Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Mexican street

I had a late lunch or early dinner on the corner of Virgil and Oscar Wilde. It is an interesting literary juxtaposition: one lamenting the end of an era, the other announcing the beginning of a new one. It is a testimony to the joyful array of street names in Mexico City. I am staying on Plato Street (close to Socrates and parallel to Aristotle)so feeling appropriately elevated in thought! They are a product of Mexico's revolution and a desire to identify with a progressive European culture.

To dine on the street is to see a chorus of life - literally in musical terms: I was treated to a duo playing the Beatles and a surprisingly Islamic looking flutist. There were children selling chewing gum and cigarettes, a woman with a sizable shrub on her head and one with a equally sized box of bedding plants, an elderly man doing a brisk trade in improbable dreams selling lottery tickets and a blind man begging. The men were selling an assorted array of gadgets - glittering if uncertain looking pens, glitzy fake watches and one selling ornamental silver miniature bicycles (whose purpose was uncertain). I am always struck by the choices people make. Some of which appear obvious but competitive (cigarettes for example) and others improbable but inspired (the man who sold geometry sets on the Moscow metro and sold two I noticed between  stations).

It is both pageant and shadow. The shadow is the poverty it displays. The woman with three children begging, the middle child clinging to dinner: a large slice of bread and cheese coated in honey. The shadow is the racial divide it displays. The diners are predominantly European in inheritance, both the waiters and the street traders exclusively of indigenous inheritance. Histories abide - I noticed in Madrid as I sought my gate, a flight to Sao Paulo in Brazil, a city with a population that is half black but here only one black person to be seen. Brazil may pride itself on a band width of racial tolerance but it is not reflected in an equality of opportunity nor, sadly, is it here.

I started reading  at table, Pankal Mishra's 'From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Making of Asia'. It promises to be a fascinating account of how Asian intellectuals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries addressed the impact of a colonizing West and invented new responses to it and found new Asian dispensations. History abiding again...

I like Mishra's work - his compelling book on the Buddha especially - but he does have interesting prejudices - the effortless equation of education and intelligence (as if you cannot possess the latter without a particular type of the former) and infelicities.

In the prologue discussing the rise of Islam in the seventh century (CE), he happily suggests that Islam swept away the Byzantine and Persian empires. If the former were true, his book would not have come to be written! There would have been in all probability no Western nation states to spring upon the world in the seventeenth century given that the Byzantine world resisted Islam for 800 years making 'the West' possible!




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