It is with great relief, hope, and inspiration that I revisit my previous essay from July, “The Beauty and the Trash.” To summarize, I had difficulty seeing and visually processing the litter while we were in Karnataka. There was a tremendous amount of filth, amidst some of the richest beauty I have ever experienced. As an Oregonian who knows no world without recycling and a social stigma against littering it was nearly impossible to reconcile the paradox of ornate history and overwhelmingly colorful beauty with the proliferation of outright garbage. I begged our dear friend Mauveen to step up as the leader he is destined to be and begin changing the habits that soil the river deity, and clean the streets and natural areas with pride.
Recently, the BBC reported on a civil society group in Bangalore that has begun such a movement (see ‘Ugly Indians’ Clean up Bangalore). The group works anonymously, so we really do not know whether Mauveen has been a part of the movement and could be leading the way in Mandya. The group (or movement) calls themselves the “Ugly Indian.” I was nearly brought to tears reading their story in the BBC and reading the story of their work on their website (see The Ugly Indian). Having a mechanism to unite the disparate extremes of glamour and blight was surprisingly emotional.
I am a white gringo, who visited Bangalore and other parts of Karnataka to meet the family of friends and celebrate their wedding. I have no place to be judgmental. I grew up under very different political, economic and social conditions than most people who have lived their lives in India. Consequently, I found it difficult to articulate my experience teetering between the juxtaposition of grandeur and grime. My experiences were grounded in my frame of reference as an Oregonian.
The irony is, though my background may have caused the grunge to stand out to me, India is by no means ugly. Indians are not ugly. Quite the opposite. Part of what made the filthy conditions so dissonant to me was the contrast with the outrageously intricate and vibrant splendor. Women of nearly all social classes presented themselves as bright, colorful, decorated, polished and put together. I highlight the women because they are so visible and beautiful it would be hard not to stare were there not so many beautiful women to see. Women’s beauty symbolizes so much of the beauty of Karnataka in general. In homes, the women and families are just as polished and put together, and lovingly thorough in their kindness and generosity. The temples and architecture embody the same exquisite attention to detail and loveliness. Even the food is over the top with rich colors and ornate flavors, and is served and enjoyed in a precise and bountiful manner. The continual aesthetic stimulation of so many senses is almost surreal.
If I could work anonymously I would contribute to the weekly ‘spot fixing’ in Karnataka on my next visit. With pride, I could be an ‘Ugly Indian’ for a day. Unfortunately, I will never likely have that opportunity. I would need to wear a burka to cover my head and face to blend in, so there would be no possibility of anonymously joining the effort.
It is just as well that I will be unable to participate. The Ugly Indian effort is about Indians identifying and taking care of their own needs. It would be inappropriate for an American gringo to jump in with my own values and expectations without being invited. Now if I am invited, I would enthusiastically clean and scrub any spot, with the same enthusiasm the annual Oregon Beach Cleanup receives. That is just what we do here. We take pride in the natural beauty and our community, and that is just the way we are. That is just the way it is in Karnataka.