“Just tell them you’re doing research for a book. That’s what we say in academia when we find ourselves getting more fixated on a topic than we probably ought.”
Leslie’s suggestion seemed just credible enough to work. But I’m not going to be writing any books on India. Maybe one day my memoirs will have a chapter on my fascination with India. Thanks for the advice, but self-indulgent, unrequested honesty is my style du jour.
The casual reader of this site may wonder why there is so much India in it. The South Asian reader may even groan (as Deepti wants to when I mangle my Hindi lesson, though she is too polite to actually do it) at what I choose to write about. And academy sorts might accuse me of Orientalism, which we all know is a rather bad thing.
I’m not trying to construct India for Indians, which was Said’s primary post-colonial criticism. To be honest, I didn’t know very much about India before traveling there, and now I feel like I know even less, precisely because many notions were dismantled when Lisa and I visited.
I have this habit of immersing myself in the subjects that fixate me. It’s what I do. It’s my defining trait. (That’s probably why I took the somewhat misguided plunge into Catholicism — even going all the way through R.C.I.A. — when I was really just interested in Medieval history.)
And I do find India fascinating. While we were there, India seemed so different from and remarkably the same as the U.S. all at once. I found it interesting to watch a hegemon at work that wasn’t my own country, and to see how a rising nation views America. For many, India almost defines a particular form of globalization that I personally find rather nuanced, confusing, and controversial. As with many countries, in India the promise of free markets and international development yields the uncomfortable contradiction of dire poverty and a bright future for hundreds of millions. It’s a nation with a governing coaltion that includes communists and economic liberals. And as Holland Cotter observed in his review of two 2005 South Asian art exhibitions, fundamentalism ocassionally threatens to rend India apart, while throughout its history nationalism bound it together at the expense of isolation.
Many Indians have a heartfelt, honest belief in that most un-Western and un-Iowan idea: polytheism.
I was amazed in Rajasthan to be no more than 30 miles from Pakistan and to have the railway and all of the roads just end at the border. I was even more amazed to see that until recently Amritsar was the only official crossing point between the two fraternal, nuclear neighbors. When Michael Wood set out on his mythic journey to Shangri-La, he was forced to detour through Nepal (by air) to cross the land border to Tibet, despite being able to look out upon the roadway he might have driven. That it is easier to fly across a land border than to go overland is a complete inversion of human history. Unfortunately, the perpetual threat of conflict is not.
And as someone who moved some distance from home for education and later stayed away for economic reasons, I’m sure my fascination is also related to diaspora. This dislocation is isolating and liberating and guilty.
And so नमस्ते and good night, dear readers. More about India and everything else later.