15 February 2008

Crazy about India?!

In November I came across a book I had read years ago. I read it again in the space of a few days as if I was reading it for the first time.

Fous de l’Inde’ (Crazy about India) is a fascinating study of young travellers who go to India and end up getting more than they bargained for. The author, Régis Airault, is a French psychiatrist who was posted at the French consulate in Bombay where he treated French travellers who come to India to find themselves but instead somehow get lost in the crowds. Some suffer from extreme culture shock, while others have psychotic attacks, experience hallucinations, or go through nervous breakdowns. The extreme cases he was treating made him wonder: ‘Does India make people crazy? Or do crazy people go to India?’

Dr. Airault has identified what he calls a veritable ‘India syndrome’ which seems to affect young impressionable travellers who come to India and experience psychological problems. Curiously, these people have no history of mental illness and are not drug-users, and once they are repatriated home, their symptoms disappear. It’s not only India that has a strange effect on travellers. There are documented cases of Japanese tourists who ‘lose it’ in Paris, art lovers in Florence who experience hallucinations in front of famous art works, and travellers to Jerusalem who suddenly believe they’re the messiah. It sounds crazy, and it is. But it happens. It was enough of a problem to have the French authorities decide to post a psychiatrist in their embassy and consulates in India to help these lost travellers.

An excerpt on YouTube from a French documentary based on the book features one of these ‘India victims’ talking about his experience (in French):


So what is it about India that drives people around the bend?

The author explains that a trip to India starts before we step on the plane: our idea or image of India is shaped by the clichés, myths, and legends we hear about India from childhood, and by what we hear from other travellers who have been there. Once on Indian soil, this image is confronted by the culture shock of a strange new culture and society which is vastly different from our own. Then there are the tests, trials and tribulations faced by any visitor to India: the heat, the crowds, the traffic, the noise, the filth, scenes of poverty, beggars asking you for money, touts harassing you to buy this or that...

According to Dr. Airault, these new feelings and sensations “cause an upheaval in our inner conscience which could be the trigger of the India syndrome.” He says: “More than any other country, India has a way of stimulating the imagination, stirring intense emotions which can plunge the traveller into utter anxiety”... “India talks to the subconscious: provoking it, causing it to boil up and sometimes spill over. India peels back the deep hidden layers of our psyche. They are smoothed out and juxtaposed in the here and now. For certain persons it takes a mere tremor for this sensation to cause a real psychotic explosion.”

Though there are some travellers who experience a ‘psychotic explosion’ and need to receive medical treatment for this overdose of the senses, this is a minority. Others who don’t ‘go crazy’ in India do truly become ‘crazy about India’ and keep coming back again and again. Though you can be confronted with difficult images and situations on a daily basis, there are also those precious ‘India moments’ where the boundaries between life, religion and art become blurred: a cow slowly rambles down the middle of a street with a flower garland around its neck. A passing motorist on a motorcycle slows down, touches the cow and then touches his own forehead and chest, paying his respects.

What’s your India moment?

10 comments :

Danie said...

Fascinating. I can see how it's possible for people to get a little crazy here.

GMG said...

Hi Isabel, I’m back after a short break… and should have read the book before departing. Anyhow, it may happen that not «going crazy» in India, I'll join the group of those who become «crazy about India»!
Look forward to seeing you at Blogtrotter, though the Golden Traingle pictures will only see day light 20 months from now, probably... ;))
Have a great weekend!

Isabel said...

Hi gmg, I'm glad you enjoyed your trip to India. By the way, this book has been translated into Portuguese. The title is: 'Loucos Pela Índia'. I look forward to seeing your pics.

Venkat said...

My India moment is going to a remote village and looking at/ observing different kinds of people, what they do, what they talk about. I have done it just once, and I must say I learned a lot about my own people.

This is a very interesting post, and enlightening. I have been in the United States since the last 3 years, and I am somewhat tired of answering questions like "do you have banks in India?", or "Do you have huge buildings in India?". I have been told that people still think that India is about Cobras and the great Indian Rope Trick. My previous boss told me once that the image that comes to her mind when someone mentions India is that of people working in a rice field!

Another problem about visitors travelling to India (or any other developing nation) that my international studies advisor told me about is Traveler's Diarrhea. It seems that foreigners often fall sick immediately after coming to India because they find it difficult to adjust to the kind of food/water available in India, and their entire digestive system goes haywire.

Jennifer said...

Great Post!
In Chennai somewhere there is a mental hospital I visited for a social work field placement that was initiated by the British mainly to help the foreigners who land in India and couldn't take it anymore and go mad!
One of my India moments happened last year in Kochi- what I like to call 'Drive Through Darshan.' A man on a motorcycle on his way to work stopped his bike by an open temple window, put his hand inside, taking kum kum from the feet of Lord Ganesh, applied to his forehead and then started his bike and drove away. A morning pick-me-up!

Sandy said...

I have always wanted to visit but have never been there. Very interesting about the mental conditions of some who visit.

s

Rodwellian said...

Hi Isabel, This is what I imagine India to be like. I really want to go and experience it. I'm not sure if you ever talked to J about his uncle, but his trip to India when he was 18 changed his life --- completely. He is an amazing man. One day we'll tell you about J's "munkle" (that's what we call him)

Isabel said...

Hi Lisa, nice to see you here! You and J should visit soon so you can tell me all about his 'munkle'!

GMG said...

Thanks for the tip. I'll try to find the Loucos pela India...

Ms. Martin said...

Some of this is described in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." Note the officer the narrator sees before shipping out who says w a smile, "It's interesting to see the changes in those who return."