the intrigue of india

I wish I could remember the beginning of my fascination with India.  Was it reading the inspiring autobiography of Gandhi and his non-violent resistance to British colonialism?  Was it seeing the movie Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, the story of a Muslim man and a Hindu woman traveling together during a tense period of Hindu violence against Muslims?  Was it watching the intense and inspiring Slumdog Millionaire, about an impoverished boy in Mumbai?  Was it going one day a week for months to my friend Jennifer’s house when our boys were in kindergarten, watching bit-by-bit the marathon British mini-series The Jewel in the Crown?

I envision India as a Pandora’s box full of treasures and rubbish.  Whenever I think India, I imagine a mélange of jewel-colored saris, a mad rush of all layers of society coming head to head in a jumbled mess.  I imagine prim British ladies in floppy hats, chiffon dresses and white gloves drinking tea in colonial mansions with Indian servants calling them memsahibs.  I imagine the tiny proud Gandhi with his huge ideas, ideas of peaceful resistance to bring about change.  I imagine Indian men and women dancing wildly in clothes the color of pomegranates and sapphires in Bollywood movies.  I imagine curries and garlic naan and tandoori and curried cauliflower and mango lassi.  I imagine crowds bathing in the polluted Ganges.  I imagine corpses being burned on burning ghats.  I remember an Indian man I met who was gentle, deep-thinking and open-minded, who unknowingly was the precipitating event that led to the unraveling of my marriage.  This was not intentional on his part and though nothing happened, my encounter with him set my imagination on fire, made me crave the exotic.

Recently I went on a trip to Vietnam where I met two couples who had just been to India.  The young American couple said it was the most amazing experience of their lives, except for Delhi where the poverty was too much “in your face.”  They adored floating on a houseboat in Kerala in the south of India and going on a tiger safari.  When I asked the other couple, an older British couple who work for the postal service, what was their favorite part about India, they said, “The flight out!”  The man said, “India is a place to be endured, not enjoyed.”  They spent a month there and could find nothing to like about it.  This I find fascinating.  What kind of country is it that can repulse and inspire at the same time?  It intrigues me, this dual nature of India.

I have read so many books and seen so many movies about India that I can’t even begin to remember them all.  I do remember reading the 2002  Gandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi by Stanley Wolpert.  This book explores India’s independence movement after World War I and the violence that ultimately led to the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.  It delves into Gandhi’s beliefs and his personal relationships and his strong will that led him to protest by starving himself.  One of the things I remember from this book is that Gandhi, who fought passionately against partition, said that if India and Pakistan split into two nations along religious lines, it would be one of the world’s greatest disasters.  I think possibly he will be proven right, if he hasn’t already.

I read the amazing Pulitzer prize-winning book of nine short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri in 2000, The Interpreter of Maladies.  Some of the stories take place in India and some in America, but most of the characters are of Indian descent.  In the title story, the main character works as an interpreter for a doctor who doesn’t speak his patients’ language.  He also takes tourists to special sites for visits and in one instance falls for one of his women customers,  the wife in a first-generation American couple of Indian descent.  Another story, “A Temporary Matter” explores the unraveling of a marriage after a couple gives birth to a stillborn child.

Just today, I finished reading another of Lahiri’s books of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, most of which involve Indians who live in America and their immigrant experience.  They are people who straddle two continents, wanting to preserve tradition but also wanting the American dream for their children.  The stories could be those of any immigrant, not only Indians, but the details are rich with Indian customs and foods and the clash between traditional Indian and contemporary American culture.  In one group of three loosely linked stories in particular, the first told from Hema’s point of view, the second from Kaushik’s, and the third in the third person, their relationship is first revealed through Hema’s child-eyes, when Kaushik’s family returns to America from India and lives for a while with Hema’s family.  The second part is told from Kaushik’s point of view as he sees his father remarry after his mother’s death; in the third story Hema and Kaushik have a random encounter in Rome in their late 30s. I love a story told this way, from different points of view, revealing the multiple layers of characters’ lives and relationships, and the different perspectives each person brings to any story.

You can tell I love Jhumpa Lahiri, because I also read and saw the movie The Namesake, about Gogol, a second-generation immigrant in America of Indian descent.  He too struggles with cultural identity.   He meets another Bengali woman who has dealt with her awkwardness in America by delving into all things French, finding a third and unrelated culture to lose herself in.

The list goes on.  Another Indian author I adore, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, wrote the mesmerizing Sister of My Heart, the story of two cousins born on the same day, their premature births brought on by a mysterious occurrence that claims the lives of both their fathers. Sudha is beautiful, but Anju is not.  Despite this, the girls love each other as sisters. When both are pushed into arranged marriages, however, each discovers a devastating secret that changes their relationship forever.  This is one of my favorite books of all time.  The writing is gorgeous!

There are multitudes of other books I’ve read about India and maybe, when time permits, I will write about them later.  I have also been inspired by movies about India.  When our sons were in kindergarten, my friend Jennifer and I spent literally months watching the amazing mega-mini-series The Jewel in the Crown.  We would gather at her house one morning a week and watch an hour or so at a time, drinking coffee and eating muffins or coffee cake and enjoying rare moments of freedom from our children.  This was a 1984 British mini-series set during the final days of the British Raj during World War II. The hero, Hari Kumar was educated in a British school and considers himself British rather than Indian.  He gets involved with an English woman, Daphne Manners.  One night, Daphne and Hari are attacked in the Bibighar Gardens by a group of unknown men and Daphne is raped.   A lower-middle class British police officer, Ronald Merrick, holds Hari responsible for the rape and puts him in prison where he tortures him, even though he knows him to be innocent.  The story is intense and becomes much more convoluted, all tied up as it is in the Indian independence movement and all the different forces at work.  Watching this mini-series with Jennifer was one of the highlights of my life as a mother of young children.

One of my other three favorite Indian movies is Slumdog Millionaire, about Jamal, a poor Indian boy in Mumbai who gets the opportunity to compete in the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?  No one can believe he can possibly know the answers to the questions.  Desperate to prove his innocence to the authorities who question and torture him, Jamal tells the story of his life in the slum where he and his brother grew up, of their adventures together on the road, of vicious encounters with local gangs, and of Latika, the girl he loved and lost.  Each chapter of Jamal’s increasingly layered story reveals where he learned the answers to the show’s seemingly impossible quizzes.  I’ve seen this movie about 5 times, I loved it so much!  This movie shows the hardscrabble life of the poor youth in a growing and changing India.

Mr. and Mrs. Iyer is an amazing movie from 2002 about two characters, Meenakshi and Raja, and their harrowing bus trip.  Meenakshi is Hindu and has her baby with her.  Raja is a Muslim wildlife photographer who is asked by a mutual friend to watch over Meenakshi and her baby on the trip.  A curfew is imposed because Hindu mobs are rampaging against Muslims after a Hindu village was burned down in sectarian violence. During this time, the bus is held up and Hindus come on board looking for Muslims to kill. Raja reveals his Muslim identity to Meenakshi and they pretend to be a married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, to save Raja’s life.  I loved this movie.

Finally, mainly because I’m running out of time and must finish this now, I highly recommend the Bollywood movie, Jab We Met, a 2007 Hindu romantic comedy that’s an adorable love story.  The film tells the story of a feisty Punjabi girl who is sent off track when she bumps into a depressed Mumbai businessman on an overnight sleeper to Delhi. While attempting to get him back on board when he alights at a station stop, both are left stranded in the middle of nowhere. Having walked out of his high-pressure corporate job, the man has no destination in mind, until the girl forces him to accompany her back home and then on to elope with her secret boyfriend.  This movie is full of high-jinx and fun and great Indian music.

I am so excited to finally be embarking on this trip, and especially to be going with my great friend Jayne!  I know we’ll have the adventure of a lifetime!!

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