Thursday, September 17, 2015

From ‘Into India’ by John Keay

[Surprising but there is lot of typecasting, racial stereotypes etc. in this book. I don’t think John Keay would be proud of reading this work again]

Hinduism, when shorn of its prostitution to political ends, remains the most accommodating of religions. Indians, resident and non-resident, are the most obliging of peoples.

…a word of thanks to the Indian people. They are their own worst critics and nothing sells there like another attack on India.

For one country, one nation, India has more races, more languages, more religions and more social groups (tribes and castes) than any comparable corner of the globe. This incredible diversity of peoples is one of the country’s great fascinations.

….Indians are recognizable as a gentle, excitable and slightly potty people. The land of Nod is characterized by a certain passivity interpreted, according to one’s point of view, as lethargic resignation or tolerant stoicism ….the national obsession with religion. For most people this means Hinduism, a peculiarly Indian phenomenon tantamount to the Indian way of life. The mass of non-Hindu communities owe to it a good deal more than they care to admit.

India has a curious way of changing people. The authoritarian becomes a bully and the earnest student an emaciated ascetic. No one comes away indifferent. You feel either rejected or converted and the most balanced subsequent analysis soon plunges into bitter recriminations or soars with extravagant praise. India is never just a country or a holiday; it is a whole experience. It asks much of visitors and by their response to it they judge it. India is what it makes of you. For this bit of self-discovery as well as for the country’s more obvious surprises it is as well to be prepared.

In Delhi clambering on swollen feet from jet to tarmac………..One of the richest, strangest and most exciting smells imaginable shoots up the nostrils like a whiff of brandy. Urine and jasmine, cow dung smoke and frangipani, low octane exhaust and the acrid bidi cigarette combine with the baffling aromas of Indian cuisine to make the air almost tangible. In the quiet, cool expectancy of the post monsoon dawn this smell can be either wildly upsetting or immensely reassuring; it all depends on whether India is a new or a familiar experience.

There is a general untidiness about the place, piles of builders rubble and farmyard refuse both off and on the road.

For all the poverty and hardship Indians are a jollier bunch than their counterparts in the West. Neuroses are as rare amongst businessmen as bitterness is amongst beggars. Suicide is exceptional and the angst of our Western world unknown. A long face reserved for the plight of India is best forgotten if one is to cope with the more typically Indian characteristic of boundless optimism.

I should hate to be thought guilty of romanticizing poverty but there is about the rural poverty of India great beauty as well as sadness.

….Aurangzeb, the nigger in the woodpile so far as Indian historians are concerned because his bigotry led to the severe persecution of Hindus.

At Patna the remains of the imperial city are disappointing. Then as now stone was scarce in the Gangetic plain. The city was built largely of wood. This explains why the great monuments of the period are not in U.P. and Bihar but far away in the Vindhya Hills and Maharashtra.

‘Hinduism,’ wrote Dr. Radhakrishna, one of independent India’s first presidents, ‘is a way of life giving absolute liberty in the world of thought.’

Against its inequalities must be set the undeniable fact that caste has given to Indian society an unequalled stability enabling it to survive innumerable political upheavals, conquests and economic disasters including six hundred years of Muslim rule, nearly two hundred of British, and currently the attractions of communism. ‘As a scheme of social adjustment (it) compares rather favorably with the European of warring territorial nationalities’ writes W.H. Gilbert. It has accorded to backward and subject peoples a place in society without depriving them of their livelihood and individual way of life – something of a contrast with the American treatment of the Red Indian or the Australian of the Aborigine. And finally it acknowledges the responsibility of the caste for its individual members thus providing the rudimentary benefits of a welfare state. Ideally a caste member may expect from his caste a home if he is an orphan, food if he is unemployed, medical assistance if he is sick, credit in hard times ………….

Siva’s phallic symbol is a symbol not a phallus. Most Hindus would be deeply shocked if you suggested they were worshipping a sex organ. So, too, would the village clergyman if you accused him of idolizing beans and marrows at the harvest festival. Both are just symbols of fertility and bounty. So, too, the cows and the rivers. They mean more in India because India is still an overwhelmingly agricultural country. The yield of livestock and field means not just higher or lower incomes but the difference between subsistence and starvation in the perilous lives of the poor. No wonder they take their symbols seriously.

Caeser Augustus received ambassadors from the Pandyas in Madurai who, like the Cheras, employed Roman soldiers as a bodyguard….. The abundance of good building stone and the flagging iconoclasm of the Muslims has left the South far better endowed with ancient buildings than any part of India.

….in Kerala, as a whole, where the Muslim population is close on thirty per cent, there was no serious rioting during the partition crisis in 1947 as there was in Bengal and Punjab. Kerala’s Muslims are still far closer to the Arab world than to the Mohammedanism of Pakistan.

* The Cambridge History of India quotes, from the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles II, a delightful piece about Thomas’ reluctance to go to India. ‘Whithersoever thou wilt Lord, send me; but to India I will not go.’ Eventually he had to be sold to a visiting Indian who was looking for a carpenter to take home with him.

Besides the Catholic and Syrian churches, Kerala has more than its fair share of Protestant churches, Missionaries, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Anglican, Seventh-Day Adventist and Jehovah’s Witness recognizing Kerala as one of the world’s greatest free ports where doctrine was concerned are all well represented ….half the population seems to be in holy orders ….If you have a new religion to impart to the world nowhere will you find a more promising seedbed than in Kerala …. Nuns are so plentiful that they are now being exported to Italy.

[Kerala] …. Nowhere in the world have Jews been so happily accommodated or so long saved from persecution but somehow they have never prospered….
A social climate which for thousands of years allowed such different communities to live in peace is something almost unprecedented…. Hinduism is not a crusading religion. By being born into a certain caste an Indian is born a Hindu; there is no other way of initiation and the idea of conversion is therefore meaningless. But so basic is caste to religion that the Hindu is happy to recognize another man’s birthright to his religion. The Christians, Jews and Moplahs are not of course castes but to the Indian way of thinking they are certainly approximations. And however despised and discriminated against, they are entitled to their religion and bound to their dharma just as is the Sudra and the Untouchable or the donkey and the fly.
This extraordinary harmony makes more sense when seen against the background of the Hindu majority in the South. ‘A madhouse of caste’ was how Vivekananda, the man who first popularized Hinduism in the West, described Kerala but it could just as well apply to the whole of the South. Nowhere else in India does one find so many castes and such minute caste distinctions.

…..the Coorgi maidens are famed for their good looks. In a country like India where the beauty and grace of the women is a revelation as staggering as the poverty but less easily ignored this is no mean distinction. It probably has something to do with the emancipated position of women in Coorgi society and with the fact that here there was a settled European community of planters with the leisure to appreciate their surroundings.

…..the way in which social life and religion are one. The temple and its religious connotations extend deep into the bazaars just as the bazaars and the gaiety of Indian life extend deep into the temples.

….Mount Abu ….Unlike a Hindu temple the whole place is spotlessly clean; there are no greasy lingams, no slippery puddles of ghi. And the priests are not the wild-looking purohits of Madurai but vaguely ethereal figures gliding noiselessly round the fifty-two outer shrines. In each of these sits a solitary Jina, more a prophet or ‘great spirit’ than a god. To any but a Jain they are indistinguishable except for variations in the marble.

[Indian Railways] ….Just as surprising in view of all the red tape, the piles of ledgers and stacks of forms, is that when days later you present yourself at what may even be a different station there on the carriage door is your name. In some extraordinary way the whole system works. You settle in and give an order for lunch, tea, dinner, morning tea and breakfast the following day and with uncanny precision each in due course arrives exactly as ordered. Like Indian Airlines the whole system seems appallingly inefficient but unlike the airlines the railways are reliable. Trains are not fast but they are rarely more than a few minutes late. Monkeys change the signals, left-wing students derail the engines, floods wash away the track, passengers lean on the communications cord and cows fall asleep on the line yet somehow the trains keep running. It’s all so very typical of India. It can’t work but it does.

…in society everyone knows and respects his status and that of others. Strife is certainly not eliminated but the insecurity which makes one man an exhibitionist, another a hypocrite, a third a snob, is rare. Psychological barriers are as scarce as fences and traditional Indian society one of the most accommodating in the world.

The erotic sculptures, like the Kamasutra, are explicit. They portray couples in the many variations of the act of love and do so with a gentle dignity unknown to our sex-crazed society ….is it just an example of the Indian zest for life in all its forms?
In both literature and sculpture there is an overriding tendency to analyse, enumerate and categorise. One sees it in the listing of the seven forms of yoga, the sixty-four rishis, the four states of consciousness and so on. The seven types of kiss listed in the Kamasutra or the eight types of love bite place this work firmly in the same tradition. The three attitudes of the Buddha, the nine avatars of Vishnu, the fifty-two jinas take the same tradition into sculpture…. The caste system with its four varnas and numerous but always explicit and listed subdivisions is another example. Everything it seems must fit into some dimly perceived cosmic order of things which out of the complex mathematics of the world of gods and men is finally reducible to the beautiful simplicity of the All, Brahman, the Godhead, the One….. Love-making, like everything else, has its place in the great scheme of things. Its pleasurable as well as its procreational aspect must be accommodated. Unlike Christianity Hinduism appreciates this and finds even in the temple a place for eroticism. It is sad that even some Indians find this embarrassing and dismiss it as primitive.

Half the passengers had fallen asleep in their seats, an enviable achievement in which all Indians are adept.

With the possible exception of Russia no society in the world is so imbued with graded professionalism.

Noticeably absent is any sign of building stone. The Bengali builds out of mud and brick; there is little in the way of architectural tradition. Instead of statuary and temples the artistic genius of the Bengali was turned to music and literature. With the possible exception of the South no region of India can claim such a rich heritage or flourishing contemporary culture.

India has a positive genius for souring the sweetest of tempers….

Many other animals enjoy important roles in Indian mythology but all beasts, birds and insects are, according to Hindu, Jain and Buddhist belief, entitled to toleration.
…..animal kingdom is not something separate but as much part of the whole hierarchy of life as the Untouchable castes or the unclean foreigners. The distant but tolerant attitude shown to them extends to the animals. As a result nowhere in the world are monkeys so mischievous or birds so tame.

This sense of being accepted as an equal, or at least as someone whose presence is not resented, is what the visitor or traveler most likes to feel. It is possible the most rewarding part of the experience of India. In the cities you are still over-charged by shopkeepers, cheated by taxi-drivers, mobbed by students and questioned unmercifully by everyone. But rarely if ever are you actually resented and just occasionally you feel quietly, genuinely accepted.

Gullibility is a national trait but the tallest story is not to be dismissed outright. The toleration and acceptance which India extends to everyone and everything are contagious.

Though populated by a weak and ineffectual race, Kashmir has been loved with a fierce passion by the succession of invaders and visitors who thought of it as theirs.

There is a Persian saying which runs to the effect that if the world is coming to an end on no account choose as father of a new race either a Pathan or ‘the rascally Kashmiri’. The poor Kashmiris, no one has ever had a good word for them……Though charm, wit and a certain arrogance are there the national trait is, undeniably, dishonesty. Even the fair-minded British Sahibs never quite recovered from the shock of finding such a perfect land inhabited by such an untrustworthy, spineless and obtuse people.

….the Kashmiri’s exceptional ability as a salesman.

…Ghulam Mohammed. He distrusts Munshi intensely but not primarily because the latter is Hindu. All Kashmiris, regardless of religion, distrust one another. A more suspicious people it is hard to imagine…

The genius of Indian is that of accepting others, not necessarily of liking them. Refugees from Persia, from Tibet and from East Bengal or Pakistan are tolerated; Christians, Muslims and Anglo-Indians are tolerated; Untouchables and beggars are tolerated; equally birds, animals and insects are tolerated. But of sentiment or affection towards any of these outsiders there is little.
If this makes of Indians – and I am thinking of Indians as a generality, not just the peoples of the Himalayas – a seemingly cold and unfeeling people, nothing could of course be further from the truth. For me the most distinctive trait of the Indian people is their kindness. Not a wishy-washy politeness – in most Indian languages there is no equivalent for our incessant ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’ – but a warm solicitude comprised of gentleness and compassion.
Untouchability and case or communal discrimination are not especially kind. But these are group attitudes. The hierarchy of subcastes and communities is not rigid. Each is for ever trying to put one over on its neighbor or do down its opposite number. The kindness of Indians lies in the individual not the group.

As the member of a community an Indian will frequently express prejudices and hostilities which you know that he as an individual would never condone on the level of personal relations.

Only the Saddhus, the itinerant holy men of India, can claim to be true individuals, beyond the bounds of caste and community….. It is as if the strength of group loyalties satisfied a man’s need for security leaving him free to shower on the Saddhu, the true individual, a patience, generosity and kindness beyond the understanding of any other nation.

Zoroaster and Ambedkar, Mahavira and Nanak, Siva and the Aga Khan, Christ and Krishna – they are all there side by side in the devotional shops, testimony to an extraordinary eclecticism. Far from resenting the intruders India seems to glory in its own diversity. Refugees, Bengali, Tibetan, Khoja and Parsi, are accommodated. Invaders, Huns, Scythians, Afghans and Mongols, are absorbed. Indigenous peoples, Tribals and Dravidians, are assimilated. Even the visitor finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the heart of the country. Sensing the Indians’ ready acceptance he moves from the cities into the countryside, from the hotels to the ashrams and from the first sweeping impressions into the ever-deepening experience of India. ….The Hindu, or better, the Indian genius is for endless elaboration, complication and contradiction, something of a contrast to the West’s passion for simplification and logic ….In India one never gets to the bottom of things.
At the same time, there is to Hinduism, or the way Indians live, a certain logic which is worth pursuing… Lungi, dhoti, pyjamas and kurta only have to be worn to be appreciated as the coolest and most comfortable attire imaginable in a climate like India’s. The caste system …..has a great deal to be said for it. Even arranged marriages in the context of strict caste observance, the joint family household and the Indian attitude to love are not such a bad idea.

Just as the poverty is rarely as obvious as it seems at first glance so the absurdities of India are rarely as mad as they look.
Hinduism is a most practical religion with not one but at least twenty good explanations for every quirk…… Indians learn to accept the complications and the contradictions ….The diversity and complication of life is itself reason for a certain quiet caution as prudent as it is resilient

……a rapid slideshow of flashing pictures. I saw a troop of schoolgirls in bright blue dresses picking their way through the coco-nut palms which were green and gold in the setting sun. I saw an old man resting on a stack of hay by the railway. I saw a close-up of his eyes, big, bright and gentle, the eyes of a saint wet with tears and smiling with kindness……There were sunsets of frightening splendor seen through the palm groves of Malabar and there were dawns of dew on the tents and mist in the valleys high on the Dhola Dhar. There were temples and palaces, forests and plains, crowds and faces, endless crowds and faces.
More than its diversity, more than its confusions and contradictions, scenes like these stick in the mind. The experience of India is punctuated by moments of such intense and arresting beauty that all else, poverty, heat and sickness, are forgotten. As the experience crystallises, a hard crust of opinion and theory closes over the variety and fascination of India. Only these scenes and images are left. They grow sharper and brighter. Significantly one forgets who or where they are. They are just scenes of India and Indians, a place apart and a people all of whom belong there.

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