A foreigner comes visiting the country of temples, sadhus and snakes, err leeches. Rings a bell, eh? But this time, he isn’t a binocular-holding American. Instead, he’s ‘English’. Straight from the culture that ‘contributed nothing to this country but misery’, or so articulated by an interesting man in a railway coach. As Charles Foster proceeds ‘In the Hot Unconscious’ with his journey through India, he doesn’t click pictures of the Taj Mahal. But he does make sure that the reader, all set with a scrutinizing gaze and an open mind, prods along.
Foster is in India to collect leeches, apparently ‘for Science’. When confronted with red tape, he engages a couple of locals and some very willing children to help him in the pursuit. What, however, becomes a more important pursuit for him is a question – can the philosophies of the East and West be married? Our traveller doesn’t refrain himself to the snug confines of a religion of his choice. His observations are fluid and keep shifting stances as he meets new people in the course of his journey. Say, the esoteric sadhu who goes by the name ‘Bob’ for, apparently, it sounds a lot like ‘Om’ or the poetic Sikh Jagjit who accompanies our man in a number of his travels.
What started off as an innocent enough hike gradually transforms into a journey that has several questions asked – which God to ‘adopt’ (given the newest, television-serial-inspired Santoshi Ma was good with consumer durables), which Veda/Upanishad to follow or which version of a myth is ‘real’. What is enticing is that, through commonplace events and artefacts in humdrum Indian lanes, it also answers several of them.
There is a lot to be said about see-ing. Subliminal theories notwithstanding, do we indeed turn blind to what we have been overexposed to? Why don’t we see “big furry bees like whirring mice” or, for that matter, “a dark mass of monsoon cloud”? Foster has the seeing eye, the kind bestowed upon a few. He can comment on a regular Indian day in a manner that lends it new facets and plenty of oh-I-never-thought-so moments, without consideration for the trivialities of creed, religion or the sacred. He peppers his travelogue with fascinating anecdotes – how a magnificent tiger was killed by a father-son duo, the case of the schizophrenic, nirvana-seeking engineer, to name a few. From Varanasi to Delhi, buffalo carts to Indian trains – Foster has a story up his sleeve always and boy, is it entertaining!
Though written with a lot of err, feeling and subdued cynicism about the world in general, Foster’s latest offering may not appeal if a linear, over-the-weekend read is what you are seeking. At junctures, the narrative gets dry and ‘philosophical’, if you please. But the Zen humour and the way in which an I-am-at-a-distance perspective manages to notice intricacies of a people is a story in and of itself.
If insight, humour and ‘understanding’ is what you seek – with India under the limelight, of course – ‘In The Hot Unconscious’ may be just your thing.