, etc.), I am saddened and moved to act on our behalf.

We have so much to show and showcase, even conceding to cultural studies scholars that all showcasing is problematic. I want to be part of an effort to showcase well. And I want to be part of an effort to make us take a real interest in our own heritage. I worry that what we are getting left with is the stuff that was meant for the garbage dump—puberty and widowhood rituals played out over three to five days in all Sun TV serials, for instance. We are losing our appreciation of our own textiles, our understanding of our iconography and architecture, our taste for our own food and our embrace of our own inner diversity.

That is another striking comparison, by the way. Indians are constantly negotiating the politics of our diversity. It is interesting to watch how the Dutch, like other Europeans, are learning to see themselves as not culturally homogeneous. This is the beginning of an interesting journey for them, and one that is slightly further along in the US. From India’s point of view, their current politics is our ancient and continuing history. Stratification, hierarchy and ethnic diversity have been a part of every period in every South Asian region’s history.

The mirror shows you your face and when you point at someone, your fingers point back at you! That travel teaches you a lot, goes without saying. When you travel widely and spend time outside your home, you know that travel—like any other form of education—ultimately teaches you more about yourself than anything outside of you. From the vantage point of Leiden Centraal, the clearest view was the one closest to home for me—and maybe in some way, for you too?

A Postscript in Two Parts: Part One

(or, Home Thoughts from Abroad, Written at Home)

I start this post on a sultry morning, wondering where all the words vanished that I composed so brilliantly as we drove around Holland. Let's see if their remains can reconstruct their essence.

Comparison is a way of thinking and seeing the world, we learn in comparative politics classes. Comparisons are odious, the world tells us. And I say, comparisons are instructive and even inspiring. We have had so many occasions to compare the Netherlands and India, particularly Chennai. The comparisons have favoured both sides in turn and I want to share them with you, starting with the ones in which India and Indians do really well.

Where India and Indians score

Of all the things you start to remember fondly about India and Indians, compassion in interpersonal interactions (I am not talking about inter-communal relations) and customer service stand out. The small attentions and acts of caring that Indians, total strangers, especially traveling strangers will perform for each other--offering medicine, water, food, a helping hand--stand out in sharp contrast to the more transactional style of other cultures. Especially when you fly a western airline. (Of course, there are wonderful, warm and compassionate people everywhere and Indians can be cruel, especially to less fortunate Indians, but still what I am saying will ring true to anyone who has traveled widely.)

It is hard to hold on to this rosy view, however, as you observe the crowd rushing towards airport gates as if the flight will leave without them on board. When the act of compassion is followed by questions about your family history, your lifestyle choices and gratuitous advice on all matters.

The glow returns as you walk through European stores where store staff treat you with an indiscriminate coldness that says: I don’t care if you are going to buy up all our stock, wipe your shoes, pick up after yourself and don’t talk to me. Suddenly the over-attentive girls in white coats in Chennai stores seem marginally less irritating. And one misses the shopkeeper in Bombay or Delhi who says: Look, look, what is the harm in looking? Or even the efficient Nalli or Kumaran floor supervisors who say, yes, what are you looking for, what is your budget and shepherd you to the right place.

One also notices the absence of those proto-relationships one has with service providers and vendors in India (and elsewhere in South Asia). That people do not remember each other in spite of repeated interaction over a long period of time just stuns me. To walk into stores where you have purchased things for many years, to recognize the sales staff but have them look at you (a rare South Asian in a European sea) as if they have never met you before… that actually happens most places outside this region. In South Asia, for the most part, like two points make a line, two interactions (or even one) are enough to form the skeleton of a relationship. This skeletal structure gives them permission to remember my purchasing habits or even that I have not come to the store in a saree, and it gives me permission to say, how are you today and over time, enquire about the family or the business. This is not true of course, of the new malls and department stores, but it still holds good for the family businesses and shops that still dominate retail. It is excellent business practice; I equate being remembered with being able to trust and it is repeat business for the store.

My sociologist friend tried to explain, and I will try and paraphrase from memory (please comment to correct or clarify): she said that Dutch society had never been feudal and like adjacent parts of France and England (across the channel), had always had nuclear families. Not being feudal meant that responsibility for a community and community affiliation clustered around church parishes. In spite of their maritime and commercial history, then, the Dutch did not reach out and did not learn to reach out to people beyond their community. She also said that self-sufficiency and the expectation of self-sufficiency followed from the fact that young people would leave home early to go to town to learn a trade and then build their families with themselve as the starting point. So each one helps themselves and expects that others can take care of themselves too.

My friend stressed the (non-feudal) egalitarian nature of Dutch society. When I asked her to compare it to non-hierarchical American society (and whether that stereotype holds true is another debate altogether), and she said something very interesting (also revealing a common perception of American society held outside that continent): The Dutch are blunt to the point of rudeness because they don’t think anyone will shoot them for it.

[crossposted at It's Just Me.]

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Leiden Leave-taking

One last walk around Leiden and a little shopping on Saturday which is one of the two market days in Leiden (Wednesday is the other).

I have a photograph taken from this bridge posted elsewhere on this blog.

Molen de Valk, which is also a Windmill Museum.

Leiden's main square, where the bookseller had set up shop.

As you walk down this avenue, the Hooglandschekerk (or the Church of St. Pancras) looms up suddenly. One is not, or I was not, prepared for the scale of this edifice.

This blog opened with flowers and closes that way. Our last stop is at the flower section of the Saturday market. We feast our eyes and enjoy the wonderful indulgence of buying flowers in Holland.

Noordwijk Beach Sunset

The wind making patterns in the sand.

Fantastic Friesland: Sneek

The road to Sneek (you pronounce it 'snake') was very pretty. Here is a photographic glimpse.
Where else do you see people walking on dykes?

Sneek is most famous for its Waterpoort which dates back to 1613. A passing boat brought traffic to a halt and so I could take these photographs although we did not stop there.

This brought to a close our Friesland excursion.

Fantastic Friesland: Hindeloopen

Hindeloopen is to be seen to be believed. I am not sure whether I would want to live in a place this quaint and old-world but it is an enchanting place to halt.

Hindeloopen is a major shipbuilding centre, even now, and the harbour is full of boats.

On the day we visited, the weather was spectacular and there were as many boats in the water as people on the streets.

The narrow cobble-stoned alleys are crisscrossed by streams, too narrow to be canals, broad enough to make great photographs. By now, all this seems like standard Netherlands fare: pretty houses, old buildings, gorgeous gardens! But we have still not lost our appetite for it.

The Hindeloopen harbour is ringed by a high dyke. We walked along soaking in the breeze and the expanse of water. It was very memorable.