Spiritual travelogue

Spiritual travelogue

This book could be considered as much a whacky travelogue on India as it is a quest for spirituality in this land of seers, godmen and vedanta. The story starts with a search for leeches and moves on to other searches and observations about India, not all complimentary.

But almost everything in the book is written with tongue planted firmly in cheek and can be quite funny, if the reader is willing to be amused by another Englishman’s take on India. In the book’s opening lines, Foster speaks about this being “a tale of my own confusion.”

The story ends on an inconclusive note, though the author attempts to look at similarities between the East and West, quoting famous writers early on, including Bede Griffiths, well-known for his book The Marriage of East and West. Interesting quotes from Griffiths find their way ever so often into the book as do Buddhist koans and other words of wisdom, which make up the introduction to each chapter.

In his preface, Foster explores the idea of why a cocktail of Buddhism and Hinduism “mixed with amorphous New Age mysticism from other sources” is the preferred “spiritual drink” in Hampstead and New York. His understanding is “that the oppressive masculine has crushed the sacred feminine” in Protestant Christianity but in his confusing way, he hastily adds that this dichotomy could be dangerous, as “men who aren’t in this sense feminine too aren’t proper men!

And yet his prognosis that Western Protestantism is hampered by being run by men, will be music to the ears of all those who are arguing for a more equal status for women in the Christian churches across the world.

Foster takes off from Bede’s The Marriage of East and West and suggests that “a coalition” would fall woefully short and that what was urgently needed was “full consummation…if we’re to have any chance of wholeness.” But barring the preface, which is the only serious part, the author embarks on his Indian journey poking fun at all that strikes him as odd whilst making the reader laugh with him and at some of his predicaments!

Foster has much to write about his travels here, the people he meets; both Indians and especially the “foreigners” who have come seeking nirvana, the places he visits and most of all the dichotomies. Nobody is spared! Though largely irreverent, Foster’s style is immensely readable and refreshing. Also, the reader will realise that underlying the humour, there is a serious attempt by the author in trying to make sense of what educated Indians know but will not admit to — the often, irreconcilable facets of India.

It is obvious that the author combines characters that he has met and even the locations or else how would anyone be walking around with names like Basmati Jenkins or a sadhu named Bob? His companion explains that Bob the Sadhu’s real name is Pandit, but one of the reasons he preferred “Bob” is because it “is very like the name, “Om!” How can one not be amused by this absurdity among many others!

Indian bureaucracy gets a dig in the persona of Shankar, who insists that in the absence of a paper, the author cannot be permitted to proceed with his research. “We must go through the Right Channels,” is something every Indian will identify with!

The book has many allusions to myths, which wind up becoming realities in India. Foster admits that the country cannot be understood without knowing “something of the metaphysical mechanics of myth.” Foster manages to pack in quite a few observations including the subject of caste, open urinals and even the mutilation of public spaces with graffiti!

The blending of the sublime with the ridiculous could well be the strength of this book. Never has profundity been made so light of to offer an entertaining read.