Seeing further into the Old and New India

After I wrote about my experience recently about going back and forth between the “old” and “new” India, a reader asked: “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?” I kept that question in mind as I continued traveling around India and this week’s blog entry is a round about way of considering that question.

Years ago, when I started out working internationally (and especially in the developing world, third world, the majority world or whatever you want to call the more economically challenged countries,) an older and wiser photographer told me something that has stuck with me to this day. To paraphrase, he said, “pay attention to the presence of glasses and shoes in the places you go and you will be able to tell a lot about the economic possibilities for the people in those places.”

His point was that no matter where you are in the world, roughly the same percentage of people need glasses to see properly (and want to wear shoes.) People do not forgo shoes or glasses by choice but by necessity.

Shoes are obviously a comfort issue and a potential safety issue. Glasses are particularly an economic issue if you think about it. Eye glasses or reading glasses are arguably the greatest productivity enhancing technology EVER invented. Before glasses came along and were made widely available, if you worked with your hands doing fine, detailed work such as sewing, printing, carving, writing, or working with most any mechanical technology, when your eye site went (usually around 30 to 40 years of age,) your high paying working life was essentially finished. A jeweler with bad eyes could revert to manual labor but who wanted to?

Over the decade and a half I have been coming to India, I have seen an explosion in the presence of shoes. Simple rubber sandals are available quite cheaply almost everywhere, so being barefoot is not nearly as commonplace across this country as it once was.

On this trip, I have noted a vast increase in the number of Indians, wealthy and not so wealthy, wearing eyeglasses. Some of the glasses have been stylish and obviously expensive. Others have been ill fitting and cheap. Still others are clearly from NGOs who are collecting used glasses from elsewhere in the world and shipping them to India.

The women doing embroidery work that I photographed in the Kutch region of Gujarat who were over 40 (even as old as 50 or 60) were ALL wearing eyeglasses. Every last one. The next generation of embroiderers who I photographed on the same trip were doing just as fine sewing, but because of their relative youth, none of them were wearing glasses (yet.) The program that was training the younger women in the embroidery techniques known by the older women is kind of cultural preservation program, aiming to keep traditional Kutch embroidery alive and well.

So, to dance around answering the readers question of “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?”

I know that more Indians than ever can see their lives, better futures and the world around them more clearly because of the expanded presence of eyeglasses. Does the average Indian, who is looking jealously at the “new” India from the “old” India realize that his or her glasses are a byproduct of that “new” India? That is a question for a serious social scientist who would need to much more disciplined research than I am capable of doing.

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