Hearing the gleeful shining India, I can’t be so gleeful, because the India I’m seeing is not shining, its sinking. Sinking India exists, but people have made themselves immune of this reality. But if you yourself were in this reality, if you came face-to-face with the situation, and tried to take responsibility for that – then there wouldn’t be any more glee, life would be an unbearable ordeal and you’d simply wish to be extinguished from earthy existence.
The reality necessarily transforms you. The great Urdu poet of Southasia, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, in his poem “Yahaan sey sheher ko dekho” (See the city from here) wrote about just this.
An extract, from the translation by Agha Shahid Ali:
"There are flames dancing in the farthest corners,
throwing their shadows on a group of mourners.
Or are they lighting up a feast of poetry and wine?
From here you cannot tell, as you cannot tell
whether the colour clinging to those distant doors and walls
is that of roses or of blood."
When you look at the fair city from her slums, your view of the city and of yourself is unavoidably altered.
In 1996, the journal Environment & Urbanization invited photographer Achinto and me to contribute a photo essay on Calcutta. This was inspired by Faiz's poem.