I’ve just finished this amazing book and I just don’t know. After reading the 600+ pages of a book which I really couldn’t put down, I’m left with all kinds of questions about India and absolutely no answers at all. To say this book is a powerful read is an understatement and I can now understand why those who recommend it do so with such passion.
I’ve read a description of it as a book “which lingers” and can say that is certainly true for me. I have absolutely no doubt that I will find myself mulling over the people and the situations for quite some time to come, working out just how brilliantly the story unfolded and how so many heartbreaking events could prove to be so compelling.
For sure, India is still a mystery to me. I grew up hearing about India from my father, who spent time there as part of his National Service and who spoke so fondly about the country and its people. I heard similar tales from my father in law, who also served there and who had similarly fond memories. So, on one of our earliest adventures, we visited the country ourselves, to see what it was about the people, the culture, the places that left such deep impressions on both our fathers. We didn’t find it easy-going and the upsetting aspects of being there were never far from view, but somehow there was a kind of beauty wherever we looked and the people behaved with a grace and dignity that we so admired. A couple of decades later, on this our third visit, we found fewer surprises, felt more comfortable and confident to be there and yet, for all of this, found ourselves asking the same questions. We heard our (mostly first time visitors to the country) colleagues from the ship talking in harsh terms about Chennai in particular, complaining that the streets were filthy, that people were sleeping on the pavements and the whole place was disgusting. They muttered about the bureaucracy, the inefficiency, the lack of traffic conventions and the state of the roads, not to mention the swarms of people everywhere – peddling goods for sale, tuktuk rides, their services as guides or simply begging. We found ourselves speaking up in defence of the place, reminding them that officious behaviour isn’t only an Indian trait, that the areas around a port in any city are seldom the most picturesque. We spoke of our respect for the people who faced rather more challenges than we could ever imagine but who were so very well presented, polite and welcoming towards us. How could we defend this place and yet appear to overlook all the squalor and poverty? The answer usually seemed to be “because this is India”.
So, when I finished the book and was asked the question, “Well, did it turn out ok in the end?” how could I answer?
It’s India, isn’t it?
I have no answers.