In the last century, when scores of nations were getting free of the colonisers, many thought travel writing was on the last leg of its journey. New worlds had been conquered and relinquished, what had to be seen was seen, and India specifically, the jewel in British crown, had been done to death. In fact, at one point of time, author of the classic The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux, stated that travel books were ‘self-indulgent, predictable and dull’.
But the tale is far from over. For travel does not only mean visiting a destination, but making a journey to witness the ever-changing people, their culture and their stories. And so, in an age where the world has become so small that it can fit in a computer screen, writer-barrister-traveller Charles Foster has come up with In the Hot Unconscious (An Indian Journey).
It is difficult to be moderate and objective while writing about India. The reactions to the kaleidoscopic country are often strong, ranging from one end of the spectrum to other. While some can see and feel only the poor, the ugly and the filthy, others are overwhelmed by the beatific, the ecstatic and the other-worldly. As Foster says, the whole country hums with an ancient wisdom, which is almost impossible to ignore even in the daily hum-drum of life.
But unlike many, he is cynical and refuses to be knocked out by the spiritual. As a disclaimer, he starts the book by saying that the first time around, he was ‘too young and arrogant’ to understand India, and that the second time, after a lot of ‘unlearning’, he knew better. But tell him that the tone of the book manages to be cynical till the very end, he seems surprised. ‘I blundered before, but hopefully I blundered more humbly the second time around. Honestly, I like India. I hope it comes out in the book,’ he exclaims.
Foster talks about marriage of east and west, but there is no middle path for him. He demands nothing, but total consummation, where the eastern duality, the Advaita, cannot be differentiated from the western organisation. He talks about the Upanishads, and their subtle derision towards the Vedas, and all the myths surrounding the millennia-old knowledge. But the scientist in him does not let him get lost in those myths. The myths are like the leeches he came to study in India - worth observing, but not astonishing.
The arrogance in the book, however, is refreshing. It comes as a shock that the writer is not shocked himself when he sees people celebrate the phallus in the Garhwal hills. Somehow you expect a stronger reaction from a seemingly prude London-bred, Oxford-educated, father of six.
Point out that the usual warm, hospitable, ever-so-friendly Indian is also missing from the scene, and Foster says the characters are not single persons, but represent a certain phenomenon. Shankar, who provides lodging up in the Himalayas, represents red-tapism and its perils. Shankar is educated, a PhD in fact, cunning, cowardly and desirous of only a ‘good word’ in his favour in the higher echelons. The first master Foster encounters, known as Bob, knows the ‘language’ of spirituality rather than the real thing, which generally is enough for the uninitiated to go gaga.
He is also critical of the ashrams, where he feels those defeated and scared by life come only to become emotionally and physically dependent on the ashrams and its commune.
He talks of a Helga, who claims, ‘I had for four months what people on LSD have for two hours’. The exciting tale ends with the woman not being able to live peacefully anywhere else, but the ashram.
Ask him if he visited the wrong places to observe Hinduism, and he modestly asks where he should go? Tell him that unlike organised Abrahaminical faiths, the real Hinduism would be flowing in the nooks and crannies and not the grand ashrams, and he wonders whether he could find it in the eyes of the people walking down the streets. It seems, very like his inspiration Bede Griffiths, he really wants ‘to know and encounter’ before he tells another tale.