Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

India perceived by an outsider Gabriel Rosenstock


What is beautiful about India (and Ireland) is that we will never understand either of them. Ever. Quite impossible, I am happy to say. We get glimpses, that is all.
I have just finished reading The Hill of Devi by E.M Forster. The great novelist was once Private Secretary to the Maharaja of Dewas Senior, more of saint than a ruler. Much of the book is about how 'impossible' India is (in the eyes of the British administrators); of course, the time was 1921 but it could have been the 14th century. The kingdom is divided between two brothers, each with their own little army and national anthem and so on. It is a book that is sad and funny in turns and ends in tragedy. The English do not understand omens, superstitions, ritual etc. half as well as the Irish do.

Extract from a motoring incident:

His Highness sat up keenly interested. 'The animal came from the left?' he asked.
'It was a large animal? Larger than a pig but not as big as a buffalo?'
'Yes, but how did you know?'
'You couldn't be sure what animal it was?'
'No, we couldn't.'
He leant back and said, 'It is most unfortunate. Years ago I ran over a man there. I was not to blame - he was drunk and ran out on the road and I was cleared at the inquiry, and I gave money to his family. But ever since he has been trying to kill me in the form you describe.'.....

Well, there you go! I don't know if anyone reads The Hill of Devi anymore.

We shall continue to explore and to celebrate, to look for the highs and the lows, the blinding light and the shadows, the history and the myth, the unbearable lies, the unbearable truth.


There is as well my travelogue, a large section of which is about my first visit to India, written by an outsider, of course, and hardly more enlightened than Morgan Forster. It is dedicted to a herb!

Gabriel Rosenstock



The snake goddess - Cover taken from Anjan Sen's newest book


A short story taken from his 'Travelogue':

Exploding god population …

A few hours sleep… As soon as we hit the streets again we are accosted by a fine strapping woman who is our self-appointed guide for the morning. Neither Eithne nor myself have developed a reliable refusal technique as of yet. Something we must learn. Our guide perceives immediately

that I’m not a business man and that my interests incline towards the metaphysical, because she instantly proclaims, as though commenting on the weather, that there are 39,000,000 gods in Mumbai alone. (That’s a lot, considering there are only 10,000,000 people). Eithne is not impressed with these statistics. It’s good that one of us, at least, is not too impressionable.



rags on the pavement –

a body stirs in them


Behold,’ says our guide, pointing to a mangy dog, ‘God in dog. Look, God in cat!’

Gods chasing each other. What a strange world, I say to myself. I think of the great bhakti poet Basavanna whom I first encountered in that priceless anthology Speaking of Shiva (Penguin Classics): ‘The pot is a god./ The winnowing fan is a god/. The stone in the street is a god./ The comb is a god…gods, gods, there are so many/ there’s no place left/for a foot…’ Marvelous.

I could follow this guide for an eternity as she introduces me to her pantheon. But she has another schedule in mind for us. The snake and the milk … I see a snake charmer on his hunkers by the side of the road. A little shrimp of a fellow, may the 39,000,000,000 gods look down on him. Has he been sitting there for the past thousand years, without blinking? Have we now stirred him from a long swoon? He welcomes us.

God in snake,’ says our merry guide, predictably. And in snake charmer too, I wonder? He lifts the lid from his basket. The twisting head of a king cobra emerges and lunges at its owner. A passing beggar pats the snake lovingly on the head and addressing us in his native language he says, I imagine, that the snake’s poison has been drained and that we need not fear it.

This was not part of the snake charmer’s routine at all. ‘Off with you, you good-for-nothing!’ he says to the tramp, or words to that effect, breaking his thousand-year old vow of silence. We take a photo of this frazzled fakir and I give him a ten rupee note for his troubles.

Under no circumstances!’ says our guide, preventing me. ‘He’ll only drink the money. Come, let us buy milk for the snake.’

Excellent idea, I say to myself. Milk for the snake. Do snakes drink milk? We follow her. Holding up her hand she stops the traffic with one wave of her hand, like your man in the song The Mountains of Mourne. I notice that there’s a crowd following us by now. It’s a procession. Eithne is feeling a little wary. We find ourselves outside a shop, looking in to the shop, looking behind us and all around us at a motley crew of hangers on.

Milk for the snake, if you please,’ I say, rather nonchalantly, to the shopkeeper. He looks at me. He looks at the crowd and at our stout, indefatigable guide. The curse of Saint Patrick on all of this, I say to myself. Two teenagers begin to take down a large bag of powdered milk from the topmost shelf. Ninety rupees. I give them a hundred. I don’t bother with the change. I hand the bag of

powdered milk to the snake charmer. Job done. He looks at the bag. At this stage I’m beginning to lose the plot. It’s not some kind of Fool’s Day in Mumbai, is it?

The snake charmer looks at the bag from every angle. Remember, there was no plastic around a thousand years ago so maybe he doesn’t know what it is. A bag of gold?

Follow me!’ says our leader. Eithne looks at me. ‘What’s going on?’ she asks, a slight tremor in her voice. ‘I’ve no idea in the wide world,’ I say.

Next thing you know we find ourselves in a craft emporium. Textiles. Jewellery. The treasures of the Orient. Our guide has vanished, as though swallowed by a giant cobra. We are given a seat before we know where we are and our dry throats are soon being soothed by hot herbal tea. Our senses slowly revive after all the hullabaloo and confusion of a few moments ago. The owner has commenced on an incredible spiel and we are the target of his ornate arrows of speech. I quickly explain (in case it may not be apparent) that I am not a business man, that we are on a tight budget, I am a mere bard from the Isle of Saints and Scholars. But this fellow out-bards me at every turn. He could sell milk to a cow, as the Hindus say.


As we admire a world of glistening objects, he manages to find out from Eithne what precious and semi-precious stones she likes, what colours—dammit, at this stage he knows more than I do. He has guessed her star sign too. Is he reading her mind? Anyway, the poetry starts pouring out of him:

Madam, look, if you will, at this amethyst. Did your lustrous eye ever behold anything with which such a delicate shape can be compared, and such colouring!’

We had to admit it was extraordinarily beautiful. Were we being hypnotised? He gazes at me soulfully, then his melting brown eyes rest wistfully on the jewel before looking up into Eithne’s eyes and finally he plunges deep into his own soul.

I will make of this amethyst a necklace for your wife,’ he says to me, ‘and upon my soul you will not be able to imagine her joy today, tomorrow and the next day, such happiness will it bring to her heart for all days to come.’

I could not deny my wife such joy but she herself cautions me not to disintegrate under the gaze of this Svengali. The price frightens us. Another sup of tea is required. (Whiskey would be even better). This amethyst in the shape of an eye has us both bewitched by now. But a little niggling doubt still remains. Might there be something in the tea? Saint Brendan of the Voyages, come to our assistance, we beg of you. The amethyst hath us in thrall.

A little notebook rests in front of him. This is the battleground. We scribble a figure. He looks at it and scribbles another figure. After a while it looks like an arithmetic exercise book. Back and forth. Ping pong.

Eventually we get it for half price, almost, and we feel elated. The Battle of the Amethyst is over. We emerge as victors. In a broken voice he tells us that he has made no profit whatsoever on the deal but because of the global crisis and since we are his first customers today—a sign of good fortune—the bargain is made.

And I suppose our guide will get a few rupees too, wherever she is.

As Irish speakers we are glad to see the Anglicised versions of names being replaced by native forms but as Christopher de Bellaigue explains, it’s not quite that simple:


Once India had a liberal city called Bombay. Its

businessmen were cannier than those of the rest of socialist

India, its rich more cosmopolitan, its cricketers more

flamboyant. Bombay’s was a relatively pluralistic

tradition, too. In faraway Calcutta, India’s British

colonizers had spent the nineteenth century creating a

paternalistic seat of empire with heavy-handed imitations

of English buildings. In Bombay, on the other hand,

prosperous native business men collaborated with their

foreign masters to create a port city whose architecture

amalgamated with appropriate symbolism, European and

Indian styles. Well into the 1990s it was possible to

explain, as many did, the incidence of the city’s povery

and corruption as the natural concomitants of Bombay’s

commercial dynamism …

(India: A Mosaic)


lullaby of ships in Mumbai Bay

sleeping waifs

entwined as one


And what happened? How are things now? The author takes a less than sanguine view on matters:

Now, India has an ugly, disturbing shrine city called Mumbai. It is a Hindu shrine, since the diverse, generally tolerant religion practised by four out of five Indians has acquired a venomous political identity in the very city where religious minorities like Muslims, the Jains and the Parsees have tended to do best. Officially, Bombay turned into Mumbai in 1996, when the Hindu nationalist government of the state of Maharashtra decided to rename the state capital in the Marathi vernacular. But the context for this semantic shuffle was a rejection of the secular, universalist values espoused by Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru …

If he’s saying that politics and religion should be divorced, then I agree. It took us a long time ourselves to achieve such separation of church and state. Kerala, here we come … We travel south to Trivandrum, in Kerala, and a car awaits us at the airport, a white Ambassador, to bring us to Somatheeram, a beach resort, nine kilometres from Kovalam. It’s a famous Ayurvedic clinic, practising India’s traditional medicine. This is our first real destination. Everything up to now has been mere stops on the way.

We move into a thatched cottage, No. 202. It’s built according to the principles of traditional architecture, Vasthusilpa. It’s not a thatch of straw or reeds, of course, but coconut leaves. Forms to be filled out first. Do you believe in God? How often do you go to the toilet? The basics! And lots more. Do you experience thirst a lot? (Hey, we’re Irish). Do you prefer sweet foods to sour and so on and so forth. This is to determine our dosha or constitutional type and Ayurvedic treatments will commence on the following day.


With permission of the author

The story is a part of Gabriel Rosenstock, (2012)„My Mule drinks from the Ganges – a Travelogue. Translated from the Irish by Michael O Haodha. Dublin: Academica Press http://www.academicapress.com/node/208



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