poverty. There is no running away from that. Second is Indian cuisine, or curry food as it is popularly called here. For all its accomplishments, it is lamb curry and paneer tikka that our great civilisation will be forever remembered for. The third, peculiarly, is spirituality.
I was reminded of the third today when I came across the book Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich, an American journalist. According to its reviews, the book is about how – overwhelmed by her fight with cancer, loss of job, and having her Manolo Blahniks chewed by her cat – Ms Rich decides to move to India in order to master Hindi. What follows is, quite naturally, her spiritual self-discovery in Udaipur (with some divergences into the science behind learning a whole new language). The book has just arrived in England, even though it was launched in America last year, where it quickly (and dare I say, predictably) made it to Oprah’s list of summer reads. And if Eat, Pray, Love is anything to go by, there will be a film to follow in a couple of years.
Ms Rich is not alone. I’ve met several people over the last couple of years for whom India represents some kind of mysterious spiritual awakening waiting to happen. The notion is further aided and abetted by a whole Eastern spiritual industry comprising massage parlours, yoga classes, meditation centres, healing foods, and of course, books about spiritual journeys to India.
I once asked one such spiritually-minded Canadian, what exactly he meant by wanting to visit India to experience its spirituality, in what way did he think that Indians were more spiritual than the rest of the world. What I gathered from his incoherent mumble was Indians are “non-materialistic unlike the west”.
Now, let me get one thing clear. It is rather difficult to be materialistic when there isn’t much “material” to go around. Just because a lot of poor people make do with whatever they can, doesn’t mean that given the opportunity – that is money and access to shiny goods – they won’t give in to material pleasures. They will, and they are in increasingly larger numbers, if my last trip to Inorbit Shopping Mall in Mumbai was anything to go by. I don’t think my Canadian friend would have found much spirituality-in-action there.
Sometimes I wonder if celebrating India’s supposed spirituality is West’s way of dealing with its poverty. Because they can’t understand how people can continue to live, work and thrive in such deprived conditions, they make themselves believe that Indians must have some kind of super-human spiritual armour to keep them going. Indians don’t have money because they simply don’t care for it – they are too busy enjoying spiritual nirvana.
Now I lived for twenty-three years in India, but let me assure you, I wasn’t enjoying any spiritual nirvana. Nor could a single person out of my extensive network of friends and family be strictly described as spiritual. Yes, they pray to God quite diligently, but mostly it is a tit-for-tat arrangement: I’ll pray, and you nust get me that seat in an engineering college/job/pay packet/car and whatever else is the latest at Inorbit Shopping Mall. That is not spiritual, non-materialistic, meditative or other-worldly in my dictionary of self-attainment.
But still women like Ms Rich arrive in India and promptly achieve enough self-fulfilment to write books on it. Perhaps, we Indians are just not trying hard enough!
Here is a trailor to my favourite spiritual journey through India, Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited.