The Riches of the East

Like everyone, apparently, since returning from India, all I want to do is go back there.

Like everyone, apparently, since returning from India, all I want to do is go back there. "Don't tell me you fell in love with India. Don't tell me you came down with that syndrome," a friend said to me. What he meant, as he explained, was "Don't tell me you've become one of those women who first goes there for three weeks and then starts going every year for a few months to sit in an ashram, flirt with young guys from all over the world and live on four dollars a day and then returns all lean and tan and tells everyone that there's no place like India, and then inverts the order and spends most of the time in India and only comes to Israel for a month or two each year, and the whole time they're here they keep sighing about how expensive everything is and about how materialistic the culture is."

I told him that apart from the ashrams, having never set foot in one, and the young men, who have never interested me, I was very close to coming down with the syndrome, since I was ready right now to tell him that there's no place like India, though I'd seen just a tiny part of that vast country.

I have no idea what it is about India that makes me want to go back there, but already on my second day there, I started meeting them, those people who in a certain, fateful instant, four or 20 years ago, decided to make India their home. I met the first such woman in a cafe in Delhi's Main Bazaar; she was wearing a Punjabi-style outfit and ordered her food in Hindi. For over a decade she has been living in India most of the year. She spends only a few months a year, when the unbearable heat turns into monsoon season, back in Israel. The rent she collects from her apartment in Israel allows her to live quite comfortably in India.

She explained to me that she's in what the Hindus call Vanaprasta, the third stage of life, the stage of detachment from family. It follows the first stage, of learning and maturing; and the second stage, of having a family; and precedes the fourth stage, of asceticism, of the total renunciation of the world in favor of an existence dedicated to study and spirituality.

She studies Hindu philosophy and Indian music, translates from Hindi to Hebrew, her friends are Indian women as well as women from the West who live in India. Her life is full, she is happy there. She had always been attracted by the East, drawn to the colors, the smells, the exotica, and that spiritual thing that is intangible but which she now knows is the result of the Hindu worldview.

I met others like her, people who, when they decided to move to India, decided to devote their lives to understanding Indian culture from the inside. They eat Indian food, live in rented apartments, speak Hindi and are very drawn to Indian spirituality. They came to India to live a completely different kind of life.

At the German Bakery (apparently the most popular name for cafes in India, even though nothing about them resembles a German pastry shop), in Bhagsu in the Dharamsala region, I met Nurit. She lives in Goa most of the time and comes to the mountains for two or three months each year when the heat gets to be too much there.

She has adult children living in Israel. They don't need her. Before she decided to move to India, she left her partner of many years. To pass the time, she works in a souvenir store during tourist season. Sometimes she imports a few items to Israel and sells them in bazaars. She doesn't know a word of Hindi and has no ties with Indians beyond what is necessary to conduct business or obtain services. Once, for a short time, she had a little thing going with an Indian Christian, but concluded that there was no way to bridge the gaps in their outlooks.

In his novel, "The Romantics" (which I bought at a secondhand book store in New Delhi, in Hebrew translation, Pankaj Mishra describes the world of Westerners who come to live in Benares (Varanasi) in order to achieve a profound change in their lives. The book is written from the point of view of the Indian protagonist. He goes to the city because, in the Hindu faith, Varanasi is the dwelling place of Shiva, and the holiest place - the only place where one can be released from the cycle of reincarnation.

One of the novel's characters is a middle-aged Englishwoman seeking to heal her broken heart. There are also young Western women who are attracted to a type of spirituality, or to exotic-looking men, while the latter are attracted to the girls whom they see as potential springboards to the wealthy Western countries and a way to break out of the caste system.

Could I have become such a romantic? Something about the idea of moving to India is very appealing. Maybe the appeal derives from the thought of a world in which everything is so different; the smells, the colors, the sounds, which to the casual tourist seem like manifestations of the exotic and the authentic; a world in which materialism ranks lower than the life of the spirit.

But I'm afraid that, for me, the attraction to India actually stems from the opposite thought: India, with its poverty and backwardness, is just the place where it would be possible - with great ease and practically no money - to achieve the Western bourgeois dream.