My passage to India has been so far uneventful in this new age of travel. Just a token clip of ancient Bing Crosby crooning White Christmas to begin the flight; it was over before I could start up my iPod in self-defense. In the back alley by Khao San Road drinking cappuccino with the rest of my Viennese Breakfast (two perfectly boiled eggs, buttered brown bread with minced green onion), it took me twenty minutes to register the big plastic jolly Santa over a six-foot bubble of falling snow, the whole display framed with flanks of real potted poinsettias. Otherwise, it’s just another Christmas: an unexpected wi-fi connection in the boarding lounge, allowing me to say e-hello to distant family and friends; then on to the wonderfully pungent and India-present lamb masala on the plane, with more excellent coffee, this time plain and strong-black; and while still airborne, finishing a couple of editing jobs on the trusty laptop.
Those presented an interesting coincidence, as both last night’s chapter in George’s sprawling political novel and today’s middle-America romance featured bended-knee marriage proposals; with both couples incidentally associated with best-friend couples also marrying. There were some synchronistic resonances in my book reading of last week, as well. Going from Atwood’s post-apocalyptic Oryx and Crake, to the near-apocalyptic Atlantis Found by popular writer Clive Cussler, in which the plot to ruin the world hinges on a series of break points on the Antarctic ice shelf that threaten to trigger a pole shift. Perhaps inspired in part by the very same book, Michael Crichton’s latest thriller, State of Fear, incorporates the very same threat, though with different means (synchronized explosive charges instead of nanotechnology ice-cutters), motives (eco-terrorism instead of paving the way for the second Flood and Fourth Reich), and consequences (media sensationalism to boost funding against global warming, instead of an all-out global deluge to eliminate inferior human breeding stock).
Crichton has a heavy axe to bear, and an uphill battle to climb against the Gore-bred masses, with this polemic-laden book; but he does his old good job (Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain) of exploring deep themes and exposing conventional social/scientific “wisdom.” The signal point that he (also John Steinbeck in the next book I start to read, Log from the Sea of Cortez) makes is that we are creatures of our present time, not of the past, though we may indeed be prisoners of our illusions of past conceptions of the world, and what is politically correct or even, whatever it may mean, “true.” Both Crichton and Steinbeck make that point especially when dealing with the interface between contemporary culture and romanticized notions of simpler people and places living in a state of supposed “paradise” or “nature.” Steinbeck draws on the relativistic notion that we change a reality simply by our presence in it. Chrichton is fond of upsetting popular assumptions such as “global warming is an unquestioned reality” or “the redwoods are the natural state of the environment in California” or “the way people lived in villages was better.”
We can look with longing back to Charles Darwin, staring into the water over the side of the sailing ship, but for us to attempt to imitate that procedure would be romantic and silly. To take a sailing boat, to fight tide and wind, to move four hundred miles on a horse when we could take a plane, would be not only ridiculous but ineffective. For we first, before our work, are products of our time. We might produce a philosophical costume piece, but it would be completely artificial. However, we can and do look on the measured, slow-paced accumulation of sight and thought of the Darwins with a nostalgic longing. (pp. 52-53)
So it is with this “adventure” I’m on. It’s only adventure in the old sense to traverse these continents, and so by a very long stretch. Far from the exploits of Alexander the Great, for instance, or Vasco da Gama--or even of E. M. Forster, the eminent English novelist (Passage to India). I’m just another tourist, bound for another beach, another cybercafe.
As I fly to India, the salient question is not whatever romantic or preconceived notion I may have (along with the tourist industry which lives, for instance, via plastic santas, or “cute” emblematic elephants fashioned of concrete or living shrubs), about the place I’m going to. Nor is it a matter of what is appropriate behavior enroute: do I strike up Christmas conversation with my fellow travelers; simply look them over; bury my nose in a book; open the laptop and do editing work or Scrooge-ish bookkeeping, or email distant friends and family; or do I simply meditate in present time or place, my shirt the wrong color orange notwithstanding? For instance.
On landing, my very first impression is of a sense of home, with the welcoming large land and its forgiving medley of multi-racial, multi-ethnic peoples. This impression proves short-lived, however. On actually settling into the city of Trivandrum, capital of the south India state of Kerala, quick disillusionment sets in. There’s the usual stuff about overcharging for taxi and room, the first day in a country; and then in the shops I’m met with uncooperative or even hostile local people, refusing me service, giving me ugly or disdainful looks; offering directions grudgingly. But all of that is only personal; I can forgive their resentment, even agree with it, given our relative history and economic situation. I just need to adjust, learn to blend in . . . or spare myself the effort and escape to the tourist enclaves, what I like to call the “tourist ghetto.”
"The Real India"
Once here, the salient question becomes, “What is the real India?”
--Is it the wreckage of civilization that overwhelms the first-time visitor, here as in Iquitos, Peru, or Conakry, West Africa, calling to mind the epithet, “Apocalypse Now”? With the streets full of rubble, crazy drivers and pedestrians alike playing chicken 24/7 amid the choking diesel, shrieks of engines, garbage and open sewers, and the unspoken grief of the wretched beggars, the fixed stares of the ordinary poor, in general the desperate and all-pervading social poverty? A pretty picture it is to see the ladies in their brilliantly colored and jeweled finery, tiptoeing matter-of-factly through the broken pavement and dust and gravel, while the canned music blares unbidden from every corner.
--Is it the red-eyed gods and buxom courtesans of the art museum, the India of the romantic imagination? This is the India of the days of its own empire, its caste-mad hierarchies and nobilities, its hallucinogenic religious eroticism . . . before, that is, the arrival of the Portuguese and British overlords posing in roseate landscapes and lush gardens, co-opting the Brahmins and looking the other way while Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, Ganesh, Hanuman, and Siddhartha Buddha gamely grappled in eternity with the demons of the ancient psyche.
--Is it simply this: the rich spicy curries and inexplicable masalas that thrill the senses, bring tears to the eyes, and cause me to swear despite all the assaults to decency and beauty and humanity and nature, that it is worth it, and that I’m glad I’m in India?
--Is it the tourist meccas like Varkala and Goa that I am actually bound for, with my own romantic-yet-practical visions of palm-lined beaches of golden sand and welcoming waves, ever-pleasant ambience, familiar amenities (read: cybercafes), universal language (tourist English) and transnational culture?
Conclusion: I think I need more information (i.e., experience in the country, beyond one day).