When the cat shrieks as it is crushed under the rickshaw wheel down South, you begin to wonder whether you want to continue with the book. Especially since that is juggled with other kinds of struggles in the soul. Gradually however, Foster settles down to his bizarre Indian journey. His purpose is to collect and study leeches but the nuts and bolts of Indian bureaucracy gets in his way. Stuck in a Raj flavoured lodge in North India he providentially falls ill and strikes up a deal with the domestics who will enable him to wend his leech seeking way without letting word get out.
Through leeches and travels Foster begins to explore the recesses of his soul while delving through the Indian character and the lessons of the vedas. His encounters with Indians at one level are of the typical man from the west meets condescending Easterner variety, except that his stories tend to be different. There is the young man on the train who insists on trying to ferret him out of his lower class compartment so that Forster can stop contaminating the unfortunate Indians and confine himself to the upper class society where he belongs or the young guru who has come to set up an ashram in India via America and who dislikes him on sight but makes an attempt to like him for the sake of Zen.
Foster is uncomfortable with many of his encounters whether with Indians or westerners like himself. The westerners are mainly convinced that they have found a superior philosophy and are busy trying to live up to it in various ashrams with varying degrees of success – and advising Forster on ways to find nirvana whenever they meet. Not he thinks that they have any kind of answer – there are lists of Australians and Americans who went wrong even in ashram life, the tale of an engineer who seemed to be perfectly happy and who then tied his hands and feet and rolled into the nearby river, or a woman from New Zealand who was murdered in yet another ashram. There are enough horror stories about the search for nirvana or the non-effectiveness of religious and social systems. Not to mention the tale of a backpacking girl who had leeches on her uvula because she chose to rough it out and drank water from a pond and mystified doctors.
Like Peter Mathiesson’s tales of hunts for legendary snow leopards against a backdrop of Buddhist meditation, Foster’s search for his spiritual self is filled with poetry as he wanders through the eschatological landscape that is India. In fact he refers to Mathiesson twice in his book. For Foster, because he is English the challenge from the Indians that he meets is possibly harder, since there is the dregs of the culture that the British left behind to be combatted in the shape of the brown sahibs.
What Foster does is drain India to the ‘lees’ – the tale of the leeches vanishes after a while though as a metaphor for Forster it works, since he is busy trying to discover his own spiritual essence while draining the country’s stories and perversities. He cannot be faulted on his stock of unusual stories –certainly his take on the subcontinent is both harsher and more humorous than that of many travel writers. And of course, for someone with priests and poetry on the mind, in the end, like TS Eliot he discovers that what he was really searching for lies deep within himself.
In the hot unconscious An Indian Journey by Charles Foster
Published by Westland Tranquebar in India
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