- Maxine Feifer, Going Places (1985), quoted in Graham Huggan, The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins, Routledge, London, 2001, p. 200.
- Chabad on Tefillin, http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/81814/jewish/Tefillin-and-Its-Significance.htm.
- Huggan, The Postcolonial Exotic, p. 194.
- Chabad of India, http://www.chabadindia.info/about.asp.
- Kashrut in India (Hebrew), http://chabadindia.info/kashrut.asp.
- Christina A. Joseph and Anandam P. Kavoori, ‘Mediated Resistance: Tourism and the Host Community’, Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 28, no. 4 (2001), pp. 998–1009.
We let the human stream carry us, sensing that all roads would be leading to the divine lake. The mythical image of white temples reflected on mauve water had lured me, but I was now starting to question my presence in Pushkar—one among nine of the holiest Hindu sites of pilgrimage in India. In the late afternoon the main street was dusty and strewn with detritus: plastic bottles, cups and food wrappers crushed into soiled origami beneath the feet of thousands—the overflow from the five-day Camel Fair that had officially concluded in the out-of-town fairground, and to which a sense of carnival had been brought by lingerers like us to expire in the town. A short distance ahead walked our newlyweds, somewhat unwillingly, each hanging onto the other. Once we had held our daughter’s small hand in crowded places. Her slender fingers were now braided into her husband’s hand, the back of which was marked in blue ink with the Om symbol, a tattoo Deepak acquired at the age of ten with the money his father had given him to buy sweets at a fair, in his native land of the Punjab. By way of this matrimonial bond, India was now a part of our daughter’s destiny, and in that roundabout way also a part of our own destiny. And for the moment, this was India.
We had travelled for the wedding. After the celebrations, Deepak thought it the most natural idea to take his in-laws on his honeymoon. Embarking together on a journey across tourists’ destinations, we had started with the Taj Mahal, a choice too obvious to be discussed: the grandest of photo opportunities, a monument of grief and love built by Shah Jahan to immortalise his wife Mumtaz and marketed as the ultimate romantic site of pilgrimage. The highly regulated visit to the Taj, designed to guard it from the ravages of the masses, would linger as a mild experience in my memory. Next, we had agreed on Rajasthan and its gateway city of Jaipur. I had suggested adding a one-day stop in Pushkar with the knowledge about places of interest acquired while fingering Western guidebooks, fully aware that this too-picturesque place would have morphed into a tourist playground of commodified exoticism, suitably spectacular with a lake surrounded by ghats and swarming with devotees clad in the Rajasthani neon-bright colours of women’s saris and men’s turbans. I counted myself one of Maxine Feifer’s ‘post-tourists’,1 ready to play the game of enjoying semi-authentic experiences with the self-consciousness of an ‘anti-tourist’. But this was not merely a game that could be played: there was no turning back from the march along a street of garish signs that offered cheap rooms, Ayurveda massages, STD calls, fast internet, FedEx parcel services, meditation and other traveller needs—eclipsing the deities of Hindu temples wedged between hostels, restaurants and cafés of bhang-lassi.
The entrance of a large neutral house claimed a second look: two soldiers stood guard, their guns peering behind walls of sandbags. On the upper part of the large two-storey building, a sign read ‘Chabad House of Pushkar’. We stopped and stared at the building, somewhat intrigued. I was first made aware of a Chabad House presence in India from the shocking news about the 2008 terrorist attack and massacre that extended to the Mumbai Chabad House. At the time I had been baffled by the concept of a Jewish outpost of spirituality on Indian soil. Now I was presented with this anomaly in the main street of the sacred city of Pushkar. Watching us from above was a man standing on the balcony in Chabad attire of outmoded black trousers and white shirt, his twin uncut curls dangling under his black, wide-brimmed fedora. I called out a Shalom. Hearing the familiar greeting he sprung to attention and invited us to enter with a sweeping gesture. The honeymooners walked back and followed us in.
We were ushered past the guards, crossed the fortified threshold of khaki to enter a large drab, sparsely furnished hall. The religious stream of Chabad—the Hebrew acronym that stands for ‘wisdom, comprehension and knowledge’—is defined by a philosophy that reveres ethereal manifestations of the Jewish soul and abhors images of gods and deities. In the years of my childhood I spent under the tutelage of Chabad educators, I came to associate religious life with the aesthetics of solemnity: the ghostly complexions of men clutching dark-jacketed books of scriptures, the endless utterances of prayers in beige-and-brown synagogues. At times Hassidic practice did stir into a metaphorically colourful life for religious festivals, men dancing and singing in bursts of euphoria, all such manifestations contained in the larger idea of devotion to the Holy Blessed One. The Chabad interior in Pushkar was familiar, with the looming photograph of the Rebbe, the Messiah, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who looked at me in his younger years from the walls at my school, and in whose gaze I had recognised my mother’s facial features, or at least her expression, perhaps in an attempt to validate my newly discovered Jewish roots upon arrival in Israel at the age of eight, having left behind a secular life in France.
A young woman welcomed us into the corner lounge area with a smile that illuminated for a brief moment her tired, burdened face. Her two young children, a boy and a girl, hovered around her in a state of flux, their complexion pasty under the neon lights, their ability to arrange their childhood around the contours of faith taken for granted. The woman said, by way of apology, that she and the children had been unwell for a few days. The man from the balcony came downstairs and was now addressing me in Hebrew—motioning towards the two men in my party—pushing for the mitzvah of laying the Tefillin, the set of two small black leather boxes of holy scriptures dangling black leather straps that are attached before a prayer, one to the left bicep and the other upon the cerebrum—a practice aiming to attain ‘unity of mind and heart, intellect and emotion’.2
To his visible disappointment, I had to inform the rabbi that neither of my male companions were Jewish. He could have been forgiven for mistaking Deepak for a silent Yemenite Jew, and my Australian husband for an obliging convert. He soon left us to be entertained by his young family. The small girl pointed at Deepak and asked me, with a tilt of her head, ‘hoo Hodi?’ meaning ‘is he Indian?’ The word Hodi sounded warm and evocative, reaching beyond India and far back into space and time, conjuring a bunch of eccentrics from the days I lived with my mother in an Israeli asbestos migrant settlement. An extended family of émigrés from Kochi—once the site of a thriving Jewish community in Kerala—had supported us in times of need: with a peculiar accented English they offered us a share of their bright-yellow rice and spicy vegetables, invited us to celebrate the holidays of Passover and Rosh Hashanah, and engaged my mother with a stream of odd, overpaid jobs. In my child’s eyes they were outer-worldly, from Hodu, the country of golden sun. Strangely, I was now an Australian, first-time tourist in Hodu, and I was sitting in a Chabad House, wrapped in a concentric set of spiritual rings: the epicentre—that religion that was once mine to keep—encircled by a vast Indian space of deep faith that manifested itself in many forms of worship and ran along many paths towards a spiritual core, a space of which I had no valid comprehension.
My own religious faith and practice ended in seventh grade when I was expelled from the Chabad School on account of my rebellious attitude. For all my acrimonious parting from that institution, I may have retained a girsah de yankutah, ‘the version of babes’: the knowledge that is absorbed in early childhood and carried into adulthood. I had been drawn into this house by the irresistible pull of that earlier version of ethereal experiences: lighting candles on the holiday of Chanukah, singing the song of atonement at Yom Kippur, blessing fruit before devouring it. The Chabad House was now my temporary refuge in the ambiguous space of Pushkar and, beyond it, of India at large.
On the evening we arrived at the gates of their house, members of our new Indian family lined up on the front patio. Deepak’s parents, his uncle, aunt and cousins greeted us with the gracious Namaste, welcomed us with bowls of floating candles and rose petals; we were sprinkled with the water and the petals and blessed with incantations before being ushered in. I delighted in this ceremony and appreciated the gesture and the time taken to bring enchantment to the mundane. A week followed that was to be remembered as the best part of our Indian trip. Deepak’s birthplace is a small town spliced in its centre by the Delhi–Amritsar rail line, where trains pass in a whirl of dust towards the nearest train station in the next town of Phagwara. There were no known tourist attractions there and we were the second set of foreigners to have ever entered the place. Apart from gazes of bemusement, the town didn’t make any concessions to our presence; daily life streamed by in anarchy and in grace. Most important, we had a valid reason for being there, as the parents of the bride, albeit fully aware that we would have to move on to the famous places of interest: Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Pushkar.
On the road, Deepak kept saying ‘This is India’ by way of explaining the homeland that he was now observing from a New Australian vantage point, with amusement and a degree of longing. The constant chaotic flow of apparitions and events, the déjà vu of travelogues and literary narratives creates—paradoxically—difference and original experiences for the visitor. In an assault on all senses, the meaning escapes out of overused words such as confronting, land of contrasts and incredible, leaving obscure signifiers, empty shells standing for feelings that defy expression. Clichés become tools of misunderstanding, of pondering or of desensitised acceptance. In the Pink City of Jaipur a child-beggar had run to my open window at a traffic light, tapping her bunched fingertips against her mouth, her eyes two overflowing pools. She was, I suspected, the victim of a cruel beggar-master, better ignored lest her fate be perpetuated with my money—as one of Deepak’s cousins had explained. I clenched my fists and averted my eyes. She persisted with her teary gaze until the lights changed, then turned her back and moved away gracefully, skipping, singing and whirling towards a woman and two other children who were standing on the median strip. Was the trauma of this event exclusively mine, the result of my peculiar view of the world? Had I come to India to understand the same lesson my Chabad teachers had tried to teach me? Eizeh’hu ashir—ha’sameach beh chelko: Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot.
Seeking more intricate paths towards enlightenment and happiness, many Westerners in India venture into a plethora of religious practices. With my secular views, I find it hard to reconcile an ashram-acquired private nirvana with the images of undernourished child-beggars, of emaciated dogs kicked in the guts and other ubiquitous signs of misery. I side with Graham Huggan, who argues that many spiritual tourists buy a product manipulated by an industry that bestows on tourist destinations ‘a spiritual quality, where spirituality itself may be conceived of as exotic, as a mystique made accessible by travel’.3
In the Chabad House our host told us that her family’s two-year term in Pushkar was up and that they would soon be returning to Israel. I was glad for the boy and the girl, who would be joining a larger community of children, away from this confined situation, no more the appendage of parents who had ventured to faraway Pushkar in the name of an elevated ideal.
‘Suddenly a Chassid gets up in the morning and decides that he wants to be an emissary of the Rabbi King of the Messiah,’ begins the about section of the Chabad India website. The author explains that this decision is never sudden, that a Chassid who has been raised with ‘the love of Israel’ is bound to search the globe for a place where ‘A. there are Jews, B. there isn’t a Chabad House there yet’.4 Watching the young (mostly) secular Israelis flocking to foreign lands where they might be tempted to dilute their Jewishness with alien elements, or lose their mind altogether in the fold of mystical practices, Chassidic rabbis and their wives have travelled to alien places, often inhospitable to the requirements of their religious practices, wanting to offer ‘brotherly love, an attentive ear, and a helping hand’, a gesture of hospitality that is grounded largely in the desire to entice secular Jews back into the fold of Jewishness. There are Chabad houses in twenty exotic destinations across India, from Dharamsala to the Andaman Islands.
The Israeli travellers who mob India—often seeking temporary release from a tough homeland—make a captive audience for the emissaries. There is a parallel affinity with religion between India and Israel. For most Israelis, tradition is never completely divorced from secular life, with the common celebration of religious holidays and the practice of life milestones—in various degrees of adherence—from circumcision to Bar Mitzvah to compulsory religious marriage and a death that is monopolised by the ultra-orthodox. Taken out of their regular context, authentic Jewish religious rituals in a secluded environment in the Indian space could be considered bonus exotic adventures. The Chabad House of India is thus shaped as a one-stop support base for all things Jewish on the tourist trail.
On the Pune Chabad website, a woman named Meirav is concerned about kosher food availability in India. In her reply to Meirav’s query, Rocha’leh—presumably the rabbanit, the rabbi’s wife—starts by refuting, in colloquial Hebrew, the myth that ‘it’s very easy to keep Kashrut in India because there are a lot of VEG restaurants’. She asks, ‘What, for example, about the subject of worms?’ which indeed are deemed treif, non-kosher creatures. Rocha’leh says that when she sorts through pulses and sifts flour she finds there ‘a whole zoo’ and she doubts that the cooks in the local vegetarian restaurants would be looking for more than gravel in the raw ingredients, and moreover, she says, ‘I find bugs and worms in vegetables you wouldn’t dream about in The Country’ (meaning Israel). She asks: ‘Have you ever dreamt about a worm in an Eggplant?’ To overcome the ‘zoo’ problem, Meirav is given a detailed list of kitchen implements that she can purchase locally upon her arrival in order to do her own cooking along her meandering path across India: a portable electric stove, pots, pans, bowl, sifter, rolling pin, cutting board, cutlery, spices, flour and a bottle of Indian kosher oil. This equipment is deemed handy for making chapattis, frying eggs and even fish, which perhaps can be cut by the fishmonger with Meirav’s kosher board and knife.5 As Rocha’leh states, ‘there isn’t a thing that can stand against the will’—a phrase that would have sustained Alexandra David-Neel while travelling across China, India, Nepal and Tibet at the beginning of the twentieth century, at times with a large party of bearers for her luggage, which included a zinc bathtub.
Did Meirav embark on her solo trip carting her kitchen across India? If she did, would her luggage become an unbearable burden or would it rather present her with spiritual alleviation? Religion can shape one’s identity, a valuable device for trespassing on Indian cultural and spiritual space, and it may also provide the visitor with clear rules of engagement for each step along the convoluted journey away from home.
Before we left the Chabad House of Pushkar, the rabbi’s wife gave me a pocket card of tfilat ha’derech—the Road Prayer I had once recited in the company of giggling girls, skipping words, overexcited in the early morning of a school excursion to the Galilee. Once there, in the heat of midday, I walked into a creek with my classmates and teacher. Fully clothed in long skirts and long-sleeved shirts, waist-deep in the water we cut dark shapes against the rays of the sun that graced us with halos: in all our meanderings we had remained true to our Chabad principles, and were proud of our religious identity. I kept the prayer card in my bag as a charm, a token of nostalgia for the religious person I had once been.
By the time we had made our way through the side streets of Pushkar’s market district, the crowds seemed to thin down around us, and some of the souvenir shops that lined the lanes had already closed for the day. An air of serenity descended on the town. I thought with irony about the public notices forbidding photography, out of respect for the sanctity of the place and the privacy of the pilgrim bathers in the lake, knowing from texts I had read about the lenient enforcement of this rule that hinged on the willingness of a tourist to pay for the performance of a puja—partly uttered in pidgin English—by a genuine or fake priest, depending on one’s luck.6
A lane opened into the familiar panorama of mountains and white temples. When we arrived at the shore, we gazed at an empty expanse of muddy soil. Devotees were bathing in a large concrete pool. The holy lake of Pushkar was dry.
© Josiana Behmoiras 2012