You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Friday, June 17, 2011


A Goddess in the Stones: Travels in IndiaA Goddess in the Stones: Travels in India by Norman Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I travelled to India about three years ago, and naturally bought up more books than I could possibly read before the trip. I was looking at them the other day and decided on this one both for subject and a chance to read my first Norman Lewis book. He's a writer Graham Greene described as one of the best writers of any century. They were probably friends, but that is still taking a very strong position.

A Goddess in the Stones made me realize just how safely tourist-oriented our trip through Delhi and Rajasthan had been. Lewis is traveling the eastern states just over a decade before our trip to the northwest, but he enters an area of political unrest with the express purpose of encountering as many of the pre-Aryan tribal groups as possible. The other tourists he encounters are mostly Indians attending pilgrimage sites, and the villages he visits are living by ancient rules at odds with the advancing, economic miracle of modern India.

There is throughout the book the inevitable comedy of Indian bureaucracy and the perils of Indian driving, all of which is amusing in retrospect -- assuming you have survived the highways. Many don't. In Delhi there is an average of one vehicular death per day, and Lewis sees lorries piled onto one another in crevasses along the more mountainous highways he travels,  On our trip we saw poverty and maimed beggars, but it is shocking to read that in 1990, Lewis sees people dying on the streets of Calcutta. He also reads reports of uninvestigated "dowery killings" by new husbands dissatisfied with the financial arrangements of their marriages, and he says the practice of infanticide is widespread enough to noticeably alter the ratio of young boys to girls.

The tribes Lewis visits, accompanied by a driver and a translator, inhabit an India still unknown even to most  Indians. Tribals are considered backwards and with suspicion by those who call themselves "normal people." Yet the tribes live is caste-free societies where women have greater standing than almost anywhere else on the continent, and their egalitarian societies often render the moot the concept of poverty. They also drink enormous amounts of alcohol, men, women, and in some cases children spending most of the free time mildly or wildly drunk; and, one tribe, the Bondas, have prickly tempers that often lead to homicide. The governments efforts to modernize tribal cultures have been misguided and disastrous.

Lewis is an subtle but incisive observer who brings in historical background to his contemporary scenes and deftly draws the characters of whomever he meets, ranging from his interpreter to businessmen and hotel staff. He knows the tribal life is certain to vanish even more completely than it already has. The concepts of "jobs" and "money" are largely meaningless to the tribals. Mining and lumber operations will destroy homelands, bring jobs, and introduce money. Given the rate of industrialization in India, just twenty years later the journey Lewis took may no longer be possible.

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