“Are you a Vedic?”
I looked dumbfounded at my interlocutor, for I could see no reason why she might ask if I was a Hindu priest. All I’d wanted to know was the best repellent for someone who was clearly a mosquito delicacy.
“Uh, no. I’m English,” was the only response I deemed suitable.
She was the one that now looked confused and repeated the question more slowly, “No. Are you a Vedic?”
At this I point, I presumed she had identified my Indian heritage and was trying to determine my caste: an advanced, and rather unlikely question from a young and attractive (if dread-locked) Western traveller-girl. I took the initiative.
“Well,” I began, “I was raised in England. My mother is English, but my father was Indian. He’s Punjabi Hindu. Our family name is Bhardwaj, who were Brahmins. So I guess, to that extent, yes I am a Vedic!” Delighted with my own logic and deduction, as well as being able to answer affirmatively to a question that was obviously very important to this girl, I smiled at her and looked forward to developing our now excellent rapport.
She frowned her well-tanned forehead and looked at me like I was an idiot. “Aaay—-urrrr-veeee-dick.” She annunciated slowly and carefully. I furrowed my own, comparatively pasty, forehead, and leaned closer. Suddenly it became clear.
“Oh!” I said, delightedly, “Ayurvedic?” She smiled and nodded enthusiastically. I smiled back and nodded too. “No,” I said, “I’m just looking for mosquito repellent.
She looked disappointed, but chose to expand: “You take the Ayurvedic remedy and it infuses your body with the energy of the universe. Then the mosquitoes won’t hurt you. They will come near you but never bite you. They will love you as you are part of the universe.” A glazed look came over her face and she gazed off into the middle distance.
She was clearly a nutter, but I had no one else to talk to whilst waiting for my ticket. Also, she intrigued me: she wasn’t much older than me at the time, maybe 20 or so, and looked to be from Germany or perhaps Holland. And yet, she had abandoned the clean streets, low corruption and certainty of science to spend time growing a forest on her head, enjoying India’s variable civic pride and develop a strong belief in what sounded like mumbo-jumbo. What had gone wrong?!
“So,” I began, “Why did you come travelling to India?”
“Ah,” she explained, “So I could find myself.”
Throughout my travels in India, I regularly came across this particular statement of intent: it seems that each year, thousands of young Brits, Germans, Dutch, Swedes, Israelis, Australians and a dozen other nationalities choose to go to India to “find themselves.” This finding of self involves staying in dirty hostels in small towns across India, whilst contracting diarrhoea, getting stoned out of their faces and being frustrated by Indians charging them 5 times the “native” price. And still the oxymoron remains: why would a well-educated, middle-class westerner find themselves in a country half way round the world, which they have never had any cultural contact with and where they don’t speak the language: how would your self have got lost in India and thus need finding there?
One can find Indians, yoga, ganja and unbelievable gastric movements in India, but I never actually encountered myself. As I explored this intent further I came to the core of what such wanderers seek: to have the freedom to try out aspects of life, such as spirituality, religion, non-washing and a lack of health & safety, that would be impossible to explore in England. So rather than finding oneself, it’s more a case of discovering new things that can be made a part of yourself.
Going to India certainly causes you to face parts of yourself that you might not have known about before, such as how you deal with poverty and the guilt of your own comparative privilege; or learning independence and flexibility when trying to traverse India’s transport network; or how to deal with corrupt officials trying to abuse their authority.
But India has a lot to offer beyond development through suffering: the landscape and architecture is truly beautiful and unique; whilst India’s knowledge resources, based on its long culture and exploration of mind and body, are second to none across the world.
So, can you find yourself in India? I’d love to hear from anyone who has. Or is it more about learning new things to add to yourself?