India Used to Be Intimidating. Today, Not So Much. (Norman Costa)
Once again, Ruchira, I take a moment to read your post, Overselling India, and write a comment, and in no time there are too many words to put in a comment block. So here is a new post, and I hope you and others may find it interesting.
I do not know whether to describe Overselling India as interesting, fascinating, a little petulant, intriguing, or bemused. Of course, I am not really looking for the word that describes your thoughts, rather, a way to describe my reaction. I guess the best way to describe my reaction is, “I have to think about it.”
My reaction is personal, and self-referential. That is all I have to go on, so here it is.
In my younger days, I would not have understood your exception to the idea that India is cut from whole cloth. I and all other Americans knew India through the movies. The plot settings, landscape backdrops, costumes, and characters were all the same. To the extent that stories varied, they were still derivative of Kipling and the 'high achievement' of Victoria's empire. In short, there was only one India, and only one experience.
With all the diversity we have in the US, we can still think of ourselves as one America – if only because anyone can arrive on our shores and get permits and licenses to open a business, drive a car, or travel in a matter of hours. It is the same for everyone. The Statue of Liberty is still iconic for America as the Taj Mahal is for India. What may be different, I think, is that the Statue of Liberty is a near sacred object for many Americans. Immigrants who arrived in New York harbor on a ship never forgot the sight of Lady Liberty, nor the deep emotions the felt.
India, if you exclude the Brits, was reduced to three things in our minds, and only three things: the Taj Mahal, the tiger, and the holy man (or holy place). Our perception of India has expanded. We now add Mother Theresa, Bollywood, and telephone service centers in Bombay to the earlier trinity of icons I mentioned. You may take note that 'Bombay' has not yielded to another name recognized by all of India. The marketing of Bombay Sapphire Gin trumps Mumbai, everytime.
If we do not make distinctions within India (geography, languages, cities, climates, religions, food, architecture) we make few distinctions, sometimes, among peoples in central and south Asia. Arab, Persian, Sikh, Indian, Pakistani, Afghan, Bangladeshi are all one blur for many of us. Few Americans know that the Taj Mahal came out of Islamic tradition of art, architecture and engineering. And no one knows that there are ski resorts in northern India.
A spouse from a prior life was convalescing from a foot injury, so I got her the video series of the “Mahabharata.” I thought she would find it interesting, and she did. In fact she claimed it rescued her sanity and brought her out of the doldrums while confined to bed. It had that much of an impact. I, on the other hand, after repeated attempts, could not get past the first half hour. Still, I was curious to find out what the fuss was all about.
My curiosity led me to do some basic research on Hinduism. What was it? How did it compare to other world religions? Today, I am at peace knowing that there is no one definition or description of Hinduism. I have accepted that I cannot create a series of parallel elements that line up with the Abrahamic traditions. It has taken me a while to come to this level of wisdom. Hinduism, for me, is...well, it is what it is. I am still fascinated and wish I knew what the fuss was all about.
My knowledge about India, apart from the films of my youth, slowly grew when I started my career with IBM Corporation. Friends of mine in IBM became International auditors for the manufacturing divisions. In time I would hear about their travels and adventures which included India. The funniest stories were about American IBMers giving our traditional 'thumbs up' and 'OK' hand gestures at Indian business meetings. For Americans who do not know, they are obscene gestures in many cultures, on a par with 'flipping a finger' at someone.
IBM pulled its business out of India when the Gandhi government required state ownership of 51 percent of non-national businesses. There were attempts at negotiations, but they were not successful. It was decades later with a new government, and a different political philosophy, that IBM returned to India. American IBMers who were on assignment in Europe and Asia dreaded two things: a business trip to sub-Saharan Africa (except South Africa and Kenya,) and a business trip to India. Only the Aussies and Kiwis, among people from English speaking countries, dared go to Bangladesh.
In the 1980s, while managing IBM's education departments in Essex Junction, VT, I brought in a futurist to give a lecture. (Damned if I can remember his name, and it was not Nesbitt.) He was making a point about very bad predictions made by other futurists. His best example of soothsaying gone awry was the universal expectation, only fifteen years earlier, for failure in agricultural self-sufficiency in India. The futurist establishment in the States had written off India. That was probably the first time I sat up and started to pay attention to India in a serious way. I will never forget his advice on reading reports from futurists, “If the beginning or the end of the report has the phrase, 'If present trends continue...,' throw the report into the garbage. You do not have to read it.”
Since then, a few more friends have traveled to India, and loved it. A couple was in India, as tourists, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated. It was at the start of their tour and the tour operator offered refunds and a quick exit from India to return to the States. They decided that their personal safety was served by the heightened internal security and increased policing following the assassination. They stayed in India and completed their own self tour. They never regretted it, and they never looked back. Another friend went to India to collect research data for this dissertation. He returned with data in hand, and a Bengali wife on his arm. In the late 1990s I was planning a trip to India, but it did not materialize.
If Hindu Bali counts at all, it was a small introduction to Hinduism (and India by association.) We stumbled upon a religious festival that was just getting started, and went on for three days. It was an annual event at the 'Bat Cave' Temple. Young women came in procession with tiered platters of food offerings on their heads. To my Western eye, these were women of exotic beauty, and I have the photos to prove it. We sat among the worshippers and observed. Perhaps I'll tell about it in detail at another time.
The observation on Ginsberg struck a chord with me. Great artists, or accomplished scientists, czn make complete asses of themselves when they step outside the boundaries of their talents. Ginsberg wrote some great poetry and did a wonderful job reading it. It can be laughable, though, when they try to deliver wisdom or incisive observation outside their field of competence.
I was taken back by Ginsberg's photographing of beggars. In Bali I spent some time, and took photos, watching three young women carrying pallets of bricks on their heads. They were delivering them to men who were doing road repair. The young women had their very small children with them. It was my clear impression that they were poor single mothers. Two had nursing infants in slings around their shoulders and necks. I was fascinated with their hyper-efficient, and cooperative technique of lifting the pallets atop the heads of each other. It was like a Martha Graham choreographed performance for laborers. There's was an elegant solution to a micro-construction engineering problem. Once the pallets were positioned atop their heads, the three walked together to the site of the road crew. There they reversed the process to lower the bricks to the ground. As they walked, each had one hand steadying the load on her head, and the other hand was used to lead her smallest child.
Later I saw the three women walking together, in the middle of the road, with babies in slings, and each with one or two very small children in hand. The lead woman had three children. It was the end of their work day and they were going home. My first impulse was to start taking photographs, but I found I could not. The three young woman were walking with a sense of themselves that I had never seen, before or since, in poor laborers of either gender. For a moment, I thought I would rush up and give the lead woman US$20.00 and start taking pictures. I did not do it, and I did not take any photos. I stood there, as respectfully as I could, and watched them walk by with their children. If I took a photograph, I would be violating the dignity and grace of an extraordinary moment. There is a permanent photo of the event in my mind's eye, and I am still moved by the vision of these three young women and their children.
The Beatles made their own pilgrimage to Mother India, in the late 1960s, and became devotees of a popular and filthy rich, Rolls Royce chauffeured swami. Their seeking for otherworldly enlightenment came to halt when their guru took a very worldly route to enlightenment with a young woman in their retinue. The disillusionment, fortunately, did not prevent George from apprenticing with Ravi Shankar.
When India was, 'one idea,' 'one experience,' and undifferentiated for me, it was intimidating. The intimidation is abating, and I hope I will have to opportunity to travel to India and spend some time there. In fact, I think Kerala in southwest India and the resting place for St. Thomas, might be a nice place to visit. It looked pretty good on a Google search.