by Brian Wrixon
“Passage – the act or process of moving through, under, over, or past something on the way from one place to another.”
The title Passage to India has been used at least twice in the history of great English literature, first by the American poet, Walter (Walt) Whitman (1819-1892) in the 1900 edition of his Leaves of Grass, and secondly by English novelist E.M. Forster (1879-1970) in his 1924 work, A Passage to India. The 1984 film version of Forster’s novel won two Oscars. With great respect to those two giants of literature, I borrowed their title for my own book, “My Passage to India” which was published in 2014.
My first personal passage to India took place in January 2013. I visited what is commonly known as The Golden Triangle, the cities of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur in the north. I had been invited to read my poetry at the inaugural Delhi Poetry Festival and I was intent on attending the Jaipur Literature Festival. My conclusion was that literature has a way of breaking down international and racial barriers. One of the highlights of that trip was the opportunity to sit spell-bound for an hour and to listen to the Dalai Lama speaking about the historical influence of Buddhism on literature.
My second trip in February 2014 and my third in October 2014 were both to the beautiful state of Kerala. That part of southern India is known for its production of rubber, spices, tea, coconuts, cashews and coffee and for its magnificent Backwaters. I went on a volunteer placement, principally to work with small businesses, helping them with strategic business planning. My trip was organized by the Canadian NGO, Chalice Canada.
My visits to India served as an attempt on my part to eliminate the various myths that I associated with the country and to establish, once and for all, my own reality of India. There are two kinds of people in the world as far as opinions about India are concerned, and both types have very definite opinions. When I told people where I was planning to go, half of them responded positively and spoke with envy about the experiences that I would have. The other group invariably responded with disgust. “Why in heaven’s name would you want to do that?” was the meekest of their replies. Many other comments were unfit to repeat.
I have heard every horror story imaginable about India, its filth, poverty, corruption, stench, disease, evil social habits and crime. According to the disgusted, most of whom it turns out have never set foot in the place, the streets are paved in excrement, rats run everywhere, flies cover everything that moves or doesn’t move, and the horrid stench of the country can be smelled five miles off shore by those unfortunate enough to be passing by on a cruise ship. We are led to believe that crime is rampant, people are slaughtering each other in the streets for religious reasons, every male is corrupt and every female is in mortal danger of rape, murder or forced prostitution.
From my own personal travels to India I have learned that most everything that one has read or heard about the country is patently false or at the very least, over-exaggerated. People simply repeat what everyone “knows” about the place. Our experience is that we view a place by its parts and then reach a conclusion about the place by combining those parts into a self-interpreted reality. Indeed for me, I look at many of the same things that others see, but I reach a very different interpretation of that combined reality. I suppose that I simply choose to interpret what I see in a very different light than most, that the glasses through which I peer are tinted quite differently. I have lived my whole life that way. Generally, if the world is lined up and heading in one direction, I find myself safer and happier if I head off in the opposite direction, off the beaten path as it were.
But in addition to finding out for myself what India was really like, I had another more important reason for venturing off that well traveled path. I am at that stage in my life when the desire to make a difference, to have an impact or to do something meaningful has become a driving force for action. My wife Cheryl and I are no strangers to Chalice Canada, an NGO situated on our east coast. For several years we have sponsored a number of children through them – three in Africa, one in Haiti and one in India. It came to my attention that Chalice was looking for people with certain skills or talents who might be willing to travel to their various site locations to share those abilities with others. Many years ago I developed a planning system for small businesses called “Growth By Design”. The problem with many small operations is that those who own them know how to do the work of the business, but often don’t have a clue about how to run the business. For example, there is a huge difference between being a great chef and running a successful catering business. My planning system helps business owners visualize what it is they wish to accomplish and then assists them in establishing a step-by-step framework for making it happen. Chalice encourages entrepreneurs in various regions and invited me to pilot my program in India to see if it could have application there and elsewhere.
Like Walt Whitman in his poem, I felt like I was on something of a spiritual journey. But I admit that I travelled there the first time with a combination of terror and excitement. As I indicated, I had heard so many terrible things about the country, how it was an evil assault on all the senses, the mind and the heart. I was warned to check all my sensitivities at the border, that I would be changed forever and for the worse. But I returned from India with a remarkable sense of fulfillment, calm and fully at peace. I indeed was changed forever, but for the best. Through my passage I have become a more spiritual person and I hope a spokesperson for what I regard as a very kind and very gentle nation, despite what those who maintain their walk on the beaten path may say or believe about it. Like always, I know that I walk a separate route from most, that I have taken the less travelled path and that, like poet Robert Frost, for me that has made all the difference.
One cannot help but feel close to God in India – his, her, their presence is everywhere. At every turn of the road there is a temple, mosque, church, shrine, sanctuary or votive holy place. Every meal, meeting, or event starts and ends with a prayer. Religion is very much a part of everyday life in India, but I don’t mean “organized religion”, I mean that a sense of spirituality permeates Indian society. That is not to say that what we would call “organized” religions have not played a part in India society historically, and indeed continue to do so today. The common understanding is that the organized religions of India are at war with each other.
My read on religious intolerance and sectarian violence in India is that it all takes place at organizational and governmental levels, and not amongst the common people. A large number of social scientists feel that many of these inter-religion acts of violence are institutionally supported, particularly by political parties and organizations connected to the advancement of one or more ideologies. I personally did not witness any religious intolerance or a religious divide during my visits to India. It was evident that most people were members of some religious faith and that the spirituality that their membership afforded them was part of their daily lives. I found that people were Indian first and religious second and the fact that they were Indian united them and the fact that they were religious did not divide them. In truth, it seems that the fact that everyone was spiritual in their own way brought them all together, not under a common god or belief system, but as members of a believing community.
I started these comments by defining the word passage – “the act or process of moving through, under, over, or past something on the way from one place to another.” I made a physical journey to the other side of the world, but my passage was more than that, it was one of the mind. I moved through or past the widely-held prejudices about India. I moved into a society that is spiritual in nature and where love abounds at the grass-roots level. The driver behind all of this was the fact that I traveled for a purpose. I went there to volunteer my time and talents, but as is usually the case when one embarks on such a journey, I got more in return than I gave in the first place. I went to India to discover a land. Instead, I discovered a people. I tried to help them and they in return made me a better person.
That opportunity for self-development is available to all of us and is a goal that we should be trying to instil in the younger generation. We can all help to build world peace through travel if we simply take it upon ourselves to travel with a purpose. We can each become our own private Peace Corps. We all have talents and abilities, and if we reach out and share them for the benefit of others, we will find that we can create a chain of held hands that stretches around the world. Perhaps you do not have the health or the financial ability to travel to a country like India, but I bet that there is a neighborhood in your own community that would welcome your skills. If you set the example then the spirit of volunteerism will be easier to foster among our youth. Remember the words from the old song, “If everyone lit just one little candle, what a bright world it would be.”
I worked with five ladies who operate a power laundry business in a small village in southern India. When I asked them if my discussions with them were of any value, one lady replied, “You showed us how to dream and you taught us how to make it happen.” That comment will remain with me for the rest of my life and has changed how I view the world and the brotherhood of man. That same opportunity is available to all of us if we just reach out a hand and take that first step.
About Brian Wrixon, Writing for Peace Adviser
Brian Wrixon is a retired business executive who, after serving over 40 years in the financial services industry, devotes his time to creative endeavours. In addition to writing and publishing his own poetry and prose works, he has been instrumental in assisting hundreds of young and emerging authors from around the world get published, either personally or as contributors to group anthologies. Learn more about Brian’s work here.
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