Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Real

E.M Forster's seminal A Passage to India deals - amongst other things - with the problem of the 'Real India'. Is there such a thing, or is it just a construct of the sunbaked western imagination? And, if it does exist, do westerners actually want to experience it? Indeed, is experiencing it even possible? "I want to see the real India," cries Adela Quested, only to be greeted with an anonymous voice of cynicism: "It'll end in an elephant ride, it always does." Where do things stand today?


Dharamsala is not Dharamsala. It is Mcleod Ganj. Dharamsla is the transport hub down the road. Backpackers stay in Mcleod and the surrounding villages (chiefly Bagshu and Dharamkot). Mcleod was established as a British military base in the mid-1800s; with time, it became a place of refuge from the heat of the plains. Still, in their emails home, travellers write of being in Dharamsala.

A quirk of history has given Dharamsala its dominant character: The Dalai Lama's escape from China and the establishment of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Mcleod. Here the Tibetans have created an impressive little piece of Tibet in India - temples, political organisations, restaurants, cultural centres - broadcasting Tibetan soft power to the world and keeping the Tibetan issue on the agenda, while at the same time maintaining the area as a tourist centre.

They have been helped in achieving the latter by another quirk of history - Israel's compulsory military service. Dharamsala is about as far from life in the IDF as you could imagine, making it a perfect place for demobbing Israelis to come and detox. It would be no exaggeration to state that at least 50% of the western tourists here are Israelis. Dharamkot may as well be a West Bank settlement, restaurants serve falafel, and I have met at least one Indian here (a chef, no less) who knows Hebrew better than me.

The circle is completed by British gap-year students, wannabe European intellectuals, and ageing wanderers (complete with Keith Richards sun-glasses), all of whom are perfect customers for what Dharamsala has to offer: meditation, yoga, Tibetan medicine, astrology, stunning mountain walks, and large quantities of marijuana. A cynic, I came expecting a pastiche of Glastonbury, fell ill, recovered, has a surprisingly good time, but am nonetheless ready to leave, having brutally decided that this is too far from the 'Real India'for this particular wandering satlan.


I arrived in Dharamsala four days after landing in Delhi, fresh from Amritsar, shocked but seduced by the chaos of life inh the plains. I carried with me the assumption that 'the real' was a chimera, that the 'Real India' was whatever people in India do, even the tourists. This was a cop-out. In arriving here, I have left the real India behind.


The community the Tibetans have built in Dharamsala is the equivalent of the packed suitacase kept in the corner by the refugee, so that s/he will be ready to leave at a moment's notice. Despite everything that happens in their homeland, the Tibetans have refused to give up on the dream of return, while simultaneously managing to confidently forge a new future, one that may yet survive, no matter what.

However, there is still precious little sign of a symbiosis with their Hindu-Indian neighbours. While the Tibetans provide the culture, the Indians provide the services - cabs, hotels, food, drugs. This division of labour means that everyone can eat, but it doesn't necessaarily lend for an integrated community, and it certainly doesn't resemble anything else I've seen on my (admittedly brief) travels.

As for the backpackers, they're the oil that keeps the car running, and it is to them that questions about the 'Real India' should be asked most thoroughly. Forster was astute enough to recognise that a person's attitude to the issue can't be separated from their personal circumstances; Adela Quested is partly looking for the 'Real India' as a way of escaping the dilemma of whether or not she should get engaged. Here it's the other way round: travellers rush straight from Delhi to the hills, thus bypassing the Real India, as a way of dealing with their personal problems.

Aside from the post-IDFers (whose fucked-upedness should require no explanation), and the Gap-Yearers (still wide-eyed at the world), it is the veteran travellers here who have interested me most. While it wouldn't be right to go into details, suffice to say that I have heard truly awful stories here, stories which explain why people would seek escape from the world in the form of Vipassana, extreme spiritual practices, and heavy drug use.

I've no complaints about all this - each to their own. As I said, it's understandable. But it's not what interests me about this country. India has - against all the odds - been a place of redemption from time immemorial, and will no doubt continue to be so long into the future. Sitting eating my curry, though, reading the newspaper, I come across stories of farmer suicides and right-to-work activists murders, of a chaotic but dynamic economy and an ever-present stand-off with Pakistan. Call me dull, but this has been my idea of the Real India, or at least a snapshot of the issues that will determine whether this country plays out the century in glory or anarchy. My fear is that my quest to see it will be as fruitless as people looking for redemption in Dharamsala. But I may as well try. So next up is the question of conflict. Kashmir...


Joel, London said...

"stories which explain why people would seek escape from the world in the form of Vipassana"

I take the point, but, for the record: Vipassana can sensitise you to the world and is often not an escape. Its results include a heightened sense of compassion, which frequently leads to positive actions. I know a number of committed Vipassana practitioners who are also committed social activists. In my opinion, 'meditation=escape' is a common misconception.

Alex Stein said...

It may be a misconception, but it's one that's encouraged, in my experience, by many of the practitioners.

guccipiggy said...

I had a very similar experience in McLeod Alex (trust me: if you feel like this here, DO NOT go to Goa or Manali)

Some of the most dull and self-delusional people who have ever crossed my path, did so in McLeod. There's something particularly stomach churning about some rich-kid decamping up there and pretending he/she's getting consciousness expansion ("when I want consciousness expansion, I go to my local tabernacle and SING!")

In my experience, the only genuinely 'spiritual' experiences I had in India (and I'm not an outrageously spiritual person, in fact I detect a similar cynicism/realism in your writings)
were well away from the tourist trail.

I'm not trying to take away form some of the real disciples there are, just saying I met a far larger proportion of phonies.

I hope you enjoy Kashmir. Be careful of house-boat owners though, they're a pushy lot. Don't let them stop you from seeing Srinagar, and- if you can- spend all your free time up in the Vale trekking (Naringa is particularly beautiful).

Anyway, keep writing, I'm looking forward to hearing your impressions of Kashmir.