BOOK REVIEW / Private pilgrimage among gurus and swastikas: 'Om: An Indian Pilgrimage' - Geoffrey Moorhouse: Hodder & Stoughton, 16.99 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IF GEOFFREY MOORHOUSE is any one thing, you feel, he is a man of substance. It is hard to imagine a more reliable companion for those taxing armchair trips across the Sahara and the North-West Frontier, or into the jungles of Calcutta and New York. Sensitive, sceptical, solid, Moorhouse scans his chosen patch, anticipating, like the sportsman he is, any tricks of the light and any spin on the ball. Then he sets to work.

In India, almost every other delivery is a googly, and Moorhouse takes each one in his stride. The hundred casual assaults the subcontinent offers the traveller, the niggling obstacles to an easy passage down Main Street India: Moorhouse shrugs them off in parentheses. He is an old hand. The importunate 'crone', for example, the one who grabs your wrists in a vice as you try 'to sidestep her without paying ransom' - Moorhouse deals with her as any half-sensible chap should. 'When she wouldn't release me,' he explains, 'I deliberately trod on her.' It is not every writer who would

admit to such normal, irritable

humanity.

On his first visit to India 25 years ago, Moorhouse was almost overwhelmed: he had been tempted to retreat, he writes, to 'some bland place where all the senses were not so relentlessly assailed'. Instead he wrote Calcutta, which turned out to be one of the most lucid and sympathetic books about the country you could hope for, and he returned often. Now he has a mission ' . . . to understand something more of the great subcontinent. Also, to find another part of myself'. There is something vaguely alarming in the announcement of so personal a quest.

But Moorhouse keeps us with him. Starting from India's southern tip, we follow happily by boat, bus and train from one religious site to another. We even take a look at Communism on the way: in Kerala, Moorhouse meets the 'world's first democratically elected Communist government leader', E M S Namboodiripad. 'Your question is meaningless,' shouts the old man. 'You should have read some books.' Moorhouse the bookworm is forgivably angered, and turns from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to his true quarry, India's more ancient religions. There are enough of them. Hindu temples; synagogues (in Cochin's 'Jewtown', where Moorhouse sees the Hindu symbol of well-being, the swastika, freely painted); Catholic cathedrals; and most of all, modern ashrams, Hindu religious communities: Moorhouse visits the lot.

This is not a pilgrimage where religious folk are accorded automatic reverence. Moorhouse's first view of India's most illustrious holy man, Sai Baba, shows him merely the face of a 'coffee-coloured and pudgy elf with an engaging smile'; another saffron-clad guru looks to Moorhouse simply 'gormless' and has a voice that reminds him of 'a comedian, popular among the English 50 years ago, named Wee Georgie Wood'. Nor is this pilgrimage all religion. Rajas, poets, industrialists and small- time insurance salesmen come within Moorhouse's orbit. As, strangely, does a bookshop in Trivandrum, desperately trying to sell a few copies of the Orkneyinga Saga - 'rather a slow mover, you might say', according to the bookseller.

Only once does serious involvement with any of the religions threaten, during a visit to an eclectic Benedictine community in Tamil Nadu. Here he meets the monk Bede Griffiths - swami as his followers called him - and, suddenly: 'It all tumbled out.' Halfway through his book, halfway through his journey, Moorhouse affords us a glimpse of the anguish and tragedy that has fuelled his pilgrimage all along. Any earlier and it might have seemed too easy a claim on our sympathy. Here, with our sympathies already engaged, the revelation strikes where it hurts. But the moment of surrender passes, the intellect refusing the heart the consolation it yearns for, and Moorhouse soldiers on.

This is a remarkable book. Writing with bluff, elegant precision, Moorhouse makes no bones about his position in India. A European on foreign soil, his only hope of understanding the country is by his own lights. Humble and sensitive, with a complete lack of pretension, Om is both a lesson in how to write about a foreign culture and an inspiration to read.

Comments