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« Resurrecting a subterranean poem and the last word from a friend ... | Main | Pakistan: Failed state or Weimar Republic? Omar Ali »

March 28, 2011


Wisely chosen iterations of the myth about changing everything -- or anything! -- via foreign travel. Why has India long been El Dorado for Westerners seeking a deeper connection with life? The way Italy was once, for girls who wanted to find out all about love, or Europe generally for acquiring personal refinement? Very fertile territory for thought -- thanks for the look at how some have finessed it, and been called on it.

To continue Elatia's musing - Or the US, as the land of 'milk and honey' err...backyard barbecues, BMWs in every driveway and neatly manicured lawns of suburbia. That's the vision that used to dance in the eyes of every wide-eyed young IT pro in India in the 1980's.
I would maintain all this is the fault of those pesky travel-writers of all ages in history, purveying stories that were guaranteed to exoticize the most mundane of activities in the lands they visited;)
To that point, Ginsberg's reflections on Benares, 'moving dead corpses, dead things covered in clothe, bodies destined only for pyres' take on the form of something that a certain Siddhartha saw and paid attention to long, long ago. Only, in Ginsberg's case, it didn't result in becoming the Buddha. Ginsberg could have been severely drug or drink-addled when he painted everything he saw in the colors of death.
I would also question Amit Chaudhuri's assumption that everything he sees out in the bookstores about India is a manifestation of the 'India experience'. Maybe he is looking through too narrow a lens, there is surely other similar literature about many other countries, just that being of an Indian background the word India sears itself into being noticed, more than say 'China' or 'Australia'. I've noticed a similar bias in my sweeping glances over any book arrangement in the stores or libraries.

I enjoyed this Ruchira. I can understand how attempts at forming governing abstractions regarding nationhood, or anything important really, must always fall short and often seem tiresome. I haven't had the pleasure of traveling to India, something I would love to do - in a pure and un-buffonish manner of course, but friends who have(outside the yoga & wind chime spirituality types, a couple of which I will confess to knowing)always seem to report on the perception of its resilience at some point in their account. It seems to face the same globalizing pressures but digests them better than others(I think a contrast to Laos came up in one conversation). India doesn't seem to be in danger, these days, of cultural subordination no matter how much coca-cola is poured on it. Do you think that's fair or a bit of tourist romanticism?

Turning away from the abstract to the concrete, does anybody know anyone in Tucson that might be watching the India v. Pakistan match on Wednesday? I'll bring lots of beer.

Jesse, do go to India if you can.

And yes, your "non-yoga & wind chimes" friends are correct about India's immense capacity to absorb foreign influences without subverting its own basic sensibilities. This is not a new thing. India's ancient history of adjustment in the face of invasion/ occupation / colonization by numerous outside forces is a testimony to that. India somehow manages to absorb the new arrivals and their culture, giving rise to ever evolving hybrids of language, music, religion, architecture and yet remain "India" beneath it all. No amount of Coca Cola drowns out the local lassi / masala chai.

Can't help you with the India-Pakistan match, sorry. I myself am searching for a way to keep an eye on that.

I have difficulty understanding statements like this:
"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."
"And yes, your "non-yoga & wind chimes" friends are correct about India's immense capacity to absorb foreign influences without subverting its own basic sensibilities."
What is India in the first statement? I am from Coastal Andhra and have been lectured about Indian spirituality by several at home as well as Indians abroad. In the second staement, what are the basic sensibilities that are not subverted?
I do not mean to offend but I do not really understand. Perhaps there are several strands about India and even those with Indian background experienced only a few of those. For example much of Indian writing in English from R.K. Narayan to Salman Rushdie does not appeal to me. Sometimes a few pieces in Naipaul or Pankaj Mishra's " Reading Edmund Wilson in Benares" strike a chord. Though I enjoy music much of Karnatic music is another language to me. But I seem to enjoy Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's singing. Bits of India here and there from one's arbitrary exposure ( I lived in North India for twenty years but never learned Hindi though I loved Hindi film songs. I was too interested in mathematics at that time).

Gaddeswarup, my statement may have come across as too general in the comment - the same fallacy that I was actually criticizing in my post.

While India is a deeply religious country and swamis, godmen and spiritual lectures at home and abroad abound, it is no different in that respect from any other actively religious nation like the US or Pakistan for example. The Christian missionary's call to save your soul or the Muslim mullah's boast of showing you the right path are not very distinct from what Indian holymen claim to offer. If others see India as unique in that respect with a direct mystical route to god or the cosmos, then the belief is in the eye of the beholder.

As for the other statement, when I say that India clings to its identity, I do not mean to say that the whole nation of India has a single defining identity. Actually, it is just the opposite. The diversity that I mention continues to persist along linguistic, religious, regional and even caste lines. As your own statement clarifies, Indians do not even influence other Indians sufficiently for a unifying Indianness to emerge. The complex mosaic which constitutes India is exactly what makes it so hard for anyone to find a single defining thread. To try to pin down a narrow "Indian experience" is a bit like traveling around all of central and south America and then claim to have had a "Latin American" experience - true at a very shallow level but absurd in reality.

if when i was in college, girls would go to europe to "get culture" and, next trip, go to india to become deeper by having their minds blown, with afghanistan a side trip, for some really rad dope and non-judgmental indigenous peeps, can my generation thank george harrison for this? studying, or just pondering, how we othered others in more innocent times may yield some helpful answers about the same processes now; do we still broadbrush everyone (the "latin american experience" indeed), or just some cultures?

Having said what I said, I have been wondering whether some kind of(physical)idea of India was there in the Sankrit literary world and by extension to various communities who had some contact with Sanskrit literry or liturgical works. The words Gandhara, Kamboja (in Afghanistan), Sri Lanka etc come in many works like Mahabharata, Ramayana. And Shakti Peethas extending from Hinglaj to Bengal and travels of religious people as well as migrations through centuries. In addition, there are later works like Meghasandesa of Kalidasa. Just wondering.

There has been much debate on whether the "idea" of India as a single political, judicial and physical entity was ever prevalent in the minds of the ancient "Indians." The consensus mostly is that it was not. The unifying thread that extended across the subcontinent between the regions you mention was Hinduism and Sanskrit scholarship. Politically, the people of India identified with the multitude of kingdoms and principalities they inhabited. So there was always a loose cultural identity based on Sanskritic tradition among the upper classes but not much more. Yet, we find in the Ramayana and the Mahabharat that intermarriage among the powerful classes with partners from far flung regions was not uncommon. Ram's father had three principal queens - Kaushalya from the Indo-Gangetic plains in India, Sumitra from Sri Lanka and his favorite, Kaikeyee is widely believed to have come from the Cucasus region (Armenian? Georgian?)in Central Asia. It is also pretty clear how the northern Aryan population looked upon southern India and Sri Lanka - the monkey legion, allies of Rama south of the Deccans and his enemies further down in Sri Lanka, the "rakshasas." In the Mahabharat, the Pandava brothers, especially Arjun, acquired a spouse pretty much wherever they traveled, including Chitrangada from the Manipur region which at the time was populated by animistic eastern tribes who were most likely not Hindu.

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