It seems there is an overabundance of books about India in the market; writers, native as well as foreign born, are weighing in. While some of the publications are about India's history and politics, others deal with the more amorphous concept of "India as an experience" which of course, must deal with the country's history but may also contain a generous dose of subjective personal opinions. Author Amit Chaudhuri has had enough of the literary "schmaltziness" of selling India and he expresses his impatience in a peculiar and occasionally incomprehensible piece in Outlook India. An excerpt: (h/t: Sujatha)
There are probably certain temperaments that have a low tolerance for abstraction, and are drawn towards the physical and particular. Some such revulsion against ‘India’ as an abstraction that reigns over us must have prompted me to say in these pages, in my ‘Books of the Year 2010’, that I was planning to read a book, “for not having ‘India’ in its title”; it also made me recommend Arun Kolatkar’s Collected Poems for, among other things, making “hardly any mention of India—what more could one want of a book?” At the time, I was just being petulant about this thing that always hangs over us—the idea of India—and didn’t have either Khilnani’s elegant monograph in mind, nor French’s and Guha’s recent offerings. After all, India is now being transformed, and it’s transforming others: why shouldn’t people write about it?
At the same time, I’d begun to wonder in the last two years if it was possible to produce a voluminous, urgent book about something else—poetry; sericulture; popular music. Or could one bring everything one knew and felt about India at this moment in history and write a book without mentioning the word ‘India’ at all—just as, say, Georges Perec had deliberately abolished the letter ‘e’ from his novel La disparition? Could one, sitting in Bombay or Calcutta, manage to complete conversations and sentences concerning fashion, film, sports and literature without using that word? Perverse curtailments and self-imposed taboos can, as both Houdini and the Surrealists proved, be occasionally liberating.
I am familiar with some of the India-merchants that Chaudhuri mentions but not all; I should therefore withhold judgment on the quality of the entire literary output. However, I can see the dangerous pitfalls (and the inevitable pratfall) facing anyone who undertakes to convey the "idea" of India, an ancient, vast and immensely populous nation with a dizzying diversity of ethnicities, languages, religions (subdivided into castes) and cultures. A few times in passing, some of us here have complained about the unnecessary "exoticization" of India which unfortunately is often a two way traffic. Non-Indian seekers of "India as an experience" go there to validate a preconceived notion of the place and certain sellers of India enthusiastically and cynically provide reinforcement. The trade often results in hypocrisy and disillusionment. The most disappointing (and disappointed) reporting usually comes from those who expect a limited foray into India as a spiritual retreat to resolve all or most of their existential conflicts. I will paraphrase here what I once wrote as a comment in response to an article of discontent written by a traveler to India who did not find there what he had sought.
India has many, many problems and it has much going for it too. Just as the glib Friedmaniacal definition of a shining nation on a stalwart march to greatness, of exploding growth rates and IT revolution is incomplete, nor should one attempt to describe India simply as a miserable failure inhabited by callous, lotus eating "chattering classes." Much of India remains steeped in ignorance, superstition, poverty, injustice and yes, thin skinned corrupt politicians rule. In a vast and complex society like India, you can find pretty much what you seek - saints & crooks, appalling poverty & conspicuous consumption, boorishness & grace, hypocrisy & disarming innocence - drama and drudgery of every caliber. .. And your spirituality angle was a red herring. India does not claim to be more sublimely spiritual than anyone else and neither does she offer to cure the diseased soul of the world. India's deeply religious multitude is quite content with its own meaningless rituals and hypocrisies just as the next religious person of any stripe.
The point about the misguided notion of India as an idea or experience, distinct from any other geographic location in the world is made succinctly by Sudip Bose in his excellent review of "A Blue Hand: The Beats in India" by Deborah Baker. The book describes poet Allen Ginsberg's drug fueled romp through India in the 1960s where among other things, he had hoped to experience a cosmic star burst of self realization and the meaning of life.
I don’t think Baker, the author of biographies of the poets Laura Riding and Robert Bly, intended to paint an unsympathetic portrait of Ginsberg, but I found it nearly impossible to find anything redeeming in someone so oblivious of his surroundings. But then, was there another 20th-century American writer about whom critical opinion is so strikingly divided? Depending on your point of view, Ginsberg was either a prophet or a buffoon. And whatever the merits of such poems as “Howl” or “Kaddish,” his behavior abroad seemed to justify the latter characterization. Baker writes, for example, that “he photographed beggars shamelessly, often posing [Orlovsky] alongside.” And there is something just a touch absurd about Ginsberg’s encounter with the Dalai Lama, in which the poet earnestly recounted his experiments with drugs and even offered to have some mushrooms sent over for His Eminence to try. The Dalai Lama demurred. Drugs were merely a distraction, he insisted; they did “little to address the central problem of the ego, the source of all spiritual anguish and ignorance.” But Ginsberg was undeterred, as he was undeterred when given this same advice by various gurus less luminous than the Dalai Lama.
Only toward the end of his travels did Ginsberg, unable to find a guru he could love, finally go beyond himself and attempt a real connection with the world around him. In Benares, something in him changed. Surrounded by the dying and the destitute, the poet began to reach out to the most hopeless, to care for the most malnourished. Despite those empathetic gestures, Ginsberg’s perceptions of India strike a false note. “What he saw” in Benares, that holiest of Indian cities, Baker writes, “were moving corpses, dead things covered in clothes, bodies destined only for the pyres. With all the gongs being rung, all the cigarettes being sold, rickshaws flagged, meals cooked, clothes washed, tickets bought, it was hard to see what it all added up to beyond the tired thought that everyone, every living thing, was doomed.”
But what was it all supposed to add up to? Why should this tableau of a crowded city have suggested something deeper? That’s the point, I suppose: India isn’t supposed to “add up” to anything. It is not a solution to some deep mystery, the magical fount of mystical epiphanies. It is a real place, where food is cooked and clothes are washed and people live and die—just like any other place, of course. But this is the realization that eluded Ginsberg, who treated India like some exotic fetish, a playground, a thing to use and then discard. He imposed his own voracious appetites and his oversized personality on that ancient, foreign land, and demanded that the place, in return, merely validate his own lusts. In the end, Ginsberg could escape his home, but he could not escape himself.