This has been going on for a while I guess, but I’d noticed it last year only among teenagers and movie stars. Now it has started creeping up the food chain. All the places which used to be called "scenic spots" are blighted by hordes of selfie shooters. This being India, a selfie is not complete without the whole neighbourhood. I’m tempted to join one of these selfie groups and smile at the camera. Will they notice a stranger grinning at the edge of the group? The alternative is to have the kind of visceral reaction which you see on the face of the guy moving out of the frame.
China is also full of people deploying selfie sticks at every place where tourists may go. You see a typical Chinese selfie being taken in the photo here: it is completely individual. The Indian selfie is much more communal. What does that tell us about the two countries?
Something weird has happened in the last decade. Very large numbers of people from Mumbai want to go and stand under a waterfall in the Sahyadris during the monsoon. The photo you see here is of the Ashoka waterfall about a 100 kilometers from Mumbai on a weekend.
The waterfall was steep, and the path to the crowded pool was down a steep rocky face. It seemed as crowded as a suburban railway station at rush hour. We had gone to get away from the city, and turned away at the sight of crowds as dense as any we see on a working day. Such a density of humans would be dangerous in almost any situation. Fortunately, a car can only deliver you about a kilometer away on a slushy road, otherwise the place would be even more dangerous than it is. We remembered many recent newspaper stories about accidental deaths by drowning. From the statistics published by the National Crime Records Bureau it seems that rates of accidental death by drowning in Maharashtra are high compared to the rest of the country.
On the drive back we noticed a few spots where cars and motorbikes were parked haphazardly at the edge of the highway near a stream falling over the side. People were clambering over the stones below to take selfies in the "waterfalls". If a large number of people take similar selfies, it usually means a social-media buzz.
Why? The Family feels that more people have cars, they drive, and there are few places to drive to. This is true; most of the people we saw are young and newly affluent. But the same people could have done anything in the mountains. We did see some groups on open meadows, sitting down to a picnic lunch. A very few go trekking. Some probably go and have an impromptu dance. Could it be that some movies in recent years have kicked off a frenzy of selfies under cascading water?
Whenever I think I cannot be surprised any more by the Chinese habit of taking selfies all the time, in any situation whatever, something happens to jolt me out of this. Inside the forbidden city I saw this selfie being taken with a camera and a tripod. Come on guys: a selfie is a mobile phone thing. The auto function on cameras was meant to give you time to join a group photo. A selfie with a camera is really pushing the boundary.
If there is one image which I take away from me to symbolize the new China it will be the selfie stick. You see the twenty-somethings with cameras. You see the teens taking selfies with selfie sticks. No other country is half as obsessed with taking selfies as China. So, of course, there has to be a technical innovation associated with this. It is as inevitable as a tripod for a camera. Does this have something to do with kids who have grown up with six adults (two parents and four grandparents) doting over them, with no cousins or uncles or aunts to distract from their single-minded self-absorption?
If I were to say that the Chinese take more selfies than any other nation, someone would certainly point out that there are more Chinese than other nationalities in the world, so this is almost certainly going to be true. But it is more than that.
The Chinese seem to take more selfies per capita than the next ten nations put together. There is even an industry of selfie sticks: you can buy them from street vendors almost anywhere. At least in one place, the Olympic stadium in Beijing, I saw a person hiring them out. You pay a deposit equal to the price of the stick, and then when you bring back the stick you get some money back.