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Book Review

Seeking Perspective, Enlightenment in a Land of Contradiction

FATHER INDIA, How Encounters With an Ancient Culture Transformed the Modern West,

by Jeffery Paine, HarperCollins, $25, 324 pages

November 06, 1998|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This book does not--indeed could never--deliver what its subtitle promises. Indian culture has not transformed the modern Western culture. But India and Indians have touched the West, and the encounters have been variously amusing, baffling and influential.

Paine, an editor at the Wilson Quarterly, tells the stories of the Indian ventures of such worthies as Lord Curzon, Annie Besant, E.M. Forster, Carl Jung, William Butler Yeats, V.S. Naipaul, Christopher Isherwood and Martin Luther King Jr.

Some of Paine's characters looked to India to get a different perspective on the West, like Jung, who sought an alternative to fascism, and King, who wanted inspiration for his crusade for civil rights in America from Mohandas K. Gandhi's long struggle for Indian independence. Others, like Forster and Isherwood, sought in Indians and Indian ways resolutions of more personal dilemmas.

For all of these Western voyagers, Paine writes, "The shock of India--kindness and generosity mixed with barbaric poverty and disease; exquisitely refined individuals amid archaic taboos; magnificent intelligences honoring religious superstitions--defied old, neat systems of values."

"The title of this book--Father instead of the customary Mother India--is meant to evoke a little of these travelers' disorientation and surprise when they discovered that tradition, and everything else, were not what they were supposed to be," Paine writes in a sentence that in its vagueness typifies the limitations of this book: The author strains for analogies too hard, tries for effect too much.

The book's strength lies in the stories it tells.

Paine's first major character is Lord George Curzon, the reformist viceroy at the turn of the century. Paine describes him as perhaps the last Englishman who thought everything good flowed only one way, from Britain to India.

Curzon was responsible for a dozen major reforms in the administration of India, Paine says, from education to irrigation to a stable currency. But in the process he only alienated the Indians by ignoring what they saw as their needs. In this way he hastened the drive for Indian independence.

One of Paine's more engaging chapters is the one on Annie Besant, the radical English reformer who startled a large London audience of the National Secular Society in 1891 by announcing that she had received messages--on rice paper--from the recently deceased clairvoyant Madame Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy.

A quick convert to Theosophy, Besant moved to India, donned a white sari and introduced a number of prominent Indians, including Jawaharlal Nehru, to her new religion. She joined the Indian National Congress; the British, vastly annoyed, interned her for being a troublemaking advocate of Indian independence. The Indians responded by electing her, at age 70, president of the Congress.

Paine writes sympathetically of two gay Englishmen who turned to India. E.M. Forster, suffering from writer's block, went there to work for a minor maharajah and from the experience drew his great novel "Passage to India." Given a sexual partner by his boss, Forster, Paine writes, became more accepting and less dramatic about his sexual nature.

Paine says that the writer Christopher Isherwood had a secret to confess as embarrassing to him as Forster's sexual interest had been to him. This time it was religion, and the confessor was not a maharajah but a swami in Hollywood, Swami Prabhavananda of the Vedanta Society.

What Isherwood meant to the swami is not clear, but the swami meant much to Isherwood, who learned from his teacher to accept the two sides of his nature, "holy monk and gay libertine, happy together at last."

There are a number of similar enlightening tales in Paine's book. Gandhi and his belief in nonviolent but bold political action had a profound influence on Dr. King, and through him on Cesar Chavez. The several million Americans who boycotted grapes were eating of the fruits of Father India.

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