The Old and New India

I write this in the midst of a road trip photographing in different parts of India. The fact that India is changing rapidly is a truism. That I could so easily move back and forth between what I think of as the old and the new India on this trip, that was fascinating

Because my wife is from Bangalore, dubbed the “silicon city” of India, I spend a lot of time in what I think of as the new India. Wi-Fi, coffee bars, shining airports, metro systems and elevated highways mark the new India. (This is true in many cities besides Bangalore, by the way.) In those same cities, I still encounter plenty of things that remind me I am well into the developing world. These include aspects of Indian life that are either resisting change or assimilating that same change in order to make that part of the larger Indian culture.

In thinking about the old vs new India, I quickly realized that the physical manifestations are the most obvious ones, but it is the differences in aspirational opportunities that caught my eye.

I am defining the “new India” as places that have the feeling as if they are moving forward, offering better lives and opportunities for the people there. I am not necessarily delineating old vs new based on how Western a given place is. Though certain Western values are good signs of the new India, from my perspective. One example is rewarding people based on merit rather than caste or family lineage.

The “old India” is obviously more caste based and family/tribe based. In the times that those social structures were developed, they served valuable purposes. No question of that. But in the new India, they can be hindrances as much as support systems.

I meet many young Indians when I am working, disproportionately but not exclusively men. Like in any culture, they run the gamut from very ambitious about their lives to those who have been humbled by life and seem to be just getting by. This is true among the rich and poor, as well as the educated and those lacking formal schooling. Throughout all strata of Indians, optimism and ambition as well as a good balance of humility and self confidence seem to be the key.

I am speculating a bit when I say the Indians I encountered who looked at me and said to themselves, wow, I could do that, they were largely from the new India. The ones from the old India were no less smart nor did they dream any smaller. The problem is that in the old India, the possibilities that they dream of are likely smaller, more constrained by the world they live in day to day.

The tragedy is that the young man or woman who has to cut back their dreams is obviously shortchanging themselves, but they are also shortchanging India itself. While this happens in every culture, it is especially pronounced here with the rapid changes that are spreading across India.

For me, it is fascinating to easily move back and forth between the two different Indias. For the young people here, living in the old India, who can peer into the new one but have little chance of becoming part of that India, it must be a heartbreak. The political context of this same question is that the gap between those two sets of young people (in the old vs the new India) grows daily. India has 1.2 billion people, more than 50% are below the age of 25 and more than 65% below the age of 35.

Can the majority of India’s young people, who live in the old India look into the new India and imagine a place for themselves? One would hope so! Will India be better off if those young people are given opportunities to move up and follow their dreams? Undoubtedly! Will the government and/or the non-profit sector create those opportunities? The future of India itself depends on the answer to that question.

(To see some of the old and new India I have been encountering, please go to my Tumblr)

2 responses to “The Old and New India”

  1. Can the majority of India’s young people, who live in the old India look into the new India and imagine a place for themselves?

  2. Here in Brazil, although we officially never had a caste system, we are faced with the same question. Yet, to me, it seems that Brazilian “elite” still has to realize that everyone must win in order for them to live in a better country, ebven if they are just being selfish.

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