Wherever you go, there you are! An American Jew reports on India


straatbeeld India met grote gele tank op kar

Na drie maanden reizen door Azië gaan Jonathan Gill en zijn vrouw Eveline vervroegd naar huis. Corona sloeg toe in de metropool Calcutta. Jonathan, schrijver en docent Amerikaanse en Joodse cultuur, deelt in deze derde en laatste brief zijn observaties en ziet hoe hij niet kan ontsnappen aan het joods-zijn, waar hij ook is. Op verzoek van de redactie schrijft Gill in zijn moederstaal – alhoewel zijn Nederlands heel goed is. Zijn rijke taalgebruik komt (zonder professionele vertaler in de buurt) in het Engels beter tot zijn recht.

Home at last, before we planned it. India was full of such surprises, the most important being the nasty COVID-19 variant we caught in Kolkata. Despite our being fully vaxxed and boosted, it laid Eveline low for a week in otherwise magical Darjeeling. After we flew home to Amsterdam (unbelievably, we were the only ones wearing masks on the flight), it did the same to me. 

Ex-pat Jews in India
The plan was to visit relatives of my father who have been living in India for decades, but we never made it to Delhi. I knew there were communities of ex-pat Jews in India, but I hadn’t realized that there are indigenous communities who have lived there since antiquity, while others arrived in the Middle Ages (Marco Polo talks about them). There’s even a Dutch-Jewish connection: The synagogue in Cochin has a 17th-century chandelier and Torah scrolls from the Netherlands. We didn’t go to Asia looking for Jews, but we couldn’t avoid them. Like saying goes (it’s attributed to Thomas a Kempis1): Wherever you go, there you are! 

Paradesi Synagogue Cochin, image Wikimedia Commons

So there’s been plenty to think about our time in a country I’d been curious about since I first found LP’s by Ravi Shankar. I’d heard about him in connection with the Beatles in my high school library in 1979. Yes, back then high schools had libraries, with long-playing records on the shelf, and even books!

But that didn’t prepare me for the full-on assault that awaits the visitor to India: The chaos and filth, the colors, the sounds and the flavors. Such contrasts! The most obvious, to me, was the extraordinary concern shown for animals alongside a seeming lack of concern for the human animal. By this I mean vegetarianism and poverty, a kind of vegetarian culture that I haven’t encountered before, not in Berkeley or Greenwhich Village, not in Amsterdam or Tel Aviv, and a kind of poverty that I’ve also never encountered, not in the South Bronx or South L.A., not in Brazil or Morrocco.

A reliable guide to understanding both, and their connection, is of course Mahatma Gandhi, whom I’d known until now as only the Chief Rabbi of the American Civil Rights Movement. 

trailer documentary The Beatles and India

fitting Gandhi into 21st-century politics is a challenge

In northeast India, where we spent most of our time, when we weren’t walking and looking and eating, I was focussed on two books. The first was Gandhi’s autobiography, which, it turned out, was an excellent guide. Gandhi, I soon realized after a few pages, was anything but the representative Indian. To paraphrase my friend Channa, he was not a representative anything. He was, to paraphrase my friend Sigmund, an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in homespun cloth: secular, vegan, celibate, and pacifist. But he was certainly not a feminist, and he was also, for most of his life, loyal to the British Empire. He volunteered to serve in World War I with pride, to the horror of many of his political allies. So fitting Gandhi into 21st-century politics is a challenge.

In recent years, Gandhi has come under fire because of disturbing statements he made about Black South Africans, whom he called troublesome, very dirty, and they live like beasts. This was the reason in 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, there were anti-Gandhi protests in Ghana and Malawi. Closer to home, the statue of Gandhi on the Churchillaan was smeared with red paint, the word racist written on the pedestal. 

No matter that the quotations are always taken out of context, that all date to well before World War I, and that he later renounced such statements. This is a troubling phenomenon indeed – it makes we wonder: If Gandhi can’t pass muster, which of us can now, much less in the future, when our children and grandchildren will no doubt find much to blame us for: AIDS, Climate Change, etc.

Gandhi about Jews and Israel
I actually found Gandhi’s ideas about Jews and Israel far more interesting, especially now that Hindu nationalism dominates the Indian political landscape. While Gandhi openly sympathized with the historical plight of Jews, whom he considered the untouchables of the Christian world, and while he was especially sensitive to the situation of German Jews in the 1930s, he counseled against violent resistance against Hitler in the name of pacifism, and he doubted that a Jewish homeland in Palestine was desirable, unless it was accomplished peacefully, with the consent of the Palestinians. 

So Gandhi can safely be put in the anti-Zionist camp – so for that matter can many progressive Americans and Europeans, not to mention many Jews, in the mid-1940s. And though the formulation is hopelessly poisoned by now, it’s worth noting that his anti-Zionism wasn’t so much anti-semitic or not only pro-Palestinian. It was also a gesture towards India’s Muslims, whom he so desperately counted on in his attempts to keep India undivided, and to the Arab world more generally.

Gandhi’s nationalism was totally instrumental

He wrote: “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and unhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs.” It’s a strange statement for someone who staked his time and his energy and ultimately his life – facing not only danger from assassins, one of whom finally succeeded, but from himself, in the form of hunger strikes -on national unity, but of course, his was a nationalism of the last resort, totally instrumental, and in that sense, ironically, not unlike many liberal Zionists. 

Gandhi repeatedly cites the Mahabarata, the ancient Sanskrit epic, not only as his favorite book, but his holy scripture. For years I’ve taught the other ancient Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana2, and I was curious to see how the Mahabarata – the Odyssey to Homer’s Iliad, shall we say – held up. It did, in almost every way, even if it didn’t hold me up the way it did Gandhi. Obviously, I didn’t read the entire book, which would have taken me two months of doing nothing else – and I read it not in the original, nor did I even read it in a proper translation, but in an abridged version by R.K. Narayan.

Both shortcomings are forgivable. Though Gandhi was raised as a Hindu, his Sanskrit wasn’t that good, and his access to the ancient Hindu religious texts in the original wasn’t untroubled, and he apparently never read the whole thing either. Given the way the text glorifies violence as a means of attaining fame and glory, one can only imagine that Gandhi’s admiration for the text came from a highly selective exposure, the section containing the Bagavad Gita3, and not much else.

the gender regime in India is a subtle bundle of ironies and contradictions

But Gandhi’s attitudes towards women seem more congruent with the Mahabarata, which like most ancient (and most modern) literature, obviously including the Jewish canon, is deeply misogynistic, marked by the cruelest forms of fear and hatred. We have of course followed the news from India about honor killings of women, and we’d learned enough about Hinduism to expect a situation, in public and private, that offered women a secondary place in the society at best. After all, the caste system isn’t about gender. Yet the gender regime in India is a subtle bundle of ironies and contradictions.

I was surprised to see how thoroughly women dominated the public sphere. Of course a closer look showed that it was women who were the entrepreneurs, the sellers of street food, dominating the public markets. It was the men who owned and operated the stores and restaurants, not to mention the all-important positions in the civil service, the police, the army, etcetera. Whoever is wearing the gun is in charge, it seems. Hindus who send their little girls to the Catholic school across from our apartment in Darjeeling are courting both change and tradition.

The whole is always false
In that sense, I wonder if, to continue my interest in comparative religion, this is simply an inevitable feature of religion. That is certainly the argument made by some of the smartest people I know, from Berkeley to Boulder to Brooklyn to Bussum. But I wonder if it is more accurately a feature of orthodox forms of religion, which are so invested in the way power and authority, as opposed to truth, beauty, and virtue, are distributed.  If in Muslim Indonesia we saw the genders distinguished by law, and if in Buddhist Thailand we saw male and female difference mostly denied, however imperfectly, in Hindu India I was expecting yet another country that made no apologies for carrying out the gender imperatives of the ancient world.  And I found it, but not in the way I expected. Maybe Emerson’s idea that travelers only ever see versions of their home countries wasn’t the whole truth. But like Adorno says: The whole is always false.

Deeply-rooted ideas and some surprises
So the person whose ideas of India come from Gandhi and Ravi Shankar and the White Album, from the Indian Restaurant Row of New York’s East 6th Street or the films Darjeeling Limited or Slumdog Millionaire, sees in India both a confirmation of long-held and deeply-rooted ideas and some surprises as well. The Jew who goes there, anywhere is Asia, in fact, comes away both more and less Jewish, which seems to work, which will have to work, for someone who is at once too Jewish and not Jewish enough.

1 Thomas a Kempis: een middeleeuws augustijner monnik, schrijver en mysticus

2 De Ramayana (ongeveer in het jaar 1000 voor de gebruikelijke jaartelling) is de legende van Prins Rama. De Ramayana en Mahabharata (epos over koning Gesar en Manas tussen 500 en 750 vdgj) horen bij de belangrijke teksten van het hindoeïsme.

3 Bagavad Gita zijn de meest gereciteerde zevenhonderd verzen uit de Mahabharata

deel 1 van deze serie reisverslagen van Jonathan Gill: Reisbrief uit een jodenvrij land (over Indonesië)

deel 2 Taai-land, als een jood dwaalt door Thailand

cover: straatbeeld India, foto Bloom 2020

Over Jonathan Gill 12 Artikelen
Jonathan Gill received his PhD from Columbia University in American literature and has taught literature, history, and writing at Columbia University, Barnard College, the Manhattan School of Music, Fordham University, the City College of New York, and Amsterdam University College. He specialises in post-World War II art, film and literature, African-American history and culture, experimental and vernacular musics, the counterculture of the 1960s, the literature of immigration and the cultures of intolerance. He has also taught Yiddish at the University of Amsterdam, and has written and lectured widely on Judaism and Jewish culture. His book "Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History, From Dutch Village to Capital of Black America" (Grove/Atlantic 2011), has been a New York Times best-seller. In 2020 he published "Hollywood Double Agent" (Abrams, hardcover 9781419740091) on espionage in Hollywood during the Cold War.

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