Clive Limpkin had his doubts about India before his first visit there in 2005: as a British photojournalist most of what he’d seen and heard about India involved poverty, begging, and garbage. But the occasion was a surprise birthday party for a friend in Mumbai and his wife was eager to go so they packed their bags and headed off for the world’s most populous democracy.
Awakening in a bungalow in Kerala after an exhausting trip by plane and car, Limpkin and spouse were greeted by music—not from a radio but from women singing while the village fisherman set sail. Venturing outside, they found themselves stared down by a white-throated kingfisher while in the distance a boat of mussel fishermen passed through the water hyacinths while a flock of egrets took flight. Needless to say, they were hooked.
Upon return to Britain Limpkin showed some of his photographs from the trip to a publisher who responded with a commission for what became India Exposed: The Subcontinent A-Z. Limpkin’s book is organized around 100 essays alphabetically from “Army” to “Zebu”, and includes some of the 80,000 photographs he took on a six-month trip spent criss-crossing the country. He covers the usual topics (Birds, Pilgrims, Temples) but throws in some unexpected entries as well (Pace, Overload, Smiling).
The pictures are stunning and beautiful but this is no coffee table book: Limpkin has gone out of his way to avoid the usual picture-postcard shots of tourist destinations. When he does include a monument, it’s often in an unexpected framing which places it in a human context. He presents the Golden Temple at Amritsar as background in two shots with guards, pilgrims, and visitors going about their business in the foreground. Captions identify the location of each photograph and maps on the front and back endpapers allow you to place each location in context.
People are at the center of Limpkin’s vision of India and the main reason he loves the country. He doesn’t gloss over India’s poverty, crumbling infrastructure, or endemic corruption and finds confirmation for his original preconceptions: despite pockets of modernization and prosperity beggars and garbage remain in ample supply.
But offsetting all that unpleasantness are the people of India, all one billion plus of them, who maintain a disarmingly cheerful outlook on life. As Limpkin puts it: “ ... nowhere else do you get so many disarming smiles or waves in warm greeting. These salutations come not from those seeking your tourist dollar but from millions upon millions with nothing to their name who act like they’ve just won life’s lottery and want you to share it.”
Limpkin has a feel for the quirky fact to bring an essay alive (on average, Delhi cows have 300 plastic bags due to their habit of scrounging in the garbage) and for offering up unusual topics which encapsulate some point about India. For instance, you may have heard of the Nano but for most Indians the Jugaad is more relevant. A Jugaad is an improvised vehicle constructed out of whatever is available and powered by a water-pump or tractor motor. Most lack refinements such as a roof or reliable brakes and can barely manage 20mph on a good day. They can’t be registered or insured and are subject to seizure under the Motor Vehicles Act. But Jugaads can carry large numbers of people (at least twenty are crammed into the vehicle whose picture accompanies the essay) and provide inexpensive transportation for many of India’s poor for whom the Nano is as distant a dream as a BMC.
However fond he may be of India and its people the fact remains that Limpkin is an outsider from a far more prosperous country which exploited India as a colony until 1947. Sometimes an oddly scolding tone enters his authorial voice, as if he were an inspector for the British Raj sent to report on how standards are being upheld in one of the Empire’s many possessions. Here’s an example from his essay on infrastructure: after noting that official corruption and bureaucracy limit progress in this area despite an influx of private and foreign capital he concludes: “Official estimates of subsequent progress barely tally with the trickle-down reality, proving that no amount you can throw at the problem will change the Indian psyche overnight.”
Without disputing the overall truth of his diagnosis (the essay is accompanied by photos of a satellite dish overgrown with vegetation and a snapped telephone pole held upright by the wires it is meant to support) this does come off as high-handed. Imagine the response if an Indian journalist published a book about the United Kingdom including pronouncements about “the British psyche” after a few visits to the country.
But I’d hate for Limpkin to censor his unique voice in the service of political correctness. Taken as a whole India Exposed offers a fascinating look at the country and communicates the author’s pleasure in the many unexpected joys India offers. Limpkin suggests that the Ministry of Tourism’s slogan “Incredible India” should be replaced with the more honest “India—love it or loathe it”. He clearly loves it and wants you to love it, too.
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