Thursday, 20 December 2012

Faith Amidst Chaos

Sarah MacDonald
Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure

In January 2011, I made first ever trip to India.  The trip itself wasn’t all that memorable.  I was struggling to overcome a cold.  Moreover, I was part of the President’s delegation, and so it was difficult to find time in between meetings to enjoy the sights of India.  And to top it off, we were visiting just New Delhi, supposedly not one of the most colorful places in the country.

Nevertheless, it was a highlight in my life.  Having read so many novels by Indian or Indian-descent authors such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, V.S. Naipaul, Kiran Desai, Anita Desai, Hari Kunzru, Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie, and others, I’ve always imagined about what life is in this exciting part of the world.  In a nutshell, I’ve always thought of life in India as full of colors, decorated by the extremes of existence: sadness and happiness, suffering and joy, poverty and wealth, the moderate and exuberant.

There was this one time, when I woke up from bed on a chilly morning in Beijing, and remembered the dream I had had the night before.  In it, I was walking around an unfamiliar city, lost and looking for direction.  I seemed to know everybody, but no one noticed me, let alone knew who I was.  I couldn’t communicate with any of them, for all of them were speaking some form of Indian accent or another.  Crazy, but it’s true.

The New Delhi I visited in 2011 was not like the city in that funky dream of mine.  It was clean, and the people spoke some English.  Yes, there were some bajaj drivers who didn’t understand us when haggling for the fare to and from Connaught Place, at the heart of the city.  But, all in all, I felt quite comfortable there.  And just as I was getting comfortable, we had to fly the next day to Davos, Switzerland. Ow well..

It was in an old bookstore at Connaught Place that I bought Sarah Macdonald’s “Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure”.  Books are a bargain in India.  But because Sarah’s book was not published in India, it carried a heftier price tag.  Yet, I’ve heard so much good reviews about it that I just couldn’t miss buying it.  But just like most of the books I bought, “Holy Cow” ended up on my shelf and was left unread for more than a year.  Then, one day, while I was cleaning my shelf, I felt Shiva (on the cover of the book) winking at me, asking me to give the book a reading chance.

And boy, was it worth the time!  Holy Cow turned out to live up very much to its expectations (at least mine).  The book chronicles of Sarah’s adventure in a land of chaos and contradiction.  Set in a land so diverse in religious, cultural, and social diversity, the book tells stories of Sarah’s encounters with Hindus, Muslims, Sufis, Sikhs, Parsis, Jews and Christians.  You need to understand just the premise of the book to see its potential of causing stomach cramps (because of laughter).

Sarah’s narrative is so easy to digest, inserted with honest comedy.  She talked about the idiosyncrasies in life, which to most Indians, were the most basic, normal things around.  She described the many stories, hypocrisies and oddities that surrounded her strive to find faith in India.  In all of this, Sarah doesn’t mock the people she wrote about, but merely showed them for the readers’ own interpretation.  And my interpretation was comedic, because I keep on drawing parallels with life in Indonesia.

Sarah succeeded in taking me on roller coaster trip across India.  She introduced me to the Indian people and the Indian way of life.  And her perspective, as a foreigner, somehow was a source of comfort for me, because I shared many of her worries and questions.  Indeed, Sarah’s account gave me a new perspective different from those provided by the many Indian writers whose stories I’ve read before.

As a confused person, Sarah’s search for religious enlightenment is something of interest to me.  Sarah’s journey through the Indian religious cornucopia was (undoubtedly) filled with skepticism.  Yet, at the same time, she also found pockets of faith in some of the strangest places, and through some of the most unlikely characters.   One of these was her encounter with a group of Israeli Jews, who made India as their new “promised land”.  A place, which is not like what Moses had promised, but capable of bringing them closer to God.

Indeed, the lesson is that there is something beautiful from all the religions out there.  We may choose to choose one over the other.  But in the end, what works is what makes us feel the most at peace.  And that could be a combination of all, or even none at all.  I love Sarah’s ending of the book:

“From Buddhism the power to begin to manage my mind, from Jainism the desire to make peace in all aspects of life, while Islam has taught me to desire goodness and to let go of that which cannot be controlled.  I thank Judaism for teaching me the power of transcendence in rituals and the Sufis for affirming my ability to find answers within and reconnecting me to the power of music.  Here’s to the Parsis for teaching me that nature must be touched lightly, and the Sikhs for the importance of spiritual strength… And most of all, I thank Hinduism for showing me that there are million paths to the divine.”