India, my India


After 2-weeks, and in spite of saying I was only going to post fresh pieces, I still have a few last thoughts on India. In fact a part of India travelled with me to Australia in the form of an intestinal parasite. Nobody gets to have 4-months of blissful bowel action without some darn bug breaking through the defences. So here it is, a resurrected draft, a ‘to be continued’ post on the ongoing state of Ashby and his relationship to India.

Begun in Calcutta – Finished in New Zealand:
India, what are my thoughts on this beguiling and often bewildering country as I prepare to leave it again? I first came here nearly 30-years ago and much has changed. Curiously much has also remained exactly the same, giving the impression that this country merely adds to itself in layers, that nothing ever departs but exists in often bizarre juxtaposition with the constant accumulation of new material. Thus, the sight of a bullock cart has remained as it has for thousands of years. What has been added to the picture is that the driver is now talking on a mobile phone and he is being overtaken not only by auto-rickshaws but also Japanese imported cars. And that in itself is a microcosm of what goes on in India every day. In fact even to talk of India in the singular is to make a huge error, one must talk of Indias as the depth and scope of diversity here is beyond belief.

So, whilst trying to be brief, what have I gained from this trip? I have been more deeply involved in the country than previously and that has been hugely rewarding and humbling in equal measure. The silent and work retreats at Somnath and Anandwan showed me that I still have enormous amounts to learn about India and life and have prompted a gradually enlarging exploration of Eastern philosophy and thought. Silent meditation has been very interesting if only for the realisation that I had been conducting my own ‘open-eyed’ approach in the natural world for quite some time, perhaps always. Meditation also provided a valuable place to retreat into when India’s constant clamouring became too much. Sometimes the only place to go is in, you have to keep the outside out, at bay, so as to retain your equanimity.

I have also learnt that when one looks at a sole Indian one has to remember that behind him or her are a 100 others who support, control, influence, demand and enable their lives. Thus to try and cope with India on one’s own as we westerners often try is to pit oneself against almost insurmountable odds and is a surefire road to perdition. You need help to survive in India and as well as recognising that one needs support it is also wise to be aware of what a role power plays in Indian society and how to use that knowledge to one’s best advantage. Not always easy coming from the outside as we do.

There is also a massive amount of ambiguity present in all walks of daily Indian life and understanding that grey can be white and that morality, ethics and logic are situational and relational can save a lot of unnecessary stress accumulation. Chaos is truly king here and will defeat logic every time. In fact it has been said of India that it is a ‘functioning anarchy’. This is indeed my experience of the country. Things break down quickly here but last for 1,000s of years.

In reading around the subject of East meets West I came across an observation made by Carl Jung, which to me at least, made a deep impression. Jung was cautious about India. He encountered many occidentals during his travels through the subcontinent who thought that they were living in India. Jung maintained that they were in fact living in bottles of Western air, protected from India by objectivity, causality and all the other intellectual apparatus of the West. He went on to say ‘It is quite possible that India is the real world and the white man lives in a madhouse of abstractions’. He emphasised that without those abstractions the white man would disintegrate in India. An Indian writer on reading that commented that Jung is right except for one omission. The Indian is no better at handling reality than anyone else, but they live closer to it so have to take more elaborate evasive action. Hindu thought is without dogma but dogged by dharma. Dharma means no distinction between chaos and order, accepting good and evil as indivisible, witnessing simultaneous continuity as the moral order, being as a process of endless becoming. And yet to act. It means you cannot follow the law. You are the law.

Just to take one of the white mans abstractions and use it as a litmus test I considered that of time itself. In the West we are under the clock’s eternally turning thumbs in almost every aspect of our lives, from work time to leisure time it ticks away measuring the amount of our allotted span. By contrast, in India time is eternal, a concept such as boredom does not exist as we know it and life is viewed as flowing as ceaselessly as the River Ganges.

I also came looking for certain things, one of them being a rather romantic, idealised vision of the glorious Indian dynasties of the 16th and 17th centuries. And after a few disappointments I finally found the India of my imagination. A wilder and, to my eyes at least, more romantic vision than is often presented to the modern tourist. There were no audio-guides or sleek video presentations. In these ‘off the tourist trail’ places we had to pick our way through rubble strewn undergrowth and walk far in the heat and the dust. And what did all this get us? It showed a dynastic way of life in all its spent glory. Completely alone we roamed throughout an enormous hilltop palace that was magnificent even in its decrepitude. At another location we found a city beside a huge river in unspoilt rolling countryside: enormous palaces, numerous temples, fort walls, weed-choked domes and spires. Gaze upon my works indeed.

So what is it that draws me back again and again? I love the fact that Indians are so welcoming to those who come and experience their country and all it has to offer. Every day, to lesser or greater degrees, I see things that are are either completely new to me or presented in a way that I have never seen before. It is a fount of continual surprise and novelty. In trying to describe my personal interaction with India I thought I had put my finger on it when I called it a ‘love-despair’ relationship but realised that this was born out of my own over-optimistic sensibilities and was in itself an obstacle to fuller enjoyment. So, for example, whilst I might despair of the litter and pollution in India I had to move beyond it or allow it to intrude on my waking thoughts on an almost continual basis. This then developed into a practice whereby -nearly – everything irritating about India could become a source of pleasure and/or instruction. An abiding sense of allowing things to come, to be and to go. Being mindful in the fullest sense became the best coping mechanism to the daily whirlwind of Indian life. That and a permanent sense of fun and adventure. Indians love to laugh and although a little thin-skinned around some subjects and not wholly understanding of irony, they enjoy light-hearted banter with a slight tongue in cheek twist and a touch of self-deprecation. Throw in a head wobble or two and you’re practically one of the family. And they are so tolerant and accepting. I believe a visitor to the country could paint themselves blue from head to toe, wrap themselves in tinsel, strap an inflatable shark to their head and not draw a crowd when walking down the street. A few turned heads perhaps, but nothing more.

So, although I felt a sense of relief as we were driving to the airport I was also aware of experiencing a feeling of pre-emptive loss, as though by no longer being in India I would be losing something very vital, something that added to me and made me feel more connected. The mere fact of being a stranger in India means that you are forced to operate on a more highly-tuned plane, to be more alert to risks and also exciting new possibilities. Two weeks after I felt those feelings of imminent loss I am glad that we are not still in India but quite often would just love to ‘be there’ for a short while, to feel that extraordinary energy and commotion swirling all around me and just sit there, chai in hand, and soak it all up. That old colonial curmudgeon Kipling once called India the grim stepmother to the world. She can indeed be very grim at times, but the flip side is that she can also be so so intoxicatingly exuberant as to leave you gasping for more. I will go back, I don’t know when, but I will, I have to, India makes life and everything in it so very much more real to me.

(There is so much written about India that it is hard to single out any one comment but I came across this and liked it: “Will it be said of us one day that we too, steering westward, hoped to reach an India, but that it was our fate to be wrecked against infinity” – Nietzche)

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