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The Hindu Festival of Diwali takes place this week, an event of light and color, fireworks and gifts and good fortune and joy. For those of us fascinated by India, it is another window into which to gaze with wonder.

We get such mixed messages about India here in the West. We have Indian taxi drivers in New York – or so they would seem; we have Indian restaurants with varying levels of authentic food, utterly delicious. We have a lot of Indian doctors. That’s one window.

Another window is yoga. Yoga is everywhere. Not a day passes that I do not see someone walking somewhere with a yoga mat; there are numerous yoga studios in every neighborhood. I know people who have visited ashrams and studied with master teachers. Even if you haven’t studied yoga, you’ve heard of the Salute to the Sun and namaste. Yoga seems as much a popular fad here as frozen yoghurt, and I have the feeling it’s like looking at a well-decorated Christmas tree without understanding anything at all about what the holiday is meant to celebrate.

Call Centers, another window. How many times have we tried to get our computers fixed, make a bank transfer or resolve a credit card issue, and ended up talking to someone with a decidedly distant and Indian accent? Once, when I was having modem problems, an Indian man at a call center told me to go to Radio Shack and buy a part. He was 8,000 miles away and the Radio Shack was 4 blocks from my apartment; it turned out that he was right.   I have an image of these call centers, huge buildings filled with desks and telephones, to which thousands and thousands of educated young people flock every day to do what must be a very frustrating job.

Tales of the Raj is another source of information. Many, powerful and evocative, are told from the point of view of the colonizer, such as Forster’s Passage to India, Scott’s Raj Quartet. But many Indian writers, Gita Mehta, Amitav Ghosh, and expats with a strong connection to India such as Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, have also weighed in. Taken together these books form a tapestry of information about power and subservience, exploitation and exposure, the clashes of two cultures and the constant misunderstandings that arise between peoples. How to apply these views of history to modern India is another puzzle.

And then there’s the window of the contemporary news media, with tales of floods, hurricanes, terrorism, gang rapes, child slavery, extreme poverty, disease, political upheaval and sectarian strife. Elements of these stories are also true, and they create a strong contrast with the colorful and exotic historic India portrayed in the works of fiction just mentioned.

I have these India sightings regularly. A friend of Indian heritage recently took me to experience an Ayervedic thali at a vegetarian Indian restaurant. It is mindful eating – as modern foodists call it – of an ancient tradition, enjoyable, balanced, not a lot. She explained to me the various flavors and tastes that the meal was intended to satisfy – very carefully thought out, and a far cry from the heavy meats and mashed potatoes of my Midwestern girlhood. Then, this past week, I saw a wonderful production of Tom Stoppard’s India Ink at the Roundabout – a tale of two English women, sisters, in India in the 1930s and England in the 1980s, their encounters with two Indian artists, what they learned and how they felt. I heard for the first time about the concept of rasa, the prevailing overall emotion evoked by a work of art – its inner energy. This too is a part of a practice – and a world – that an outsider can barely expect to grasp. Yet I was inspired by Stoppard’s writing and very moved by the story – two artists tentatively reaching out, striving for understanding, and the aftereffects of those actions, tumbling down the decades.

When we look at the night sky and are able to see the stars, we think of the firmament when we behold those tiny twinkles of light. We cannot fathom the universe in its enormity, but we can see the stars and appreciate the heavenly bodies, and feel lucky. Gazing at complex, vast India through various little openings, cultural, culinary, literary, personal, we catch only glimpses and flail to understand. But we are grateful for the color, and the light.


©Poets Sinews, 2014. Reuse with permission. Thanks to EarthSky and NASA for the photo.