I usually skim over and delete forwarded emails within seconds of receiving them, but when Sean-Paul Kelley's scathing assessment of India popped up in my inbox, I carefully read and re-read each word with rising irritation and, ultimately, anger. Kelley is an American travel writer whose bio on several sites, including The Huffington Post, states that he has had several very good jobs, he maintains a highly regarded blog called The Agonist and he has travelled in more than 47 countries. While this last fact makes his voice a little more deserving of deliberation, it does not transform his words into gospel, even if the majority of what he writes is true; the accountants' truth matters little if couched in words that are roundly negative, Westernist and irresponsible.
A brief summary of Kelley's piece:
India (except Kerala) is polluted, infrastructurally backward, bureaucratically inefficient and riven with corruption. And things aren't going to get better, because no Indians (except in Kerala) “give a shit”.
Yes, those four central points are certainly true. Kelley is also correct in suggesting that the majority of Indian nationals care little about improving their nation, their society, their infrastructure; the focus is on making the best life for yourself and your family long before any thought towards your fellow man. What frustrates about Kelley's evaluation isn't that he might be wrong, but that he writes so clearly from a Westernist perspective, a view of India for (white) foreigners rather than India for Indians. As such, his negative view lacks gravitas because it betrays a lack of genuine interest in why things are as they are, or what the people he writes about represent historically, philosophically, emotionally.
What is perhaps strangest of all from my perspective is that Kelley excludes Kerala from his criticisms entirely, the words 'except Kerala' cropping up again and again as he lurches from one judgment to another. While I haven't travelled extensively in India, I have lived in Kerala for over two years, and it isn't the land of unicorns and rainbows – so different from The Rest Of India – that he would have you believe it is. I am told that there is a considerable difference in standards of hygiene as you travel further north, but while you aren't likely to see people defecating openly alongside Kerala's highways, you will still see discarded plastic strewn everywhere, increasingly polluted waterways and a general lack of civic sense. Kerala may compare favourably to other parts of India, but among those 47 or more countries Kelley has visited, the stench of human urine outside Thiruvanathapuram railway station surely does not put Kerala anywhere near the top, or even the middle, of a cleanliness-and-efficiency scale.
In her novel The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai alludes to the idea that there is a nobility about India's aristocracy and peasantry that is conspicuously absent in its burgeoning middle class, “bounding over the horizon in an endless phalanx”. To me, that is at the core of modern India's problems, and if the middle class were to mobilise themselves in a way that were more socially conscious and removed from consumer habits, the nation as a whole would surely benefit. Still, Desai is of Indian descent and has the benefit of understanding the culture from the inside; Kelley, on the other hand, spent less than two months in India and cannot reasonably be expected to 'get' everything about the place in such a short amount of time.
He can, however, be expected to represent what he sees with some understanding of why it is the way it is, or at least suggest some small method of possible improvement. He does neither, preferring instead to condemn India to an eternal, toxic otherness. I bear no ill will towards Kelley, but I regret that it is his words that have been circulated widely as a well-travelled foreigner's perception of India; I pray that in his future writings he gives consideration to deeper truths than the superficial, to what cannot be glimpsed or understood in a glance.