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?