Hello from the Himalayas

According to the bane of the contemporary writer’s existence – the random Internet commenter – I am just “a Westerner coming to India in the name of learning and then…writing about its deficiencies through [my] limited understanding and tainted glasses.” At least the comment ended on a faux-friendly note: “Have fun and happy researching, though it might serve you better to do some soul searching than researching.” Ouch.

That painful pun came in response to an article I had written about the Ganesh festival in Pune. I naïvely thought that my article struck a balance between respect for the festival and thoughtful critique of its environmental consequences. Clearly, though, I had not understood how my position as an outsider would affect the reception of my piece.

So, as I begin writing this column – another perhaps naïve attempt at cultural critique, this time with an emphasis on the values and power dynamics hidden in the detritus of pop culture – let me make my own position clear. Yes, I am a Westerner, and an American at that. A white, male, middle-class, Ivy League-educated American. In global terms, I am a paragon of privilege.

But my parents lived through the radical sixties and passed some of their subversive values on to me. Even my snooty university, which admittedly churned out many Goldman Sachs and McKinsey drones, managed to retain some of the critical-minded spirit of inquiry that a “liberal arts education” is supposed to impart.

Somehow, then, I learned to turn my expensively-educated mind loose on my own country and culture: American misadventures abroad (toppling democracies and strengthening dictatorships), domestic policy that has led to an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, and a culture of consumerism that manufactures desires, exploits insecurities and reinforces the ugliest stereotypes.

This was a consumerism that I had deeply imbibed, that even now I cannot regard without a tinge of nostalgia. I still fondly remember, for instance, the jingle for Poland Spring bottled water. The visuals of the Poland Spring commercials are now fuzzy in my head, but I remember lots of pine trees and dazzling white snow. The company’s folksy history – locals began bottling spring water after becoming convinced of its curative properties – only added to this pleasant image.

“So when I see a Bisleri ad vaunting its water’s “sweet taste of purity,” I can’t help but connect it to the purity/pollution distinction that has been used to justify the worst forms of caste discrimination.”

But the advertisements won’t tell of the Poland Spring’s recent history: it has been purchased by Nestle, the world’s largest food company, and has been sued for falsely promoting the water’s pristine sources while actually just taking groundwater and putting it through a heavy purification process. Towns in Maine (home of Poland Spring and the adjacent springs where Nestle operates) have also criticized the company for buying up so much water that municipal supplies are threatened.

Poland Spring’s ads tap into a yearning for a pristine, uncomplicated past that probably never existed. The company responds to fears of a world contaminated with industrial effluents by emphasizing the “natural” quality of spring water while quietly subjecting it to thoroughly modern, industrial extraction and purification methods. The commercials are, in short, a prime example of the obfuscatory, manipulative role of advertising in the United States.

But for the past three years, I’ve lived in India, and I can’t help turning my critical mind to all things Indian. I’m sensitive to the power differential between India and the United States, but that’s no excuse to let Indian robber barons and admen off the hook (even if they got many of their ideas from the West).

So when I see a Bisleri ad vaunting its water’s “sweet taste of purity,” I can’t help but connect it to the purity/pollution distinction that has been used to justify the worst forms of caste discrimination. Ok, yes, foreigners coming to India are obsessed with caste. I get it, I’ve read my post-colonialists. It’s wrong to essentialize caste, but it’s also wrong to ignore the lingering, ever-changing effects of caste consciousness, whether it be in politics or in the ever-growing sphere of Indian consumer culture.

While drawing on Indian cultural traditions, Indian consumerism is clearly not exclusively homegrown. It is spurred on by major multinationals, many of them with their headquarters in my native land. Two of the big players in the Indian bottled water industry are Coca-Cola (Kinley, tagline: “water you can trust and be truly safe and pure”) and Pepsi (Aquafina, “the purest part of you”). Not that Indian companies are absent. The ultra-elite Qua brand, which draws its water from the very origin of Hindu purity, the Himalayas, is a joint venture between the Indian Narang group and the French Danone group. Industry leader Bisleri (whose Vedica Mountain Water is fed by the “chaste snows” of the Himalayas and will “fill your being with the mysticism of ages gone by”) has long been run by the Indian Parle conglomerate.

Just like in the U.S., the pristine imagery used by bottled water brands in India obscure the actual ecological and social effects of mass-produced beverages. Kinley’s creator, Coke, is particularly notorious, both for the high level of pesticides often found in its products and its penchant for sucking up all the groundwater in ecologically sensitive areas (most famously in Plachimada, Kerala).

A cursory look at the bottled water industry, and the deceptive images it peddles, suggests that the contemporary world is not witnessing a battle of civilizations between monolithic West and East, even though both Western and Eastern figures promote such simplistic thinking (Samuel Huntington meet M. S. Golwalkar). Rather, the Western and Eastern elites of the world are using up the resources of small-town Maine and a village in Kerala alike. What I criticize is not, then, a homogenous India but the repressive, exploitative classes that have emerged in India and abroad.

It seems bottled water has emerged as the theme of this first column. In the coming months, I’ll dig up other cultural artifacts (hoardings, movies, public service announcements). I’m happy to be part of the Kindle family, and I hope you won’t be too harsh with me. At least this print magazine (and its online Flash equivalent) doesn’t have “comments” section. Yet.


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