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Last month I came across this sizable coffee table book, newly added to my library’s collection. It was a second printing of photographer Eric Meola’s personal travels to India, entitled India: In Word & Image. The first edition cover photo of an adorned elephant has been replaced by a green, palace doorway; just as well, considering this one may belong on an ivory table.Fetishistic like a Fabergé egg, these photographs and literary excerpts illustrate a rich artifice yet amount to something hollowed at its core. The gorgeous patterns and bold, colorful details and amazing representations of deity worship are just aesthetic wonders for Western eyes, isolated from its greater environments in a manner similar to how the ancient yogic practices have effectively become a commodified workout option. The result is one instance of how the popular representation of culture in the U.S. is just a product of marketing to ideals of diversity.What does that mean exactly? Well for my purposes, it’s important to understand that the problem here is in the masquerade. Photography as an artifice works well to that end, but it becomes manipulative and even subversive when claiming to represent truth. That is not a judgement statement so much as acknowledgment. And when a book such as this one holds the pretense of weaving a cultural tapestry through interjection of romantic or sentimental literary quotations along with the occasionally esoteric religious passages – again stripped of practical context – it becomes clear the intent is to mystify or otherwise astonish. It’s an appeal to the foreign (dare we call it Colonial?) eye in rendering the landscapes and people both as objects of magical fantasy in order to undermine or substitute the realities of modern times.The best indicator of these vaguely defined issues I’ll continue to harp on may be the “Golden Temple” at Amritsar, a Sikh holy site with an estimated 100,000 visitors daily. I recall that in India: W&I, Harmandir Sahib appears shrouded in fog and isolated on the water, ghostly blue and ethereal. It’s an image of beauty and mystery. It’s also the only image I can locate that eschews the surrounding city and therefore its structural function in a symbolic convergence at the center.The effect is reminiscent of common depictions of the Taj Mahal. Its traditional, front-on view always evoked reverence, appearing even other-worldly like the gardens of Marienbad. But have you ever modified your perspective? Now gaze at this photo featured within the book. It’s the rear of the Taj in brilliant sunrise silhouette. The manner in which the boys playing soccer are set to the truly grand background is pretty cool, right? But this illusion of grandeur tells you nothing, and is of no more import than an image of youths playing basketball against a modern, concrete and steel cityscape. I suppose my analytical approach here at least tangentially reflects that of George R.R. Martin’s impressions on J.R.R. Tolkien. He states:Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”Peering through such a lens, depictions in India: W&I as well as other pop culture products achieve all the substance and nuance of a snow globe. Any real intrigue is birthed from the absence of detail. Where is the India of today? What does its society really look like? How are there so few people in the images of one of the world’s densest countries? Now none of these shortcomings should be surprising coming from a man who won his renown with glamour shots that successfully sold Springsteen records. And this book’s back cover does tell you what you’re getting into: The New York Times Book Review blurb informs us it’s “[an] exotic five-star vacation in itself.” Escapism.On page 169, we see “[i]nside the Jaisalmer Fort, stained glass and an opulent bedroom in the Maharajah’s palace are remnants of life in a bygone era.” As Marshall McLuhan so elegantly observed in The Medium Is The Massage, we tend to foolishly view today through the biases of the bygone era. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future. Suburbia lives imaginatively in Bonanza-land.So when we look at a vibrant, foreign land as a place to vacation, the rear-view mirror takes on a rose tint.In any case, my polemic here is but a simple culmination and intersection of recent readings and considerations; Meola’s exploitative product is the unfortunate exemple du jour of our systemic flaws. And nothing reminds you more of its status as a product as the smell. Of the many quotations throughout the book, one from Manil Suri’s Death Of Vishnu hones in on the feeling:Somewhere in the darkness is a bevy of scents. It hovers beyond his reach. Perfumes perch along the periphery of his perception, flitting away at his approach. He follows a riddle of spice—cumin, or turmeric, perhaps—it flashes through the air and escapes without being caught. There are flowers here, and fruits, too, and the smell of mud and oil and rain.Each time I cracked open a new page, I was reminded that I must have been the first library patron to lay my hands on the oversized volume. There was an unmistakable chemical odor of laser-printed ink on glossy, refined paper, a smell I’ve been deeply familiar with since my childhood obsession with Pokémon collectible cards. And more recently, I’m met with the very same smell when unwrapping a film from the The Criterion Collection. Like gasoline, it’s seductive to the senses and reinforces the ego’s desire to amass material goods, despite awareness of its ill effects. This smell and these products represent the ultimate allure and destructiveness of a manufactured consumer culture. That’s the bottom line.So as to minimize any lingering confusion, this is the takeaway: the only difference between Eric Meola’s India and a Buzzfeed listicle with quotations and the title “200 pictures of India you literally won’t believe” is that his book holds out its pinky finger. And probably sits on an ivory table. (Are there ivory laptops, yet?)NOTE: This review adapted from an original post on my blog.

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