While India is no stranger to JWR—particularly film and theatre reviews—a first-person visit has yet to be recorded in these pages. How fortunate indeed to come across Laura Pedersen’s up-close-and-personal travelogue of India as it emerges—for better or worse—into the modern age of GDP mania.
The book’s 18 chapters largely stand on their own, making random samplings possible, but those who dive in with the opening “Bewildered, Bothered and Bewitched” will have a difficult time putting the volume away until the last phrase of “India Unbound.”
Pedersen has no qualms comparing all manner of activities, customs and mores in the world’s second largest country by population with her native Buffalo and current base of New York City (“Few [Indian] police officers carry firearms. The joke is that lawbreakers are much better off approaching the police with hard cash rather than handguns. This is so different from Manhattan, where no one pulls out a gun, because chances are that everyone else has one too.” This approach to real issues with a bit of sugar and Eas/West balance will keep most readers engaged and entertained: no dry discourse or tidal wave of modifiers on this well-detailed voyage.
The stereotypical notion of India as one big call centre (so at one with Outsourced, cross-reference below) is acknowledged and dispensed with off the top before probing much deeper into present-day realities. Freakonomics also takes a bow for those skittish about Air India’s safety record.
JWR’s previous excursions to Varanasi and the sacred Ganges River (Zero: The Untold Story; David Wants to Fly) are further fleshed out by Pedersen’s observations of “the religious capital of India,” where Hindus and Buddhists go about their sacred ceremonies in the hometown of many Muslims and a smattering of Roman Catholics. For a country whose birth in 1947 (along with Pakistan) was predicated largely on dogma, it is somewhat comforting to realize that such disparate faiths can co-exist to some degree. For further details, Midnight’s Children offers a curiously fantastical depiction of the historic events as seen through the eyes of—literally—mixed-up children (cross-reference below).
“So Many Gods, So Little Time,” offers a capsule view of India’s largest religions while “Boldface Names” gives readers the basics on the country’s most famous/notorious movers and shakers from Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to Jiddu Krishnamurti, dubbed India’s “first great secular guru.” Reading this bio immediately conjured up, Kumaré—the recent doc where filmmaker Vikram Gandhi puts himself up as a false prophet and soon has a devoted group of believers and followers hanging on his every, invented, word.
Apart from learning where to visit, what to wear or eat and when to go, perhaps the most important chapter deals with the present-day situation for women and children—especially young girls. Pedersen pulls no punches in a forthright manner that is in line with Deepa Mehta’s advocacy for the systemically downtrodden members of society (notably Water and Heaven on Earth, cross-references below). On the minus side, one statement remains uneasily in memory: “The sad fact is that many more women are killed in bride burnings in democratic India than in honor killings throughout the Muslim world.” Her 11-point prescription for change ought to become required reading for all. Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning…
While this volume will be devoured in the heady world of armchair imagination, it can’t fail but kindle the wanderlust in all who savour Pedersen’s insights and experiences of this culturally rich nation. JWR