Indian Summer Reading

MidnightsChildrenI started on the plane from New York to Delhi (via Dubai) with the story of India’s birth, as told by Salman Rushdie through the eyes of one Kashmiri Saleem Sinai, who has psychic powers due to being born exactly at midnight on the eve of India’s independence (and its partition). The dense and elaborate prose was a perfect reflection of India as I encountered Delhi’s chaotic streets, the packed train, the throngs of pilgrims traversing Rishikesh–colorful woven fabrics resembled the litany of elegant words and plush dialogue, and the narrator of Midnight’s Children was like a cultural historian, explaining to me the intricacies of each character I encountered: Shiva and Parvati, sadhus and beggars, Sikhs and Muslims, the Indian Middle Class.

Upon finishing the behemoth, I dwelled in the essence of contemporary Rishikesh, which was founded on the legacy of Swami Sivananda, a doctor who discovered Hatha yoga in this city on the Ganges and made it massively popular in the West, by reading B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Life. Though I am not a practitioner of Iyengar yoga, he is exemplary as an author and as a proponent of the “householder” tradition of Hatha yoga, which allows a person to be at once fully committed to the dedicated lifestyle of a yogi and its ethical practices while also living a modern life, earning a living, and being a family member. Light on Life is organized according to the five koshas, the “sheaths” of existence: annamaya kosha (the outer/material/bodily layer), pranamaya kosha (breath and subtle body/chakras), manomaya kosha (the mind), vijnanamaya kosha (wisdom, intuitive intelligence), and anandamaya kosha (bliss, samadhi, the eternal Self). Using this form, Iyengar unfurls a beautiful and sophisticated treatise on approaching life through the lens of Hatha yoga, ethically and through asana practice, and through Patanjali’s ultimate trilogy of tapas (dedication), svadiyaya (self-study), and isvara pranidhana (dedication to the God within oneself). I read this while at the Anand Prakash ashram, a wonderful place that offers serious yoga classes and sattvic (energetically-balanced) food to people from around the world (and sometimes even Indians who are curious about “this yoga thing”!). 

But perhaps I had saturated myself just a bit too much with the wisdom and well-being associated with yoga, because I could not help but ignore all the spiritual books at the shop in Rishikesh and instead purchase Nabokov’s Lolita. Was it a bit incongruous, in a culturally-conservative country such as India with an ancient tradition of restraining or even dissolving all desires, to be delving into this artistic commentary on lust, perversion, seduction, and illicit fantasies? Maybe so, but oh the joys of such jaw-dropping prose, sentences so lofty as to make you forget entirely what country or culture you’re in and only think of the world of scuzzy American motels and 1950s society, bursting at the seams with its own hidden sins. In Pondicherry, after a short flight to the South and a bus ride from Chennai, I nursed an upset tummy and luxuriated in Nabokov’s prose and his protagonist’s strange obsessions while staring out at the Indian Ocean in between the stunning pages.

From there, my reading only strayed further from the golden path of spirituality. Not only that, but I added about a brick’s weight to my luggage by purchasing a copy of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Why, you ask, would I do such a ridiculous thing? Well, I was actually reaching for Salman Rushdie’s recently-published memoir (equally as weighty, anyway), when the Jobs book caught my eye. How funny, I thought, that I’m traveling through India worshipping its antiquity while its urban centers are plunging ahead into a technological future. Maybe I thought that the Jobs book was actually a story about more than American culture–it was a story about where the entire world was headed. And when I flipped the book open, I discovered that Apple’s founder had, in his early twenties, wandered through India for seven months, barefoot, meditating and subsisting on very little food and pondering the nature of the mind. At one point he declares to the biographer that meditation is hard, but with practice the mind does eventually settle down. So, that settled it–I purchased the book and tore through it in about one week, and by the end I not only wanted to purchase an iPhone, but I also felt somewhat comforted by the fact that Jobs had been such a nonconformist and so dogmatic about his spiritual beliefs, even while starting up the company that became Apple. Could it be that, in a deep sense, the values and practices of Indian and Buddhist culture are actually an integral part of the one company that is arguably the backbone of American and perhaps Western culture today? Is the iPhone just another addition to a long history of American intellectuals and innovators borrowing inspiration from Eastern cultures–an example that, as the globalization adage goes, we are more interconnected than we even know?

Finally, of late, at the Western-aimed cafe called The Dreaming Tree where I often sip tea and eat salad when I am tired of having dosa and curd rice at roadside restaurants or ashrams in Tiruvannamalai, I rummaged through the communal basket for new material and came up with For Whom the Bell Tolls. Reading Hemingway’s account of the guerrilla perspective in the Spanish Civil War while lounging among American and European ex-pats who have stayed in India to live a low-cost spiritual lifestyle, I cannot help but reflect upon how lucky the current generations are to have the opportunity and the ability–due to money and the Internet, which allows people to work remotely and stay in touch with loved ones anywhere–to enjoy such a safe, comfortable, peaceful existence. Now our wars are, for the most part and sadly, fought by the underprivileged of society, while those who can afford to ignore them usually do. And I myself am so lucky to be able to enjoy this time in India, learning about yoga (in its many varieties) and the cultures here, reading and meditating and taking walks around the sacred mountain Arunachala. Or perhaps these words of Hemingway say all of this and more, so nicely:

“But in the meantime all the life you have or ever will have is today, tonight, tomorrow, today, tonight, tomorrow, over and over again (I hope), he thought and so you had better take what time there is and be very thankful for it . . . So if your life trades its seventy years for seventy hours I have that value now and I am lucky enough to know it. And if there is not any such thing as a long time, nor the rest of your lives, nor from now on, but there is only now, why then now is the thing to praise and I am very happy with it.”

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