Monday, 2 June 2008

Book of the Month: Holy Cow! (Sarah Macdonald)

Poor Sarah Macdonald! She leaves her cushy job as a television broadcaster in Sydney, Australia, leaves behind the exciting lifestyle of an F-grade celebrity (albeit with the minor inconvenience of being pestered by a deranged stalker), and arrives in New Delhi, ‘the most polluted city in the world’. Years ago, she backpacked in India—a rite of passage for the children of the affluent in the West— and hated every minute of it. Why is she coming back? What masochism pushes her to return to a country that offered her nothing except explosive diarrhoea the first time around? But, as the Indians featuring in this ‘Indian Adventure’ seem to be very fond of exclaiming, ‘What to do?’ The poor girl is in love. Her boyfriend, who works for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), has the misfortune of being posted in New Delhi, and is missing Macdonald ever so much (and she him, isn’t it sweet?) that she decides to brave the inclement, inhospitable, hostile country, and her unhygienic, sordid, offensive, rude inhabitants.

Things begin to go pear shaped for Macdonald soon after she boards the plane headed for India at Singapore. She is convinced that the scrawny, senile Sikh sitting next to her tried to touch her nether region when she was asleep. When she buzzes for assistance the airhostess is dismissive of her distress. The Indian ‘trolley-dollies’, Macdonald informs us, are ‘rich girls whose parents pay a massive bribe to get them a job involving travel and five star hotels.’ These ‘brats’ apparently view passengers as ‘pesky intrusions way beneath their status, and detest doing the job of a high-flying servant.’ (Out of kindness (or the fear of getting sued) Macdonald does not name and shame the airline, but one would be well advised, after reading the conduct of the aforementioned ‘rich brat’ (or ‘trolley-dolly, take your pick), to avoid all of them. Travel by British Airways. Or, even better, Air Australia.)

Things do not improve for Macdonald when the plane finally lands in Delhi. The landing, needless to say, is ‘dreadful’, but that, Macdonald consoles herself, is only to be expected in a country where ‘women are blamed for sleazy men’, and planes are sprayed with ‘foul smelling insecticides’. The passport queue for ‘foreigners’ is impossibly slow while ‘Indians swan past smiling’ (would this ever happen in Australia or Europe or America?), and it takes half an hour (thirty whole minutes!) to find her luggage. When, after somehow surviving this ordeal, Macdonald steps out of the airport, she discovers to her horror that the whole place is teeming with Indians. There are more Indians here than bacilli in a petridish. And their intentions with regard to Macdonald are not honourable. Most of them seem to want to kidnap her in their Oldsmobiles under the pretext that they would take her to her destination. And then, out of the smog (this portmanteau appears at least five times on each of the next forty pages when Macdonald describes Delhi’s pollution), emerges a hand and grabs her bag. ‘Dazed, disoriented, dusty’, and (now) petrified out of her (very considerable) wits, Macdonald collapses on the ground, when her boyfriend comes to her rescue and whisks her away from the crowd that, Macdonald would have you believe, had gathered with the sole purpose of tormenting her. ‘A tad melodramatic’, I hear you murmuring. Not at all! Macdonald is an intelligent, sophisticated, independent, capable career woman, who, I shall thank you to remember, has survived the stalking of a psycho. It is just that from the heavenly Sydney, where everything is picture-perfect, she has landed in shitty (metaphorically as well as literally) India. ‘What to do?’

Macdonald then gets a taste of Delhi’s traffic, which achieves the dual feat of being alarming and annoying at the same time. Every motorist drives with ‘one finger on the horn and the other shoved high up a nostril.’ Judging by Macdonald’s blood-curdling account of her journey through Delhi, you get the impression that the traffic system there is invented by someone who enjoyed crashing cars and trains as a child, and who has a marked reluctance to provide anything useful by way of road directions. And then there are the emaciated, sickly cows that roam unhindered through the traffic eating garbage and plastic. Macdonald observes that she finds it ‘hilarious’ that ‘Indian (read Hindu—Macdonald uses these two words interchangeably) people chose the most boring . . . and stupidest animal to adore.’ Travelling by railway—she is going to Derradun, and further on to Rishikesh— does not bring much joy either. She does not dare to look out of her train’s window at slum dwellers shitting by the railway-line. Macdonald is a tough cookie. She has survived a stalker and sperm-covered letters from her fans, but the bum-salutes of the ‘scrawny Indians’ are a bit too much (like a full English Breakfast) first thing in the morning. In Derradun Macdonald is fleeced by a cabbie who, she decides, is a homosexual because he appears way too friendly towards another man. Macdonald does not have anything against homosexuals (or, in this case, a crypto-homosexual); what she takes objection to is bad, reckless driving. The cabbie, the improbably named Kunti—it’s a woman’s name—shows Macdonald glimpses of near-death experiences. When they finally reach the destination they are gheraoed by screaming schoolgirls, who, having apparently never seen a White face in their lives, pester her for her autograph. Rishikesh is a ‘dirty, dusty strip of clogged streets' where ‘spirituality is for sale.’ At every step Macdonald is hassled by beggars and hucksters, forcing her to conclude that Indians are ‘either deaf to the word ‘no’ or they are the biggest optimists in the world.’ By this time all that the poor woman is wishing for is peace and quiet. ‘The filth, the misery, the public nose-picking, the pissing, the pooing, and retching out giant spits of phlegm’ have bruised her delicate sensibilities. But ‘What to do?’ It is difficult to escape Indians in India. Everywhere she looks ‘is a mass of begging, pleading, needing, naked wretchedness.’

Back in Delhi she is pursued by pushy Punjabis who, even though they barely know her, want to be ‘rrrreeeely friendly’ with her. (Very rum! Why are they so friendly? They must have some ulterior motive.) Over the next few months Macdonald visits her new ‘frrriends’ (Indians apparently role their ‘R’s when they get excited, which, judging by Macdonald’s account, happens pretty much all the time)—for get-togethers, New Year’s Eve parties, and marriage ceremonies—which gives her an opportunity to observe Indians’ (multitudes of) foibles. Such as: all Indian/Hindu women are marriage obsessed; they all have a ‘hair fetish’ and sport long thick hair flowing down to their hips—it apparently requires great courage to break this convention and cut your hair. They all wear saris, and if you happen to spot an Indian/Hindu woman wearing jeans, rest assured you are seeing a rebel who may even be risking death from her irate family. All marriages in India are apparently arranged—the elders in the family trample on the wishes of the young, and, if the young have the temerity to strike their own path, the parents either commit suicide or disinherit the Black Sheep. (The divorce rates in India at present are considerably lower than those in the West, which, one guesses, is because the abused brides are too frightened to leave abusive relationships—lest their own parents commit suicide for bringing shame on the family—or, worse, have been murdered by the draconian in-laws because the dowry was not big enough.) The statistics in this ‘corrupt country’ is not to be believed. The marriage obsession of Indians/Hindus—those with whom Macdonald socialises are unable to come to terms with the concept of pre-marital sex—is matched only by their obsession about their looks. They all want to be fair. ‘Pale is best, pale is the most beauteous’ opines one young woman, and advises Macdonald that it is ‘bestest’ to stay inside for staying pale. Macdonald also discovers that ‘India’s behaviour’ is still dictated by ‘upbringing and wealth.’ (Shocking! Where is the guillotine when you need it?) If you are wealthy, you can ‘treat people dreadfully’ in India, and ‘get away with it.’

India, Macdonald concludes, is a man’s world, where girl babies are aborted and female infanticide is more common than barbecues in Australia. There is so much testosterone floating in the air it is a surprise women don’t grow beards. Wherever she goes Macdonald is encircled by ‘giggling idiots’ and ‘constantly followed’. Indian men have no manners—they scratch their balls and adjust their penises oblivious that they are in the presence of a refined woman who thoroughly disapproves of such disgusting habits. Talking of penises, it seems they are on display everywhere: the men piss everywhere, and there are so many of them that Macdonald wonders whether ‘Indian men have chronic urinary tract infection.’ But undiagnosed medical condition is not the only hypothesis Macdonald entertains—another hypothesis, quasi-sociological, is offered. ‘Baywatch’ apparently is to be blamed. Too many Indian men have lost their heads having watched way too much of this sitcom, and they, Indian men, now think that all Western women have big breasts with erect nipples and enjoy being seduced by hunks on the spot. (Macdonald, by her own admission, is not well endowed in this department, and to describe scrawny Indian men as hunks is like calling ‘skinny’ Starbucks muffin healthy.) Occasionally a ‘bastard’ grabs Macdonald’s crotch or pinches her breasts in a crowd. It is obvious that this male-dominated sexually repressed society (could this be the same land which gave the world Kam-Sutra and Tantric Sex?) where women are treated as sexual objects and possessions, is not ready—and probably will not be ready—for, let’s say, another hundred years, ‘Baywatch’. Liberalisation of economy may bring prosperity for some, but, if your minds and attitudes are not liberated, emancipated women will consider you a piece of shit.

To add to Macdonald’s deepening sense of impending doom, she contracts double pneumonia and has to be admitted to the Apollo hospital, a private hospital that is situated next to a ‘wasteland full of rubbish . . . cows . . and a small slum’. (Macdonald notes all this while she is wheeled into the hospital.) 'Apollo' ‘boasts first world facilities’, but Macdonald’s experience, you are sorry to read, is different. The nurses have dreadful needle technique and seem to have only a nodding acquaintance with the English language. The doctors seem obsessed with getting her sputum and, when she can’t produce, even offer her to teach the ‘Indian morning croak and spit’ that she so detests. Finally, the hospital gifts her a stomach bug. Conclusion: if you fall ill in India, God is your only saviour (not if you are an atheist, of course). You’d have thought that the poor girl’s cup of woe is not only brimming, but is overflowing. Unfortunately, the trials and tribulations of this ex-celebrity from Sidney, concerning her health, are not yet over. Macdonald begins losing her hair rapidly and, in a matter of few weeks, becomes, more or less completely, bald. That can’t be good for her in a country with a ‘hair fetish’. How much more should she suffer?’ As it turns out, a lot more.

Concluding that if she has to survive in this noisy country, she will have to, somehow, find inner peace, Macdonald hires a yoga teacher (who is so effeminate, he could be, should be, surely ought to be, gay), and, when that doesn’t work, checks herself for a ten-day residential course of Vipasana, which, she is surprised to learn, is a technique that began in India (admittedly aeons before Indians got into the habit of spitting, shitting, and urinating in public), and not in Western Australia. Macdonald survives the ten-day course of ‘extreme meditation’—she is not allowed to speak at all during the course—by playing various indie-band songs in her head (not sure whether Buddha would have approved of this), but still is not anywhere within sighting distance of inner peace. Plan A has not worked out, but the clever Aussie has Plan B in place. She is going to check out India’s religions. And what better place to start than Amritsar where she can visit the Golden temple, the ‘high Church’ of the Sikh? She even gets to see the GratnhSahib, which is their, Sikhs’, ‘Bible’. Macdonald tracks down a bizarre bunch of ‘Western Sikhs’, Westerners who have been converted to Sikhism by one Yogi Bhajan, who has used the ancient Hindu rope trick of Kundalini Yoga, which, Macdonald lets it slip, is very good for sex. She then meets the secretary of the headquarters of the Faith who orders her to immediately become a Sikh if she wants to avoid the three big scourges of humanity: mental depression (Sikhs are always happy), AIDS (Sikhs are faithful to one partner), and cancer (Sikhs don’t smoke and their body-hair absorb all of Sun’s rays.) From Amritsar, it is Kashmir (Indian controlled). Travelling in the most militarised region in the world, ‘the highest battlefield on earth’, Macdonald is taken aback by the death-toll—apparently, in the last ten years, nine people have died in Kashmir every day. Her response to this frightening statistics is: ‘This is shit!’, which, she helpfully points out, rhymes with a couplet, written by one Fir Das, that proclaims as regards Kashmir: ‘If there is paradise on earth, then this is it, this it, this is it.’ She also thinks that lotus is a perfect symbol for Kashmir and its valley: ‘Out of slime, out of shit, out of the crowded worn land, rises glorious perfection.’ (It seems Macdonald's mind just can’t get away from shit.) Ever the learner, she tries a few pages of Koran in her hotel room, and magnanimously decides that Mohammad was probably an OK guy when she cannot find any specific advice he has given to women about how they should conduct themselves—just an urging that they should guard their modesty. She also makes the discovery, which will surely shock Indians, that Kashmiri Muslims hate India and would rather be with Pakistan if they can’t get their independence.

Next stop is Kumbh Mela, or the ‘Pot Festival’, the biggest freak-show on earth, when such a mass of humanity (comprising superstitious Hindus, who else?) gathers on the bank of ‘shallow, stinky’ Ganges, it can be seen from ‘outer space’. And, if you are as keen an observer as Macdonald, you will notice ‘craters full of rubbish’, ‘squalid camps’, ‘beggars with twisted bones’, ‘scrawny (Macdonald seems very fond of this word when she describes Indians—the tedium would have been a bit less had she used some synonyms at times. Did she not think of ‘weedy’or ‘scraggy’ or underweight’, or, if she had the other meaning of the word in her mind, which may well have been the case, ‘stunted’ or ‘inferior’?) men in loin clothes’, and ‘people praying to plastic-doll gods’. She hears stories from gullible Indian / Hindu women of Shiva who gets ‘stoned’ and is ‘unkempt’, and Krishna, ‘the randy cowherd’, who ‘seduces thousands of cowgirls with his raunchy flute-playing.’ Then there is the inevitable cavalcade of India’s Sadhus, or holey men, who, Macdonald notes with satisfaction, when seen from near, have ‘bowed bodies with bandy legs’ and sleep in ‘naked huddled heaps’ in the open (although quite a few of them have long John Henries—one has even wrapped his round a bamboo pole!) Remembering her journalistic roots Macdonald ‘interviews’ a few. The sadhus don’t disappoint, and are full of fantastic stories and wild prognostications. In other words, full of shit.

The dernier cri among Western tourists with a conscience is to make the pilgrimage to Dharam Shala, in Himachal Pradesh, one of the Northern Indian States in the foothills of the Himalayas, where the Dalai Lama, a favourite of many a Westerner, runs his Government-in-Exile and spreads his message of peace and love. Dharamshala it is Macdonald heads for, but not before she has a taste of yet another ‘crazy Hindu festival’, Holi, a festival of ‘lust rather than devotion’, she concludes after orange powder gets rubbed into her hair, yellow powder is poured down her top, and her breasts get fondled, all of which sends the poor woman running for safety into her friend’s house—who, very uncharacteristically for an Indian, has given Macdonald only an oblique hint of what to expect by suggesting that she should wear ‘something old and disgusting’— screeching like a panicking rodent. The Dalai gets a big thumbs-up from Macdonald after she attends his sermon. She also makes the discovery that Buddhism and Hinduism have many commonalities in their philosophies. Next stop is Judaism. Macdonald learns that many Israelis (for reasons that are not immediately apparent to her) dig India, and think India is very shanti (Sanskrit word for peace), which she, India, Macdonald reminds us (in case we have forgotten), is anything but. She rubs shoulders with the Kabala groups which don’t seem to have any problems in accepting her amongst them, and the orthodox Chabad Lubavitch group which clarifies that she can never ever be Jewish. Shit!

Macdonald then zooms off to Mumbai, a ‘third world New York’, which, she, in a (rare) moment of magnanimity, concedes could well be a ‘Western metropolis in a grimy, green-house affected, post-apocalyptic world.’ In Mumbai Macdonald meets the Zoroastrians, or the Parsees, and finds them suitably eccentric and some or more of the practices of the orthodox Parsees—as recounted to her by admittedly very odd characters, some tales so bizarre that you are surprised it does not occur to Macdonald to check their veracity—appropriately revolting and outdated.

If you thought that Macdonald has had enough of India’s religions and Godmen, you would be wrong. She flies to Kerala, a South Indian state, to spend time in the ashram of one Mata Amritanadmayi, or, the ‘Mother of the Divine Bliss’, who specialises in hugging and kissing her disciples—‘even blokes’—and makes their aspirations and desires come true. Macdonald gets her share of hugs (and, you guess, smelly bosom and armpits, since the Mata hugs, non-stop, for hours, from the early hours of the morning till late in the afternoon), and, to her surprise and delight, her breasts start getting bigger! Is it a gift bequeathed by the ‘Mother of Divine Bliss’? Probably not, because they, her breasts, are also painful. Assuming that no Indian male doctor would be prepared to touch her breasts (unless he is a pervert, which he may well be seeing as he is both Indian and male, in which case he would want to grab them in a crowd or in the dark, but not for a medical examination) the ABC starts a nationwide search for a female doctor and after only a day finds one. The woman, who has appalling bed-side manners, informs Macdonald that she, the doctor, does not think that she, Macdonald, has got cancer, but because she, Macdonald, is ‘old’, has ‘no children’, and is ‘Western’—all ‘verrry bad’—a mammogram would be advisable. Macdonald is not prepared to take further risks with her health in India. Wisely she flies to Australia, and, after the mammogram is clear, unwisely, flies back to India. Guess what she does upon her arrival? Of course, she flies off to spend time in the ashram of another Godman. And of course she finds him phoney. Despite visiting so many faiths and Godheads the poor woman is no closer to finding God in this overcrowded, faecal country than an anorexic is to having a square meal.

The ‘adventure’ is nearing its end and the expectation is Macdonald will continue slagging off India. We know that it is not like Macdonald to give way to fashionable squmeashness on these matters. We want the character assassination and sartorial deconstruction of Indians to go on. We love (or, as Indians would say, ‘lurrve’) it when she is so catty. Inexplicably the tone softens, becomes mellow. Macdonald starts going to discotheques and even shakes a hip to the tune of saccharine Bollywood ditties. What is going on? Has the shallowness of the superficial middle class Punjabi kudis who have befriended the brave adventurer, rubbed off on her? Have they finally managed to corrupt her? The signs are ominous: Macdonald meets some Bollywood stars and goes starry eyed; she even manages to finagle, via her husband’s ABC connections, three and a half minutes of ‘interview’ with Amitab Bacchan, the ‘Big B’, the impossibly tall and pot-bellied screen-God of India, which sends her friends back in Delhi caterwauling with a mixture of admiration and ecstasy. She watches Bollywood Masala movies and enjoys them. She even has some kind words to say about Hinduism, which, she declares, is a tolerant religion that will absorb everything and survive the onslaught of globalisation. All of this strikes you about as convincing as the explanation of an Auschwitz commandant at the Nuremberg trials that the incinerators were erected to burn garden rubbish.

The ‘adventure’ is almost over, but not before Macdonald has visited another religious jamboree, a Christian one this time, in South India. She is accompanied by two of her Australian friends visiting India for the first time, and Macdonald records, with perverse satisfaction, their sense of horror and disgust at the crowds and the heat and the cockroaches in their living quarters, none of which bothers her, of course, now she has become a veteran of Indian conditions. The (by now) customary long list of dirt, filth, boorish behaviour of some, superstitious behaviour of others etcetera is supplied. She suspects (probably rightly) that many of the ‘devotees’ thronging the festival of ‘Our Lady of Velangini’ are in fact Hindus, who are treating the Virgin as just another Goddess belonging to Hindu pantheon. (Either that or they have come for a weekend of fun-fair.) The priest explains to her that Hinduism’s cultural bindings don’t change their great religion (Christianity). ‘Externally these people are Hindus, but internally they are Christians’ even though they are ‘not prepared to accept Jesus alone as God.’ Macdonald likes the style of the priest.

So far so good. You are beginning to wonder whether Macdonald isn’t finally beginning to feel relaxed and notice something else than the crowds and filth. The good spell does not last for long—the twin towers in New York are attacked by terrorists on September 11. Macdonald is shocked; she is furious; she feels the return of ‘a new depth of hopelessness’. ‘How could God allow this?’ she asks. The world, she declares, has changed forever on September 11 2001. (You do not expect Macdonald to know this, of course, but on September 11 1973, in a CIA-backed and financed military coup in Chile, the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende was usurped, Allende was killed as the American bombs dropped on the presidential building, and the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet was installed—one of the many ‘terrorist acts’ of the USA in Latin America.) But the Indians around her do not seem to have noticed. The reason? ‘In a land used to deaths, disaster and disease, life goes on as usual.’ Then the USA’s ‘War on Terror’ begins with an attack on Afghanistan, a time for personal anguish for Macdonald as her husband, Jonathan, is stuck in Afghanistan. Fortunately it all ends well, and Jonathan returns to India unharmed. The couple decides that it is time to go home. Back in Sidney Macdonald rediscovers her relationship with nature. She ‘bathes with inner joy’. Floating in ‘clean water’ her body is ‘buoyant with the love of life.’ She enjoys the ‘silent mornings’ and doing nothing but ‘gulping lungs full of fresh air’ and ‘staring up at the high, endless bright blue.’ She walks through ‘pristine quiet’ of the suburban bush and is ‘delighted’ to see ‘open joy and easy lives’. The contrast with India could not have been starker. As you finish reading the last page you can’t help wondering whether the title ‘Indian Nightmare’ (instead of ‘Indian Adventure’) wouldn’t have been more apt for her book.

Westerners writing about what Paul Theroux once romantically described as the ‘turd world’ run the risk of falling into one of the two traps: either they are gushingly enthusiastic about everything and manage to sound in the process patronizing—they might marvel, for example, the strong body odour of the natives; or they animadvert everything and everyone all the time, make unfair comparisons with ‘home-countries’, revealing, in the process, their ignorance of the history, exuding, like pumped up raisins, smugness and vanity in equal measure. It would be safe to conclude that Macdonald comfortably avoids falling into the first trap. In fact she does not seem to care much for ideas or understanding the context as she passes sweeping, often inaccurate, judgments. That can be a problem: trying to draw generalized insights or truths from one piece of information is a bit like using Eaton to explain the British empire: what you end up with is so much devalued cliché, prejudice and generalisation that the conclusions are cartoonishly worthless.

Macdonald has a keen eye for the grotesque, and she ferrets it out with a skill that would rival that of an aborigine smelling out sources of underground water. And wherever she finds Bizarreries, she does a demolition job on them—and on India’s (probably undeserved) reputation as an exotic—worthy of an Iraqi looter. There is, however, a fine line between irreverence and scorn, and Macdonald does not always manage her balance while walking it. Too often the narrative mutates into a dyspeptic, petulant, aggravated rant, a long symphony in B Moaner. Time and again, while reading her rantings you think: 'The woman probably has a point, though God knows why she has to make a five-act play out of it.' There are repetitive descriptions of crowds, filth, excrement, poverty, and uncouth Indian men, produced with the ruminative relish of a person who works for the sanitary department giving a recital of the worst barrel he has collected in an interesting working career. It just gets tiresome after a while, making you wonder whether it wouldn’t suit everyone well if the woman were off somewhere else. The unrelenting tone of sanctimony, which the patina of easy-to-read, often witty, prose cannot hide, adds to the reader’s ennui. Macdonald wears ethics the way tarts wear make-ups. While there is some attempt at introspection towards the end, it strikes as a bit hollow. Macdonald seems to have a genius for missing the point; it is almost as if the light of knowledge has blinded her. Things are, in essence, what we make of them. It is a shame Macdonald chooses to make what she does of what she experiences in India.

When she is not carping Macdonald takes on the self-appointed role of an ethnographer and political commentator. Here is a comment on Kashmir: ‘India will never give up its share of the state . . .Pakistan will never give up trying to get all of Kashmir.’ You suspect the situation is a tad more complex than this. There is a lot of immature stuff about India’s religions and religious rituals. Reading these juvenilia you can’t help wondering whether Macdonald is not out of her depth. In fact you can’t help thinking that she would be out of her depth if she were standing on a wet tea-towel. But then, to be fair to her, Macdonald is not making tall claims. This is a work essentially of an unserious nature; if you are looking for depth here you are diving at the wrong end. Such books, often, also have a particular kind of moral silliness about them which some might find charming, especially as it is disguised from their authors.

Holy Cow! is a book to be read on the can where, as Erica Jong once said, your brain goes into beta and your anus does the thinking. Also, seeing as there is shit on almost every other page, reading it in the loo will give you the feeling of being in India.