February 1, 2009
It's that time of year. "Everyone's back from India, and someone's
always going, 'Yaaah, yoga. I'm feeling soooo great.'" This is how
one cranky worker described her office vibe at the moment.
"It's hilarious, such a middle-class form of escapism. I just wish
they wouldn't be so smug about it." I've just spent four weeks in
India myself, and I can see her point. As the writer Nirpal Dhaliwal
says, "Everyone goes there to work something out, don't they?"
A British-born Indian, he has spent more than 12 months there in
total since his first trip without his family four years ago. "I
needed to sort out my Indian-ness. But in another sense, I was like a
lot of westerners I went because it is a powerful place."
The DJ Toni Tambourine was in Goa this Christmas, for the Sunburn
music festival. He was "curious to check out the culture". At 38,
he's been to a lot of the chillout hotspots in Asia, but "India was
spiritual, like no other holiday I've ever taken".
Recent cultural blockbusters have seen India move into a new era of
western enthusiasm. Chiefly responsible: Aravind Adiga's Man Booker
prize-winning The White Tiger; the epic gangland bestseller Shantaram
(which Johnny Depp loved so much he persuaded Warner Bros to pay the
author, Gregory David Roberts, $2m for the film rights); and the
"feelgood film of the decade", Slumdog Millionaire, nominated in 10
One in six of the 5m people who visit India as tourists every year
are British, many of whom, but not all, go with some existential
purpose. From the skint backpacker paying 500 rupees a week for yoga
on the beach, to the upmarket clients of Palanquin Traveller, a
company that offers a two-week "spiritual journey in north India" at
£200 a day, all sorts head there to soak up the magic, not just the
I met a working-class northern guy who claims India stopped him from
joining his drinker/junkie friends on the streets; Julien Macdonald
was also in evidence. It's funny to think this red-carpet stalwart
feels at home in a place where it's common to see someone voiding
their bowels at the side of the road. Sad as it is, the realism of
daily life in India is an essential backdrop for the reality check so
many westerners seek.
Simon Beaufoy has spent many months in India since starting the
script for Slumdog Millionaire. He can't believe how much the country
had changed since he went there 20 years ago, aged 18, "when I came
with a dream to climb in the Himalayas which had to remain a
fantasy, as I spent most of the trip crippled with illness in the
dust of New Delhi. As a foreigner, you'll never quite find the thing
you're looking for there. If you do, you're being spoon-fed a
heritage and not the real thing at all".
One guy I met described his dream for his first trip as "looking for
the mountains-and-solitude side of India. I'm looking for the guru
who lives in a cave and has renounced the world". And it's a nice
idea. Until he arrives and realises there are a billion people and
hurdles to clear in order to get there. The west has always been
prone to Indomania. From the Beatles to Schopenhauer, poets,
philosophers, writers, musicians and artists have lauded the nation
as a source of inspiration and wisdom.
Whenever you see hot pink or harem pants on the catwalk, you can bet
your last organic beanburger it's because the designer just "did
India". Parents who hit the hippie trail urge their kids to follow in
their footsteps. Despite other exotic borders opening, India still
tops the backpackers' destination list, according to the student
travel agency STA.
But back to our Indiaaaaaah crew. It is not the entrepreneurship, the
mad cities, the promise in the slums or even the ancient civilisation
that thrills the wannabe chic yogi, her flesh-revealing Melissa
Odabash kaftan packed neatly in her bag (inappropriate attire for
anywhere but the most westernised beaches).
The truth is that those looking for the healing "Indian experience"
are often so focused on themselves, stuffed away in their retreats,
that the only thing they really see are cool things for the flat when
they go to some market.
Dhaliwal quotes Salman Rushdie: "The west repeats itself in India as
a farce", then adds his own corollary: "India repeats itself in
westerners as tragedy. When a westerner takes on the garb of the
Indian in their yoga and chanting, it's always a sign of inner pain."
In some parts of India, you are more likely to find western yoga
teachers than Indian ones. "The Indian teachers lack sympathy, they
make the spiritual journey so much less palatable for the tourist on
their 'spiritual journey'," the yoga instructor Charles Cartmell says.
He describes a type of British woman "used to the form of aerobics
with a 'spiritual' price tag that has been commonly sold as yoga in
the west. You don't have to be able to stick your toe in your ear to
be spiritual; frankly, the process of getting Delhi belly will take
you to a more interesting edge in yourself".
At the supposedly ascetic ashram level, savvy Indian gurus have
become wise to the tastes of the western spiritual thrill-seeker.
Osho the "Gucci guru" opened an ashram in Pune popular with a
western audience in thrall to one aspect of his teachings: free love.
The guesthouse there is more like a minimalist boutique hotel.
The Beatles famously fell in love with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
after he met them in London and gave them a personal mantra. After a
bit of a downer year in 1967, the band went to find themselves by
learning transcendental meditation at the Maharishi's ashram in
Rishikesh and left after a falling-out with their one-time idol.
The guru claims it was due to their drug-taking at the ashram; others
said the guru was having it away with Mia Farrow.
Drugs are often part of the picture. India has many of the key stops
on the international stoner circuit. I remember friends who
gap-yeared in India coming back with fantastic tales revolving around
bhang lassis and smoking opium in Varanasi. The Delhi-based writer
Ambika Muttoo says Indians are well aware of the "so-called
'spiritual seekers' who take drugs to 'find themselves'.
If you want to do the drugs, do them. But don't kid yourself by
dressing it up". In Goa, I overheard a late twentysomething, who had
come to India to "get it together" before she switched careers,
banging on about her spiritual journey while she drank vodka and
mango juice and hoovered up various other substances at a private
party. A friend rounded on her: "Oh come on, get real! You've been
off your head for the past three months."
Cartmell is familiar with the spiritual-narco tourist. "In Varanasi,
Pune or Rishikesh, where people go to find good teachers and ashrams,
you'll find plenty who have no discipline, who can't touch their
toes, lying around smoking pot and talking about the blossoming of
their heart chakras." As Adiga comments in The White Tiger:
"Foreigners get into weird poses, smoke hashish, shag a sadhu or two,
and think they're getting enlightened . . . Ha!"
Still, I've never heard of anyone who went to India to find
themselves asking for their money back. However it works, it does.
Shantaram author Gregory David Roberts says that anyone, no matter
how self-obsessed, who intends to make "a journey within when they
visit India, cannot fail to receive some spiritual result. That is
down to one thing: the people. Everywhere you go you are confronted
with the most wretched of the earth . . . and, for want of a better
word, the Indian niceness, which comes from deep in their heart".
Let's not pretend India is being laid to waste by tragic British
princesses wielding issues and yoga mats. There are also hordes of
post-national-service Israelis in the backpacker havens of the
Himalayas, Rajasthan and the beaches of the south; and the locals are
muttering about how rude and stoned they are. And the Russians appear
to have taken over the whole of north Goa.
At the SwaSwara wellness resort, near the holy town of Gokarna, in
Karnataka, the manager, Anjali Tolani, caters for a mixed bag of
middle-aged continental Europeans who want yoga lifestyle the easy
way. She runs a sort of £200-a-night ashram with light traditional
foods and a little wine if your in-house ayurvedic doctor agrees to
it. She also describes a type of aspirational and wealthy Indian
guest who is "pleased and proud to see westerners enjoying our
ancient traditions. They're thinking, 'Well, if it's good enough for
them . . . ' But then back in the rooms, they'll be calling for
deep-fried pakoras and whisky".
So which is the India the west most desires the cinematic slums of
Slumdog, the mafia world of Shantaram, the designer-kaftan havens of
Goa or the pauper's triumph of The White Tiger? Is it pleasing to be
reminded of how fortunate we are, despite the recession and rain? As
Beaufoy says, "It's capitalism on steroids out there, they are moving
so fast into the future. One thing's for sure: they aren't looking to
us for anything."