I listened to a really interesting podcast! One of those that circles around and around and doesn’t really answer any questions, but brings up some interesting thoughts. It’s called “Astray” and focuses on a few sample cases among many of young non-Indian men who went missing in Rishikesh, never to be seen again.
What I like about this podcast is it does that thing where you make a sweeping statement, disprove that statement, and then re-prove it at a smaller level. It’s that last step I find so impressive. It’s easy to make a sweeping statement and to disprove that statement, but drawing a line and saying “there’s no ‘sweeping’ answer at all” is super tricky and super brave.
The sweeping statement is “India has a mystical magic power, especially Rishikesh and other places like it, which overwhelms visitors and causes them to walk away from their whole lives and wander the earth”. The disproving it is “no, that’s an easy lazy answer that helps rather than harms tourism so all the local embassies and police and media go along with it. In fact, tourists are mugged and murdered because it is a dangerous place to visit”. And then the careful line, that’s where it gets good.
The line the podcast lands on is “India can cause overwhelming culture shock to travelers from westernized countries, and certain places really do have a special beauty and power that changes you. All of which leaves visitors vulnerable to a variety of threats in the area, and those threats can be easily hidden simply by the locals choosing not to get involved. No big conspiracy, but also no magical mystery disappearance.”
I’ve visited India twice and I’ve definitely experienced all those things that could have lead to danger for me. The worst thing that happened was I got charged an enormous amount by one rickshaw driver. One person in the both trips and all he did was charge me too much for a ride. But I was dealing with low grade heatstroke and jetlag and altitude sickness much of the time, I was very aware of how much I stood out as a foreign traveler, and although I tried to be careful with what I ate and drank, I wasn’t as careful as I probably could have been. Plus, I was traveling and seeing all these new things, I was too busy looking at trees and old buildings and street vendors to pay that much attention to my bag or if I was being followed or whatever. So no, I didn’t have a mystical experience and go off wandering. But I was “wandering”, dazed and lost and clearly out of place. Luckily most people are super nice and helped me rather than take advantage of me. And I had some small awareness of the danger I might be in, enough that I almost never went anywhere alone and I had a host situation instead of a hotel or hostel. Most importantly, I was a young woman. As a young woman, I already knew not to be out after dark, and to have a secure bag, and all that fun stuff. If I were a young man, I would have been totally vulnerable. Disoriented, slightly ill, but too confident to realize what was happening and take any sort of precaution. Especially since India-the-tourism-industry is not thrilled to say “by the way, also, don’t eat or drink anything any stranger hands you, never go down alleys at night, don’t trust wandering wisemen, and maybe be careful with the cops too”.
Something else I found interesting about the podcast was how they brought in an Indian producer, a journalist in India to help with research from that side of things. And they interviewed a variety of Indian based experts, a psychiatrist and a spiritual seeker and one other person I can’t remember. Just talking to those people wasn’t interesting, it’s basic good journalism. And it went a long way to dispel the myth of “India Syndrome” as a mystical part of the country by talking to folks who just live there all the time. What I found interesting was the tone of the conversations. The American journalist asked simple straight questions, and got long clear answers. Which shouldn’t be a bad thing. But in a podcast that seeks for the shades of grey, there was less questioning than I expected of those long clear answers.
This is something that is firmly in my area. I study and write about something outside of my own culture. When I talk to someone from that culture, especially in the first 10 years or so I was studying Indian film, I listened to them and considered what they were saying. That was the easy part, it’s always easy to learn things like a sponge. The tricky part is to start sifting through and figuring out is if the source I am listening to is a good source. Do they actually know what they are talking about? As in, the person who confidently tells me that Shahrukh Khan secretly married Priyanka Chopra, do they really know that or is it just something they read in a fan magazine (yes, I was told that. Very confidently and surely as inarguable “Truth”)? And second, do they look at the world in the same way as me, do I agree with their judgements? As in, if someone tells me “All Hindi film is trash and there is no reason to watch it because it gives Bad Morals”. Well, maybe for them it is “bad morals”, but maybe for me rebelling against parental authority and marrying for love is “good morals”.
What’s nice about how I have chosen to live my life and write my work is that I can listen and sift and choose what to keep and what to throw away without needing to confront the person in the moment I am talking to them. Sure, older man at a party, tell me allllllllllll about how Telugu cinema is the only cinema with real “values”. I will listen and smile and nod and then go away and think “well, he was wrong in many ways”.
But listening to this podcast I was hearing a veeeeeeeeeeeery familiar kind of conversation. Only, this was an interview, a recorded and then broadcast interview. Where was the moment when she challenged the assumptions? When she was told “India has very strict religious rules but the young people are rebelling and looking more for a general spirituality”, why didn’t she say “can you give me more examples? What group are you talking about specifically as rebelling?” And why didn’t she follow that up by asking anyone else to provide a contrasting opinion? Or do some research to provide that herself? I’m not saying it would be easy, and I’m not exactly critiquing the failure, because I think it is less of a failure and more of a blindspot? There is a temptation to take the One for the Whole when you are taking to someone from another culture. I guess all you need to do is acknowledge to yourself that this is just a One. No one person is qualified to give the definitive answer on anything in their culture, I know I am not.
Let’s see, what else? The podcast dealt with the way the Indian police/government are really not interested in going after Gurus and it can take a lot of pushing to get them to move. Again, no Vast Conspiracy, just a learned respect for the role.
Oh, and this was REALLY interesting, it argued that the Indian method of seeing enlightenment is way harsh. Meditate, starve yourself, push yourself to the edge to have that one great vision. Versus, say, go to a nice weekly bible discussion group for 20 years and then have a vision. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it is true! And it’s why people go to India also. They want that forced meditation, that extreme environment, to shake them awake. But somehow there isn’t the safety net their should be for that situation. Silent meditation for days on end is SCARY and DANGEROUS. So are extreme fasts, or taking drugs in order to force visions. It can all go wrong very easily but if you go to a Guru saying “I want enlightenment above all else”, the Guru is going to take you at your word and push you until you break.
So, I guess I have 3 thinky thoughts?
- It’s dangerous to go to India because it does alter your emotions and body and everything in a radical way, leaving you vulnerable
- There has to be a line between respecting other cultures, and understanding that the particular person you are speaking to is not that entire other culture.
- Going after enlightenment hardcore may leave you enlightened, but also starved and a bit crazy and possibly suffering a psychotic break which will take a lifetime of medication to cure.
Okay, what do you think about those thinky thoughts? What are your own experiences, if any?