Thursday, January 24, 2008

Troubling predeparture conversations

A: "Where are you flying into?"
me: "Delhi."
A: .....
me: "What?"
A: "You know how people say nothing can prepare you for India? When they say that, they mean Delhi."
me: "I thought when they said that, they meant Mumbai...."

Oh well. They probably meant both, and that's just fine.

So I've set myself up this space to post while on the road, partially as a record for myself and partially to avoid assaulting you all unnecessarily with 'update' emails.

I've been doing some thinking about why I'm doing this trip, why I'm doing it now, and what I'm hoping to get out of it. It's been a strange thing to think through; it's hardly unusual anymore for my demographic to go places our parents would have been unlikely to choose, and for long periods of time. It sort of feels in some ways that travelling outside of North America and Western Europe (I have yet to hear a satisfactory term for this group of areas, probably with good reason) has become for our generation what the two-months-in-Europe-after-graduation trip was for previous generations (though, of course, plenty of us still opt for Europe). I wonder what both of these mean. I certainly see myself wanting many of the same things, and probably sinking myself into similar problems.

People have tended to react to my trip in one of two ways. The first, which tends to come from the older generation, is a mix of cautious support and curiosity as to why in the world anyone would choose India as a destination. (Early email a concerned family member: "Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland, Greece, Austria. Even Hungary. All these countries have bathrooms in them. And did you know that India was right beside Pakistan? I'm sure you didn't." [NB: I did.]) I haven't really been able to explain it to anyone who's had this reaction, and don't expect I'll be able to. The second reaction, which has usually come from my own generation (and community) has been one of total understanding and excitement.

There is, however, a difficult subset of this group, who follow up their approval with a question to the effect of, "Are you going there as a spiritual journey?"

That question sends me off in a million directions. My gut wants to say no; I'm not expecting some mystical experience to happen; I feel like this question comes from an embarassingly orientalist set of ideas about what India is; I have never had a moment of transcendence triggered by bright colours, a foreign language, or the smell of incense or curry* here, and don't really expect it to work any differently there; I feel that human beings are basically the same everywhere, and I don't expect any one or group of people overseas to answer my questions any more than I expect anyone here to; that it's not appropriate to look at other parts of the world (or anyone else) as answers to the parts of ourselves that remain mysterious.

But I also know that that answer is disingenuous. First, of course I believe that we do define ourselves with and against others, and that on some level, you need to allow yourself to do that in order to accept other people's humanity - at its best, it's an act of sympathy. Second, although it's easy for me to say that I'm not seeking any kind of religious experience, spirituality is an entirely different question.

I consider myself a spiritual agnostic. I'm moved by beauty, by suffering, by justice, by history. I'm moved by chaos and paradox. In this spirit, I can say that the last few years have been a profoundly disorienting and grounding experience for me; I believe strongly that the organizing principle of the world and of life is chaos (mantra #1: "crazy shit happens all the time") and that this needn't dislodge our sense of self and justice (mantra #2: "don't be a dick"). Trying to understand my place in this world, and in history, has become very spiritual.

And this trip has a lot to do, for me, with locating myself within these things. Our generation does not have the option of ignoring the non-Western world, and we have good reason to be angry with our parents (where applicable) for doing so. I think I'm drawn to India, specifically, because it strikes me as a particularly hard place to rationally come to terms with; it doesn't fall easily into the "developing world" paradigm that gets applied so liberally** to anyplace that doesn't have easily visible markers of 'advanced democracy' and ' late capitalism,' and allows us to, for example, talk about areas as bafflingly varied as "Africa" and "South Asia" as if they were homogenous. Without having been there yet, India (and here I do mean the whole of India) encapsulates something for me about both the mechanics of the world and our moment in history, and I think this comes from the contraditions and multiplicity of things it contains. Within four months, and within a single nation, I'm going to see some of the oldest structures on the planet (some of which predate the Roman ruins by hundreds, even thousands of years), and then move on to a few cities which are becoming some of the most important technological and economic hubs in the world. India is a constitutionally secular society which has been dealing with issues of religious and regional plurality (with varied degrees of success) since long before Canada was a twinkle in some British lord's eye. Not to mention the issues of population management, which will become a serious global concern over the next century, not only due to the increasing global population but due to scarcity of resource concerns, displacement due to climate change and...

Well, I could go on, but I'll save all of that for the road. In the meantime, I'll be trying not to think every experience into some abstract comment on the cosmos and its relation to worldly justice, and to see the places I'm going to as openly as I can, and for what they are. This is by no means the end of my reservations, intentions, hopes, or assumptions.

In closing, a word on the title of this blog: last year I read Anne McClintock's brilliant article, "The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term 'Post-Colonial," which got me thinking in a serious way about the current prevalence of the prefix post-. We're stuck, we're told, in a culture*** that's post-modern, post-capitalist, post-communistic, post-democratic, post-feminist (yuck), post-9/11, post-just-about-every-movement-that-has-tried-to-take-the-world-seriously. Post-colonial, of course. McClintock's insights about the way these terms obscure our ability to talk about so many problems that still exist are great, and I won't repeat them. But I think what all this adds up to is a sense of floating in a void, of being disconnected from what's happening around us and in the places we can't see, and of feeling like no one's contributions are meaningful. I worry that the term that's missing from this list, and is the sum of all those terms, is post-responsibility. One major artistic theme of the twentieth century was our individual dislocation from history, our inability to see any semblance of ourselves in the stories of the past, and how that prevents us from seeing and telling the stories of the present, and worse, of the future. I think this view requites an awful inflexibility in the way we look at history; it may not happen on horseback anymore, but I'm not sure it ever really did.

I want to work through these ideas; I think the post is bullshit. I think we all need to get back into our bodies, back into history. I think I'm going to India on a spiritual quest to confront the question of where and who I am, and where and who we all are.

(Of course, I also enjoy the pun on traditional mail; these are my letters to you, which appropriately enough will come electronically rather than by the actual, traditional post.)

And, of course of course, the 'comments' button is at the bottom of each post for a reason.

* Okay, so I've had some pretty transcendent curries... but I think this has more to do with how badly the traditional Anglo-Saxon diet accomodates vegetarians than some spiritual property inherent to the spice. I'll let you know later whether this was, in fact, curry witchcraft.
** Wording deliberate.
*** Few words make me cringe harder than "culture," but there it is.

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