Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Incredible India

They don’t really kid when they say that India has a vast cultural heritage. And they also don’t kid about the out-of-box thinking and the outside-in-perspective. It’s just like when a blind man sees for the first time, he stops to admire every little flower, a beautiful butterfly, the bright sunshine and a colourful rainbow, however the rest of us seem oblivious to the beauty around us. Being used to the monotonous routine and rarely taking a move beyond that, we behave like automated machines designed to perform mechanized tasks. While we generally take a keen interest in the places and stuff about a new country/state we very rarely sit and ponder about our own roots. I don’t know about others but when someone asks me about my hometown, I actually get confused and stumble for words to explain what I have in mind. And all I can give is a blank look when people discuss animatedly about a shrine or temple they visited where I have not been in 25 years of my life. Not just me, having spent almost 3 years in Mumbai, I must have visited Colaba (a popular tourist & shopping hunt) atleast 10 times and my mumbaikar friend had never been to Colaba until last month, having spent most of her time in Navi Mumbai. I also know many localities who have never been to the Siddhivinayak Temple.

When I finish reading a book, I feel great and quickly add it to my list-of books-I-have-read. I feel proud and a mini literature queen while going through the list. But my feelings quickly change when I go to a bookstore or refer to some links like 100-bestsellings-books. It is then I realize that I am nowhere close to being the literature queen, I have just tasted what is probably just a drop glassful in an ocean (drop sound too less an amount). There is just too much going on in the world always, new books, new technologies, titbits, Facebook buys whatsapp, whatsapp introduces last seen hiding feature, Samsung S5 to be launched in April and the list goes on. Thanks to the busy lives that most of us lead, it becomes extremely difficult to even retain a simple habit like reading the newspaper.

Inspite of all these obstacles there are some people who manage to have it all, an overall development of skills that put people like me all green with jealously. This sudden interest and thoughts were triggered right after I finished this amazing book called the Holy Cow by Sarah Macdonald, a semi-autobiographical kinda book based on the author’s misadventures in India. After reading this book I came to know facts and stuff I never thought were possible or existed. The author after spending roughly around 3, 4 years in India easily knows more about the country than me or for that matter my friends. Don’t believe me? I will prove it to you by the means of this post which is written in both public and selfish interest. Selfish because I want to revise the stuff in the book and record it for future references and public because you know to spread the knowledge and all :-)

The cover was what attracted me to the book :-)

The book starts with a description on the author’s first visit to the country and her strong hate towards it. While she is leaving, a beggar tells her she will come back and she does, for the man she loves. And it is in this trip she takes a keen interest in India, Indians and spirituality. Her first few months are spend in the protected homely ambiance in Delhi. She is fascinated by the loud Delhi people, the high profile socialites, the beggars, her over caring care takers, Indian men decorating the walls with urine and the colourful & bright Indian festivals like Holi and Diwali. Also somewhat disgusted and surprized at the stuff like girl infanticides, arranged marriage, cows in the middle of the road and the ever ogling menfolk. She also quotes “The north Indian men on the streets stare so hard and are so sleazy that I often feel like I’ve somehow starred in a porn film without knowing it”. After gaining a strong foothold in India she undertakes a quest across the country. Most of the destinations are chosen on the religious and spiritual salvation grounds. Even after attending the Vipassana course and meeting the Sikhs she yearns for more.

My favourite part in the book was the visit to Kashmir, the description of the scenic beauty. The visits to the Mughal gardens, hazratbal shrine, stay in the houseboats in Dal Lake and the quintessential non veg food, speciality being the 30 something types of mutton preparations. I especially loved the quote “Mutton is to Kashmir what beer is to Australia” that is soo very true, I am currently at home here and being fed with mutton and more. All this and the very tragic militant attacks, curfews, hard-line separatist leaders and army all across the beautiful paradise that burns every day.

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Author attends the Maha kumbh mela in sangam. Maha kumbh is celebrated at four places where the holy nectar fell on the earth. She interacts with a lot of locals and comes to know about the different gods – for wealth Goddess Lakshmi, for knowledge Goddess Saraswati, for energy lord Hanuman, for rains lord Varuna, for new venture or journey lord Ganpati, Ram or Krishna for purity of spirit and the list is endless. She also comes face to face with the sadhus and millions of other devotes looking and bracing themselves for the holy dip into the water that will wash away all the sins and ensure a place in heaven. But however hard she tries, she can’t bring herself to dive into the muddy Ganges that occasionally flows dead dogs and swollen baby corpses. Though towards the end she does have a change of heart and sprinkles some of the holy water on her forehead which makes her feel spiritually rejuvenated. After Hinduism her nest tryst is with the Buddhist faith, which comes in the form of attending the annual Indian teachings of Dalai Lama at McLeod Ganj. In Buddhist tradition a dying lama directs his entire consciousness into another body, this child is known as the tulku (a reincarnated lama) and brought up to continue the work. The Dalai Lama is the most famous tulku of our time and believed to be a manifestation of Buddha’s compassionate consciousness. After attending Dalia lama’s enriching lecture the author stays back to get more impregnated with the Buddhist culture. It is here she meets the pot drinking, pizza eating Buddhist enthusiasts who leave their country and come to India for cheap drugs and shanti – the Israeli’s.
Fed up with a motherland that is always at war, the young Israeli’s often backpack across India and experiment with spirituality and meditation. It is here with them Israelis the author is acquainted with Judaism. She manages to get an entry into the reclusive community and also gets an invite to the Jewish Shabbat. Over kosher food, she engages in deep conversations and observes the Jewish rituals. The rabbi makes it very clear that there are only a finite number of Jews and they are send to earth time to time to save people from sins. For a faith that has endured so much and lost so many lives in the holocaust, the Jews are pretty touché about the conversions and seldom allow people to join their faith. Author gives Judaism one last shot by visiting handful of Indian Jews in Mumbai. Bene Jews came to India in across 19th century and settled around Mumbai, Ahmadabad and Pune. They gained a strong foothold under British tenure in India and held important posts in industries and Indian film industry. After independence many of them flew back to Israel but they were never really accepted as a Jew because the interbred made them impure. Some of them stayed back and strongly consider themselves Indians before anything else. Author met one such family and over a dinner of fish and pancakes, they tell her that they refuse to leave a country that has treated them so well for years. They feel that India is the only place where their people have not been harmed in any way. Bene Israeli’s however are fast heading towards extinction with only a handful of them thriving near the Victoria gardens.

While in Mumbai Sarah (the author) meets another community facing the danger of extinction – the Parsees. In Mumbai parses enjoy a very important position, with many landmarks named after them, Nariman point being an example. Paris’s enjoyed great relationship with British’s who saw them as broad-minded, fair skinned and well educated bunch. After independence the British’s invited parse’s to come with them, however the loyal and proud parse’s refused and in return acquired huge chunks of Bombay from the brits. Parsi’s practice the religion of Zoroastrianism which is one of the most monotheistic faiths. They worship lord Ahura Mazda – the lord of wisdom who has no form or shape, beginning of end but has seven helpers called Amesha Spentas. Paris are pretty strict about their religion and beliefs. They don’t appreciate interference or intrusion of any kind (which is proved by a board “NO INTRUDERS, NO FILMING, NO PHOTOS, NO NON-PARSIS” outside their temple entrance). Intermarriages will guarantee that you are a social outcast in the parsi society and will have no entry into the dokhma or the tower of silence where the parsis hang their dead people to be eaten by the vultures. Vultures which are already almost extinct. Parsi population is also fast shrinking, birth rates are falling and death rates rising. Interbreeding has let to many diseases like hearth problems, asthma and genetic disorders. Parsi’s believe that cleanliness is next to godliness, dirt is evil and are finicky about being clean which includes – Tvs, stereos being kept in huge zip lock bags, wearing masks and staying away from menstruating women. Parsi’s are strong people with strong values and an ability to laugh at themselves.

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All this while not giving must importance to Christianity, it is inquired from her local Christian staff the most revered church in India. And contrary to what we (atleast I) generally believe it not some church in Goa, Mumbai or Kerala but Our lady of Velangani in Tamil Nadu. It is a church built on the site which has been a witness to many miracles. Every year during an annual festival around August-September it attracts millions of devotes from all across. The place conducts masses in over 8 languages – English, Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi etc. people throng the church and pray to mother Mary, giving their hair and dedicating silver or coloured organs to the mother once they are cured. For example, if you had heart issues, once you are cured you will offer red coloured heart to the goddess.

Taking forward the women power, we will now talk about Amma. Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi Devi) resides in Kerala and has great healing powers which are apparently brought by a mere hug and kiss. She attends to scores and scores of devotee’s every day from morning till midnight delivering hug by hug without any trace of boredom or fatigue. You also need not tell her your wish or problems in words, just think about it and she will know. The author feeling goofy wishes for bigger assets while hugging Amma and miracles of miracles her wish does come true. But slowly her excitement and happiness turns to tension when she begins to experience severe pain. With medication she comes back to her normal size state but has quite a difficult time explaining her Aussie doctor what caused the sudden hormonal burst. From then she is particularly careful about what she wishes for. She also visits Satya Sai baba in Bangalore, who was believed to be a reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba. Even though I am an ardent admirer and follower of Shirdi Sai baba, I could never fathom any kind of special feelings for Satya Sai baba. With all respect, he does have a fair amount of miracles and good work done in his name. But I was very surprised to know (through the book and then Wikipedia) that there are many sexual and real estate related allegations impending against him. Nevertheless he has/had a huge following in India and abroad including Sachin Tendulkar.

Any talk about India would be incomplete if it does not include Bollywood. Author has her own share of the Bollywood moment when she meets Preity Zinta (who she calls the Julia Roberts of India) and Aamir Khan (the lagan guy) during promotion events for Dil Chata Hai. She speaks on length about Priety’s beauty and of her being a chain smoker, smoking between shots and interviews. She and her husband also meet the Big B. Before they bid a tearful goodbye to India they also witness the Gujarat riots, the 9/11 attacks and a trip to Pakistan, where the people of obsessed with what we the Indians think of them.

Writing this post was very exhausting. I have been writing this for about a month now. Adding a line every now and then. Remembering to add something while doing some work and then forgetting. At one point I thought maybe it will never be completed but by god’s grace and my never-say-die-attitude it’s finally done.

*Sigh of Relief*

Hope you enjoy this lonnnnngg post.

And all the information about people, festivals, religions, beliefs figures and facts have been taken from the book and then verified from the Internet.

P.S I am really tired of getting all inspired and showering praises on how I loved a book. My fingers are really itching to do a bad review and guess what, I do have a book in mind. Stay tuned for the upcoming bad review.