The Magic of India
Nov. 5, 2001
A version of this article appeared in both India Currents Magazine (in December of 1996) and The Victoria College Alumni News in May of 1998, the latter under the title, “A Living Paradox: A Letter From India.”
Despite being of Indian origin, admittedly two centuries removed from my ancestors’ arrival in Guyana, I’ve always clung to the romanticized Western ideal of the subcontinent. As a youth, I devoured Kipling and Forster, convinced that within every Indian forest could be heard the distant thumpings of tabla and the melancholy twang of the sitar, having been primed for this by the soundtracks of David Lean movies.
Surely, academic erudition, starving Indian children on Sunday night infomercials and such modern literary maestros as Rushdie and Seth would have cured me of such romanticism. But realism only served to flavour the romance, adding contradictory spicing to my impression of a place typically described as diverse and self-contradictory. Indeed, Rushdie’s generation of writers built upon earlier generations’ depiction of India as a fairy tale land, adding childish magic that masqueraded as “magic realism” and other “advanced” literary devices.
And so it was with great trepidation and excitement that I visited India, my ancestral motherland, for the first time. The fortunate recipient of a fellowship from the Canadian government, I and fourteen other Canadians studied development sites from the Himalayas in the extreme north to Kanyakumari in the extreme south. I had travelled through other parts of Asia before, and was reasonably well versed in regional Indian history, folklore, politics and economics. And yet I knew that this experience would be surprising in many, unexpected ways.
When friends ask me to sum up India with a simple observation or anecdote, a grisly example first comes to mind. I was staying at the India International Centre in New Delhi: ambassadorial splendour cached within the illusory Kipling-esque fairyland of Lodi Gardens, the old Islamic tomb complex. I awoke daily to Raj-like service with an opulent breakfast and bed tea, all while ten million Indians conducted life and business in the hidden metropolis beyond the vine-ridden walls. And on page six of the Times of India that first morning –typical of every subsequent morning– was a story nine or ten lines long, hidden in the top left corner; it’s title: “Twelve Congressmen Hacked To Death In Andrah Pradesh.”
“Only in India,” was the thought that came to my waking mind. It was a thought whose sentiment would return again and again. Only in a place that valued its democracy so passionately, yet tended to neglect its individual citizens shamelessly, would tales of political violence be relegated to the back pages, while ubiquitous and tiresome tales of scandal or Indo-Pakistani sports rivalries continually usurp the headlines.
The sentiment returned months later in the communist state of Kerala where I observed a storefront proudly displaying three adjacent posters: one of a pretty Indian model, another of religious leader Sai Baba and a third of Josef Stalin. Only in India would these three find common ground in someone’s heart.
Only in India is the English language regularly risen to its intended level of artistry, though archaic in its application: “Urea Scandal May Prove Rao’s Waterloo” (Times of India). And only in India are condoms donated by Western countries to help control the AIDS epidemic converted to children’s balloons for commercial sale.
The magic I naively sought was cached beneath metres of commercial vulturism. In this land of my ancestors I grew more White by the hour for I could not speak any of the local languages, nor could I understand or mimic the local body language. The India that I perceived through Victorian novels and David Lean films was the India of British perception, and it is to that pole that I gravitated, not to the pole of reintegration with heritage betrayed by my skin colour.
The vagaries of my situation intrigued me endlessly. I sat in scholastic recline in a snooty restaurant, dressed as a purple Thai prince but with skin of pure Indian brown. The waiters smiled and winked at me as if they knew that I’d fooled the rest: I was a coolie masquerading as a sahib.
Yet magical things do happen in India. Dinner orders are juggled via what I’d begun to call the “wallah system” in which several men do the job that would be performed by a solitary man in West: a result of both immense unemployment and a deeply ingrained hierarchical system. Phone calls are placed by the operator to the Czech Republic instead of to Canada. And letters from different parts of the globe all arrive safely …in the same envelope.
This kind of questionable sorcery is interspersed with magic of a more striking nature. In northern Uttar Pradesh, the probable origin of my family, the dawn brings an eerie vision of mist receding from a crater-like valley whose surrounding mountains scrape the sky. This is Kailasa, the Hindu Olympus, home of the gods. A gut-wrenching trek through the thin-aired Himalayan foothills, beneath the beating sun while our intestinal flora waged war with invading local strains, was rewarded with an eye-opening arrival at a gorgeous village of five hundred people.
My thoughts while travelling are eternally driven by film and literary references, and this experience was unavoidably linked to the classic fairy tale of American cinema: The Lost Horizon. Like the protagonist of that celluloid adventure amidst the Himalayas, I was touched by the pure physical beauty of the villagers who, though impoverished by our standards, were somehow enriched and superior for their seeming veracity of character and strength of community. Yet this was no Shangri-La, no undiscovered valley of heightened spirituality and toil-free existence devoid of desire and suffering. Life here was no doubt difficult at times, soured by problems common to rural communities in India: lack of water, food, capital, infrastructure and access to services.
Unavoidably, I considered the rural life that was denied me by my family’s exodus first from this place, and then from rural Guyana to Canada. One of these lovely teenage girls could have been my wife. I could have been a farmer, poor and uneducated, with perhaps none of my burning questions answered, but with a measurable, tangible organic substance of life that no book, movie or career could offer.
Thus is the true nature of India’s magic: a compulsion to consider what might have been, spurred perhaps by the surrounding cacophony of human existence in all its extremes. Yet, on the rooftop one night in suburban Bangalore, I listened to the monkeys in the distant treetops, watched the bats hunt in the low canopy and heard the dogs and cows competing for aural mastery of the night air. At that time, I was able to blind myself to the realities of modern India, and touch again the romance of Kipling’s colonial melange.
And in Delhi again, I liked the look of the storm clouds on the horizon, the leading edge of the coming monsoon. The coconut tree before me was whipped into a frenzy while the surrounding deciduous leaves were in tropical tranquility. There was an odd juxtaposition of circling vultures against that ominous sky, one in which clouds hung like De Mille’s cinematic angel of death.
The subconscious is an odd tool, I decided, one that allows a traveller to cope with a barrage of sensations and emotions by linking memory and observation with art and compassion. A final conclusion regarding India is then stumbled upon, that in the end it forces one to a mode of selfishness, to consider oneself, one’s family and one’s predicament to the exclusion of all other conscious thought. Perhaps that, too, is an aspect of her magic.