India Won’t Make You Spiritual
We heard him before we saw him: drag-jingle-jingle-drag.
Four of us were bundled into a sleeper class train carriage en route to Bodh Gaya, in the Indian state of Bihar, dressed in jumpers and jeans as Kolkata’s warmth faded steadily behind us.
Three hours in, we were cosy, comfortable and had just settled into a few plates of idli, when the sound crept up the filthy, windswept corridor.
Despite the chill, the boy was shirtless. His knotted-rope spine disappeared into tattered trousers, while a dusty mass of hair flopped about his creature-like eyes. His age was indeterminable; his hunger was not.
After sweeping our cabin, hunched on crippled legs like a collapsed ironing board, he presented a tin for tips: jingle-jingle. In the absence of much loose change, he accepted our plates of idli, thanked us wordlessly and dragged himself out of sight.
This wasn’t India: Land of the Gods. This wasn’t the India of laughing babas wrapped in marigolds, or the India of yoga schools and ashrams. Hell, this wasn’t India’s fabulous spiritual image The Beatles popularised in 1968.
This boy and his drag-jingle-drag were snippets of an Indian reality.
We could be forgiven for visualising India as cosmically flawless. Of course, as home to one of the world’s oldest living cities, the birthplace of yoga and over 330 million gods, it deserves its recognition as a spiritual hotpot. But in popular culture, stylised Insta-photos – a spiritualist book shop in Rishikesh or the inside of a yoga retreat – next to tags like #spiritcountry, merely bolster India’s immaculate mystic identity in the Western imagination.
Additionally, memoirs like Elizabeth Gilbert’s internationally lauded Eat, Pray, Love, in which she nourishes her spiritual self during a four-month ashram residency, encourage the idea that you can chant, bend and meditate your way into India’s heart.
It’s what this former Washington Post foreign correspondent in India calls “the ultimate India travel cliché”. “I came to abhor the hippie-mysticism/find-yourself/find-God” stereotypical image of the Indian vacation,” she writes.
After three months in the subcontinent, my thoughts are similar. India, a country of shameless ironies and inequality – as well as inimitable beauty and character – isn’t a one-stop shop for wisdom. Going there won’t earn you a ‘True Mystic’ badge.
Rather, I believe that travelling India certainly helps one develop patience, cultivate a hopeless sense of humour, and acknowledge that India’s postcard spiri-scene is only half the story.
To do this, though, we must toss our rose-coloured travel glasses under the next passing ox-cart. Because, according to Bengali philosopher Amartya Sen, picturing India as a place of boundless exotic promise will lead to disappointment.
“The exoticist approach to India has an inescapable fragility… A wonderful thing is imagined about India and sent into a high orbit, and then it is brought crashing down,” he writes in The Argumentative Indian.
No scenario illustrates the ‘Westerner let down’ in India better than George Harrison and John Lennon’s abrupt departure from the aforementioned ashram in 1968: when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi asked why they were leaving, Lennon responded, “If you’re so cosmic, you’ll know why”.
In a similar vein, Indian writer Priya Shetty lampoons India’s appeal as a holistic haven among Westerners, many of whom spend bucket-loads in the kinds of yoga and Ayurveda retreats offered at home. “Indians don’t hold the secret to inner peace. Nor does any other nationality,” she writes.
From my experience, self-improvement in India doesn’t cost a cent, starting with patience.
Countless tuk-tuk drivers will shadow you for blocks, striking up jovial cricket banter before luring you into a ride. Within days, a firm thanks-but-no-thanks smile forms part of one’s roadside repertoire.
Meanwhile, a hotel manager’s ‘five minutes’ can range wildly between 20 minutes, one hour and, “When my chai’s ready.” Taxi drivers detour, unannounced, to buy packets of paan and chat with friends en route. Clocks all over the country sit battery-less.
Yet the traveller’s tolerance for blackouts and train delays doesn’t compare to most Indians’. During the fallout of the government’s demonetisation scheme in November, we’d often reach the front of peaceful, hours-long ATM lines to find the machine out of cash. Our jaws hit the floor; locals laughed it off.
This distinctly Indian species of humour must originate from the folly of everyday life there: quasi-sadhus parade deformed cows for ‘good omen’ tips; kids swing madly out the sides of moving vehicles; cut-throat shave bays operate on inner-city traffic islands; whole families ride trains on one ticket; farmers dress their goats in T-shirts.
Unsurprisingly, humour seems to alleviate one’s exposure to India’s impossible ironies. While pre-drinking with friends in Mumbai, I listened laughingly to a budding young corporate boast the advantages of Hinduism.
“It’s the most ideal religion,” he said, flicking his Burger King wrapper to make space on the table for whisky. “We can smoke, drink and eat whatever we want. I don’t follow the rituals as such, but I’m certainly Hindu.” Juxtaposition wasn’t lost on me.
In fact, each time I saw a heap of discarded McDonalds cartons or an emaciated cow fleeing the crack of some shopkeeper’s lathi, I wondered whether Herder, the 19th century German philosopher, would still consider Hindus “the gentlest branch of humanity”. ‘Holy cow’ seemed purely notional.
However, India has long thrived with millions of vibrant, huge-hearted people among who love, family and spirituality triumph. As Shantaram’s character Didier marvels: “That is how they manage to live together, a billion of them, in reasonable peace.” Today India’s population is predicted closer to 1.3 billion.
And yet no yoga teacher-training course could blur one’s awareness of gender inequality in India, sustained by patriarchal cultures and practices like dowry. The Indian Male, according to Indian English novelist Anita Nair, gets the lion’s share of affection and fast-tracks through life as the community’s beacon of success and privilege.
This goes a long way in explaining the chauvinistic mindset responsible for India’s horrific record of crimes against women: widespread female infanticide is altering India’s demography; dowry death rates continue to rise; a case of female rape is reported every 22 minutes; rape by one’s husband isn’t legally rape.
So, while India hosts the opportunity to align one’s chakras, seek insight from cave-dwelling yogis or adopt a Sanskrit nickname, it won’t be such things I’ll remember – it’ll be the sound of drag-jingle-jingle-drag fading down a windswept corridor.
Cover by Igor Ovsyannykov