Finding India in Deadwood

I’m a big fan of serial TV dramas, like The Wire, where the overall narrative feels more like one long movie than a bunch of disconnected stories. A couple of months ago I started watching Deadwood, which was highly recommended but I never got into it before the series was cancelled. It’s set in the eponymous gold mining camp in 1870’s South Dakota, which I thought was a nice balance to the Indian-focused books I was reading at the time. After watching two of the three seasons though I’m surprised to find that there’s actually a lot of parallels between India today and life in the American west 140 years ago.

  • Lack of infrastructure: Deadwood lacks well-maintained streets, plumbing, and most other basic infrastructure. India has a problem with outdated and broken infrastructure in general, but the really direct parallel is between the infrastructure in Deadwood and the informal housing areas in cities like Mumbai. These areas cover large swatches of the city and lack basic services such as indoor plumbing, garbage collection, or policing.
  • British inflected formal English: India and American share a common master in the British, and 140 years ago we were a lot closer to our time of British rule. The speech in the TV show is often extremely formal in it’s tone and full of British phrases that  have since fallen out of use in America but are common in India. I often run into very formal speech here in Mumbai, along with the use of words that seem outdated to my ear such as stores advertising that they sell “provisions.”
  • Corruption: The saloon owners in Deadwood run the city through corruption, kickbacks, and control. Modern India is legend for it’s level of corruption, coming to a head most recently through the protest fasting of Anna Hazare.
  • Informal business: Commerce is everywhere and everyone is an entrepreneur/hustler to survive. It’s all happening on streets and sidewalks, with only more established businesses getting a building.
  • Manual processes: I can infer that in Deadwood the lack of automated or electrical tools such as washing machines or vacuum cleaners is primarily because they weren’t invented yet. In today’s India however you find many people doing things the older, manual way for reasons of economics. Labor is cheap and tools are expensive, so clothes are washed by hand, floors are wiped clean with rags, and everything from buildings to ships to railways are built primarily by hand using only the most primitive of tools.
  • Use of animals for work/transportation: In Deadwood the horse is the primarily means of transport, with the stage coach being the long-distance luxury vehicle. In India you still find plenty of people using horses, ox, camels, or even elephants as a way to move around and get work done.
  • Threat of disease: During the 1st season a smallpox outbreak causes serious alarm and requires the sick to be cordoned off into a separate zone of the camp. Smallpox has been contained worldwide, but in general Indians are exposed to many more diseases than Americans due to lower penetration of vaccinations, environmental differences, and sanitation conditions. I was recently in a government hospital in south India that had a sign listing their top diseases: malaria, cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis, measles, acute flaccid paralysis, meningo encephalitis, plague, leprosy, and leptospirosis.
  • National sovereignty / autonomous regions: Deadwood is set in an unclaimed territory in the American west, situated where South Dakota is today. A key plot point of season 2 is potential annexation by the Dakota Territory. The inhabitants of Deadwood consider themselves free spirits who came to the camp for it’s lawlessness and remove from government intrusion. Though not entirely parallel, it reminds me of the extreme regional differences in India, where loyalty is often first to a local area or state before the country. The far northern and eastern regions of India are geographically remote and separated. Some areas, such as Kashmir are contested by other countries and there are numerous regions of India that are recognized as autonomous, operating independently to various degrees.

There are of course many things in Deadwood that are not common day-to-day in India such as persistent murder and a fondness of constantly drinking whisky. I don’t mention these connections to say that India is similar to Deadwood in any kind of holistic or meaningful way, but only to point out the patterns that I couldn’t help but notice while living here and watching the show.

It makes somewhat obvious and intuitive sense that there are connections between the past state of a “developed” country and the current state of a “developing” or “emerging” one. I am absolutely not intending to say that India is “behind” or “backwards” in this account. In fact, one of the most interesting parts about noticing these connections is acknowledging that India is both past and present at the same time. Many of the items I mention above apply only to a portion of the population, while other people live in relatively modern luxury.

India is a fascinating conflation of old and new, like an episode of Deadwood only if out of nowhere Seth Bullock pulled out a cellphone and called his driver to pick him up in a BMW. This mixture of moderinty and traditional ways, spanning literally centuries of customs and practices, gives modern India a kind of science fiction-like quality. Sometimes it reminds me of the “high tech and low life” of cyberpunk or when Shakespearian plays are reinterpreted to be set in a modern time but keep the plot and language. This mix of new and old is the most fascinating aspect of living here and I imagine I’ll miss it when I return to a much more uniform modernity back in Chicago.