August 2014 – Unmapped
Back in 2008, as I was preparing to visit India for the first time as a study abroad student in Delhi, I went to see Slumdog Millionaire with my parents in Baltimore. I don’t remember thinking too highly of the movie, but I also don’t remember disliking it much. I do remember several people asking me in the course of the weeks that followed—that is, between the film’s release and my departure for New Delhi—why I would want to go spend the next four months in a place like that. (Keep in mind, Maryland is not exactly a backwater; it is, in terms of college degrees per capita, the best-educated state in the US.) I shrugged, having a hunch, though certainly not knowing for certain, that Danny Boyle’s version of Mumbai couldn’t possibly represent the reality of India, or at least not the whole reality. Most people in the US, still largely cut off from the outside world despite (or perhaps because of) our socio-political centrality, didn’t necessarily have that hunch. Slumdog told the two India stories that everyone in America wants to hear: spectacular squalor and economic miracle. That the characters were essentially cardboard cutouts made no difference: This was India.