Life, the Universe and Everything

Musing time is here again and I have been musing a lot.  I hope you will find the resulting mix makes interesting reading.



My husband and I had a week’s holiday in SW France in mid-June, travelling with Great Rail Journeys.  Having studied French in school and college in Bombay, many moons ago, I have always had a soft spot for that country and have even wished that I had lived there rather than here in England. But that would require India to have been a French colony and that might not have been at all palatable.  The French reputation as colonists does not stand up to close examination.  Interestingly, their former possession, Pondicherry is now the ‘cool’ place to be. Lots of young people like to hang out there. I have been there many years ago and thought it must be the hottest place on earth and that was in mid-January. The sea-food curries are superb though!  Some streets still bear French names and the policemen or gendarmes still wear French head gear or ‘kepi’ as it is known, or at least they were worn  in the 90s.



Sri Aurobindo, the Bengali nationalist, philosopher, yogi and poet founded an ashram there where he developed a method of spiritual practice called integral yoga. He lived there with his French spiritual collaborator, known as The Mother. He died in 1950 but there are many disciples of his philosophy who continue to live there and the place also attracts a great many French tourists. I think it is the French atmosphere in parts of Pondicherry that now attracts Indians.  In Goa it is the area around Panjim which is much frequented and it is still very Portuguese in character.  In Mumbai, the suburb Bandra is the coolest place to live. It used to be where many Goans and Anglo-Indians used to live during my childhood and youth.  It was always very attractive as the sea bordered it. I was there in February and I admired the newly cobbled streets, the Cathedral, the lovely cafes and bistros, boutiques,  all suggesting a Mediterranean atmosphere.  The most famous Bollywood stars live there I was told and property prices have rocketed which means that only the rich can live there.  All this suggests that the mock European atmosphere in parts of India is now deemed ‘cool’ and draws tourists. You may have noticed the frequent use of the word ‘cool’. I seem to have picked it up from my grandchildren.



From Sri Aurobindo to Prime Minister Modi may seem strange but the practice of yoga is the link. The 21st of June, 2015 was truly a ‘red letter’ day for India.  Prime Minister Modi’s call for an International Yoga day was taken up all over the world, whilst in Delhi at least 40,000 people took part in the half hour of asanas with the PM in lead. He will go down in History as the first PM to display Yogic virtuosity to a world audience. Yoga has long takenroot in many Western countries despite early objections by some Christians that it was a Hindu practice. Its proven health benefits have sidelined the sceptics.  Yoga was born in India and we associate it with the sages of olden times as well as their modern counterparts who live out their lives in caves in the Rishikesh area and who attract an army of followers.  The West has glamorized the practice with its hordes of lissom men and women clad in Lycra outfits performing with apparent ease some of the most difficult postures. Rishikesh has been flooded with eager acolytes from the West since the Beatles got there and in the West, hundreds of people sign up for yoga classes.



My father was a serious practitioner of yoga and every morning before going to work, he would spend the best part of an hour going through various postures including the head stand and ending with about 10 minutes of silent meditation.  The three daughters of the house learned very early about the benefits of yoga and I continue the practice most mornings. Meditation and mindfulness are now being taken seriously by educationalists and the medical profession. Stress, depression and even early onset dementia can be reduced, it is claimed.



Whilst there is plenty of evidence to back these claims, there is none to lend credence to truly outlandish claims made recently at a five day conference on “Ancient Sciences Through Sanskrit” held at a campus of Bombay University from 3rd January, 2015.Submitted  papers talked of advanced aviation in the Vedic age, interplanetary travel, advanced surgery, civil engineering and architecture in ancient India. Why, one is bound to ask, is there no trace of such sophistication available today?  India is a country where millions do not have access to toilets leave alone space travel.  Numerous scientists across the world and in India signed a petitionto prevent the paper being presented.  An Indian scientist at NASA dismissed the claims as pseudo-science and said that mythology should not be mixed with science.  Such claims shorn of evidence would reduce the credibility of what Indian scientists have actually achieved.



A few years ago when Amartya Sen discussed the UN paper on poverty levels in India being worse than in sub-Saharan Africa, one of these ultra-nationalist loons  demanded that he be punished severely for his public stance on poverty and inequality in India. As someone who lives in the West and who suffers anguish over bad news from India, I often wonder why Indians feel such triumphal elation when an Indian has achieved praise abroad but seem unmoved when presented with statistics about poverty in India.  Why do we adopt the unpraiseworthy elements of Western culture that may have been learned from films but remain oblivious of the building blocks of that culture which include civic responsibility, respect for others and other virtues?  A depressing television documentary about obesity and diabetes in India found that when some young Indian munches a burger, he thinks he is living the Western life and that makes him very happy.  Many Western fast food joints are now in India too. Are Indians still mentally colonised?  Is eating burgers really ‘cool’?  That word is used so much by young people today as a term of approbation.  What about our own artistic heritage, our textiles, our music and dance?  The same documentary showed the lives of some rich, upperclass Indians as similar to those of rich New Yorkers, the only difference being the multitude of servants, one ayah for each child. The self-satisfaction of such people is repulsive.



I should end on a more positive note. When we returned from our French holiday, we were delighted to see that the myriad shrubs in our garden had flowered at last, having remained obstinately in bud because of the unseasonable cold.  I love my garden and will talk about it next time. Also the long wait for Amitav Ghosh’s final book which completes his Ibis trilogy is over and I have it. Rejoice!



Malathy Sitaram was the first Asian teacher of English in Wiltshire schools. Also she was the first Asian to beMalathy's photo appointed to the Swindon Bench of Justices of the Peace.