In a nutshell: Go ahead and read it, but without expectations. I had lots and was disappointed, but was also intermittently entertained.
It could have been called Bridget Jones Goes to India – that’s obvious from the blurb and is mostly why I bought it – except it’s not nearly as well-written. And the author has the most irritating habit of asking questions and not listening to the answers. Much of Yoga School Dropout is like being stuck on a long holiday with a tiresome companion.
Her reading covers a narrow field, leading to the yoga bits being two parts hokum. She didn’t seem to look around her much, either. One example is the fact that she spent two weeks in Kerala and never seemed to make the connection between yoga and Ayurveda. Her overriding need for calm and “flow” might have been met very early in the book if she’d stopped off at any of the Ayurvedic spas there. But if she had, I wouldn’t have got all the details about the visit to Kerala’s favourite Hugging Mother, so I should be grateful to her short attention span.
This last and others like it are the most interesting parts of the book. It goes to several unsuspected places in India, and some famous ones shrouded in suspicion (Osho’s ashram in Pune, for instance), all of which is deeply absorbing for an Indian. It also provides a fascinating inside view of the motivations and journey of the spiritual seekers who are such a regular and mysterious feature of the country. We used to notice them as teenagers, huddled on railway platforms around piles of backpacks, or flapping along pavements in dusty Indian flip-flops. They were invariably white, mostly pilgrims from the West. In the manner of teenagers, we referred to them dispassionately by a very politically incorrect term. Based on the cast and characters of this book, the kid who coined it showed a penetrating insight into the phenomenon.
Two important questions remain unanswered though:
1. Why do they brave the considerable inconvenience of India just to shut themselves into ashrams with fellow “Westerners”? (That’s the term she uses. It includes Australians. You would fetch up in Australia if you went far enough West, but then you’d also eventually reach India. Perhaps it denotes the yogic circularity of all things.) Someone she meets actually asks her this and her answer is that perhaps the Indian yoga schools don’t offer familiarity, which continues to beg the question, really.
2. Why do they seem to leave common sense behind when they enter upon this transformational quest? The “real Indian” is not a simple, yogic soul, full of enriching goodness. He or she is generally looking for a chance to jump the queue and pick your pocket on the way.
She’s wasted good material on formulae – she does herself and her friends in a Bridget-Jones-by-numbers style, and India in imitation-Paul-Scott, though I don’t think the latter is consciously done. The research is sloppy and the dialect rather painfully stereotypical (Indians have wondrous subject-verb-object combinations, the French in Auroville speak as if they’re on the sets of Allo Allo, and so on). The fact that sambar is referred to as “samba” throughout, I’m inclined to attribute to an accident with an automated spell-checker, but you never know.
The book started out very promisingly and deteriorated only mid-way, so the problem might well lie in the advice she got from her writing mentors. Judging by the acknowledgements, there seem to have been a lot of these; we all know what committee decisions lead to. There are frustrating glimpses of the real book – here-and-gone characters, and almost-there insights cropped out of the cutesy frame – which make my inner editor rage a bit.
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