By ANGELA BELLIN
"'What do you think of western civilization?' Gandhi was once asked. He answered, 'It would be a good idea,'" quoted author Jeffery Paine (left) in his recent book Father India: How Encounters with an Ancient Culture Transformed the Modern West.
Mr. Paine gave a talk on his latest work at the Library of Congress on July 13. The Office of Scholarly Programs and Asian Division of the Library of Congress sponsored the lecture. He told his audience the story of how he came to write Father India.
"When you talk about the writer's intention vs. results, that's kind of a joke, that this could have resulted in this. To a certain extent, a writer can explain why he wrote the book, and that description's just impossibly mundane and pedestrian. And there's another reason he wrote the book but he doesn't know that. It's like the book tapped him on the shoulder and said, 'Write me!"'
Mr. Paine's recent work follows several well-known figures that traveled to India. Human rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., author E.M. Forster, psychologist Carl Jung, author V.S. Naipaul and several others all journeyed to India and found their Western cultural ideals challenged and sometimes redefined.
Although Father India (1999, HarperCollins) is about the clash of Indian and Western cultures, Mr. Paine cautioned about making generalizations about the regions or oversimplifying their interactions. "How can you speak of 'the West?' What's the connection between Kosovo and Las Vegas? How can you speak of India? It's so diverse."
"When you talk about two such cultures interacting over the course of a century, too much is going on to be talking about cause and effect. So we need something more subtle, something more flexible than 'cause and effect' to describe what is going on with these Westerners in India during the course of the 20th century, and the word I think to use is 'experiments.' What is going on in here is an unintended experiment which tests the limits of our thoughts, our assumptions, about the world."
The challenge is how people can step outside of themselves and view their own culture objectively. "But how do we see our own thoughts? How do we flush [them] out of our unconscious and see them?" asked Mr. Paine.
Mr. Paine explained that "all the people in this book wanted what Hungarian writer Arthur Kessler wanted... which was to look at the predicament of the West from a different perspective, a different spiritual latitude."
Citing examples, Mr. Paine said, "Carl Jung, even though he was an old man and he was really too old for the journey, decided he had to go to India to see if there was another way evil could be integrated into the human psyche.
As a graduate student Martin Luther King Jr. was in despair. He wanted to believe in the social gospel and of the power of Christian love in action, but really how could he? It hadn't ended slavery or stopped Hitler; it wasn't ending segregation."
Although these individuals were looking for a different perspective, the results were sometimes surprising. He writes, "Rather than making the unexpected they encountered abroad conform to preexisting understandings of behavior back home...these travelers generally used such encounters to challenge that understanding. The stylish novelist Christopher Isherwood left the familiar behind when he acquired an Indian guru but continued to lead a hedonistic life, being religious and atheistic simultaneously. Forster accepted his homosexuality not by confronting it, as the psychologists said he should, but by letting its value settle out differently while his back was turned attending to other matters in India."
Although the subjects of his book appear quite different outwardly, they did share a certain subconscious motivation. Mr. Paine summarized this general theme by reading aloud from his book, "They booked passages to Bombay and Delhi and Calcutta but secretly hoped (so secretly they sometimes failed to confess to themselves) that those passages might deposit them at ports for which no shipping agent vends tickets. They looked up the Deccan, the Punjab and the Coromandel Coast in atlases, yet no map has areas shaded 'spiritual possibilities,' or 'personal adjustment,' or 'wiser politics.' With such non-geographical destinations in mind, they stacked their emotional baggage to the ceiling. 'When your luggage is in danger,' V.S. Naipaul said, 'That's your clue you have arrived in India."'
Ms. Bellin is an intern in the Public Affairs Office.