Every society has its articles of faith: “This is a free country”; “Islam is a religion of peace.” The strength of a society depends on the extent to which its articles of faith match the reality on the ground. In the India I grew up in, one such article of faith was: “India is a beautiful country.” It was what we said about ourselves; it was what others said about us, too. It seemed unassailable.
But it was not true: The India of the 1980s became every day an uglier country. It was a place where the very elements of life — earth, water, air — had been poisoned. The land was strewn with garbage, the rivers and urban waterways were choked with plastic bags and white chemical foam. The streets were buckled, the footpaths broken, the air thick and unbreathable. To look out at an Indian city or small town was to be greeted by a bleak sprawl of shoddily constructed low-lying buildings, shrouded in a mantle of brown smoke. It was an apocalyptic landscape with no underlying design save for an ever more urgent need to accommodate greater numbers of people.
There were beautiful things, of course, but beauty was in retreat; it was ugliness that was on the march, and very little of what was new was beautiful.
And yet, the article of faith endured: India was a beautiful country, we told ourselves, and others did too, almost from habit. The Indian writers I grew up reading didn’t write about the squalor of our towns and cities; they either edged it out, or they emphasized those aspects of Indian life that would appeal to foreigners. They wrote about fruits and spices, and the idiosyncrasies of their families. The television was state-owned in those days, and gave a very restricted view of life. Bollywood, prone to fantasy at the best of times, was never more fantastical than when it came to dirt: The India of Bollywood was, and is, a clean country.
Art, when it’s good, shows you what you always knew was there, but never took notice of. Art in India did not do that. It, in fact, falsified the reality of India, depicting a country that had very little to do with the place we lived in.
I remember my surprise when, in my mid-20s, I read for the first time a passage that truthfully described the India I saw around me: “In a canal (or worse) off the lane I saw an animal of some sort parting the dark green-brown water. A dog? A cow — one of the small Indian variety of cow? A calf? It was hard to see the dark creature against the dark water. But then a round snout rose flat and pink above the surface: a pig. And, vision established now, I also saw, paddling on ahead, their irregular white markings looking from a distance like light on the dark canal, or foam, a number of little black-and-white piglets, paddling and bucking about in the murky water.”
This description, from V.S. Naipaul’s 1990 book “A Million Mutinies Now,” produced in me a feeling akin to alarm. It had never even occurred to me until then that this was something writers could — and must — write about.
Strange as it must sound, it was 24-hour news television, which was introduced in the ’90s and free of state control, that began to do the work of art in India, to hold up the mirror to our world. In its unforgiving light, we saw India as we had never seen it before: a country of open drains and hillocks of filth, of black ponds beaded with mysterious bubbles and edged with bright clumps of grass. Television changed our eyes.
Today, India’s environmental problems are among the grimmest in the world. They relate to raw sewage, waste and open defecation, which exacerbate childhood malnourishment, and cause diseases like hepatitis, cholera and typhoid fever. The air in the cities is so filthy from factories and cars that middle-class parents now check the levels of PM2.5, or airborne particulate matter, on their smartphones, as people in other places do the weather, before letting their children outside to play.
One father I spoke to the other day in Delhi conjectured that the air his children were breathing was perhaps the most polluted in the history of mankind. “No one has ever breathed air as dirty as this,” he said. He may be wrong; down the road in Lucknow, a smaller city, the air is said to be even worse. But pollution, like poverty, is one of those concepts whose meaning is lost in the abstract; television gives it a concrete reality. In the spring, a news channel flashed images of what became known as #toxiclake in Bangalore. The screens showed a body of water dark with fecal matter; a poisonous white froth had broken its banks and foamed out into the street, causing nearby residents to react with fury.
That fury is new. It is what can happen when defunct articles of faith are set aside. The India I live in today is more aware than ever before of the environmental horrors of its cities and towns. It is part of a new spirit of activism that has crept into the discourse. PM Modi has made the Clean India Mission, which he began last October on Mohandas K. Gandhi’s birthday, a personal objective. The project, which uses celebrities to raise awareness, is focused on improving sanitation. Rightly so: India has among one of the highest rates of child deaths from diarrhea in the world.
It is too early to say how effective the Clean India Mission will be: Countries as polluted as India cannot be cleaned by private acts of good will, and we have yet to see what systems of waste management Modi will put in place. Nonetheless, he will be remembered for being the first Indian leader since Gandhi to look hard at India’s squalor.
For the writer, India presents a unique challenge. One must look unflinchingly at one’s country while, at the same time, never giving up on beauty. It is a dance, because ugliness offends; it desensitizes. What aesthetic idea can come from ugliness? And yet one must not forget the true meaning of that word, “aesthetic.” It has everything to do with art, but nothing to do with beauty. The aesthetic — and Kant, in the 18th century, worked hard to restore this correct meaning — is simply all that is sensory and perceptible. The greatest aesthetic discovery of my life, as an Indian writer, has been the ability to first see India’s ugliness, and then to find a way to write about it — to find a lexicon for ugliness.
Aatish Taseer is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Way Things Were.”