Passage to India


The alienated expatriate’s return to his or her homeland is often fraught with tensions—particularly when the mother country is in the East. One must deal with clashes of materialism and spirituality, progress and poverty, self and society. Pramila Jayapal sheds light on such conflicts in her first book, Pilgrimage: One Woman’s Return to a Changing India.

Born in India in 1965, Jayapal was raised in Indonesia and Singapore and educated in America. She returns to India with an official objective: to examine issues of progress and development on a two-year fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs. She is well versed in the language and issues of international development, and is sensitive to the complexity of her topic. While traveling through Kerala, a state often lauded as a model of sustainable development, she finds that its progressive labor policies and high literacy rate actually lead to unemployment: The high cost of labor keeps companies away, and the emphasis on education creates a middle class that is overqualified for manual labor.

She travels to Ladakh, a region in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, once known as one of the most self-reliant communities in existence. In the 1970s, the area was opened up to international tourism and experienced rapid modernization. In the years since, it has become more reliant on the outside world and lost many of its cultural traditions. Western activists have used the example of Ladakh to protest industrialization. But Jayapal finds that many Ladakhis favor the new roads and economy of tourism, and in fact view the activists’ stance as a new form of colonialism. From such experiences, she comes to a vital conclusion: “The most important factor in any development effort is listening to those who will live with the consequences of development.”

Jayapal also returns to India on a personal mission: to examine her own identity and spirituality as an Indian and a Hindu. Much of this path to self-discovery centers around her religious and spiritual experiences in India, including undergoing 10 days of silence in a Vipassana meditation center and spending many months in the holy city of Varanasi.

Jayapal’s prose is not very dexterous, and it lacks the evocative flourish of others who write about India (such as Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy). Some of her observations may seem prosaic; for instance her central thesis that India is a land of “grey areas.” Jayapal’s forte lies in translating grassroots-level issues of development for a Western audience. These passages alone make the book a worthwhile read.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 27, 2000

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