During the release of my book “Thank you India” at the Dehradun Litfest last November, I met Hemant Kumar and his wife Monica. Meanwhile he read the book and sent me his review. It is very well written. I post it here:
A German stops over in India on her journey to Australia, gets so taken in by the country and its culture that she doesn’t complete her journey to Australia but ends up spending the next 38 years here and proceeds to distill her experiences into a book. Well, Maria Wirth is the person, and ‘Thank You India’ is her book which in essence is a tribute to the spiritual riches that she found on this eternal land.
It offers an in-depth look at the world of spirituality in the most spiritual place in the world– India. It takes a neutral and external, yet inside and intimate view of the spiritual stirrings in the caves and crevices on Himalayan heights, in the recesses of Kerala’s forests, on the banks of our sacred rivers and in the ashrams of the spiritual gurus all over India. It has the objectivity of an outsider and the detail of an insider. The book is a distillation of Maria’s 38 years in India and she does justice to it. Through her narration of her randezvous with scores of people, some eminent gurus like Devraha Baba, Anandamayi Ma, Osho Rajneesh, Eckhart Tolle, Ramdev Baba, Sri Sri and some obscure ones deep inside Himalayan caves and still other aam aadmi sort of people, Maria manages to evoke and sustain the interest of her readers.
The book is autobiographical but is really not an autobiography. It is, as the title makes eminently clear, more about India than about herself. Even after turning over the last pages, for example, you wouldn’t know when or where Maria was born. The book is solely what her eyes saw in and of India, what her mind thought, and what her heart felt. Indians love to hear what foreigners think of them, and this book gives them lots to enjoy and plenty to ponder.
You get the feeling that Maria is entranced with Indian wisdom and spirituality, but is not possessed of a Utopian view of India. And yet, she can see through the apparent chaos and discomfort, and you hear her saying right on the first page, ‘India hides her positive sides. Whoever expects comfort, will probably be disappointed, even on a luxury tour in five-star hotels. At some point one will be confronted with hawkers beggars, potholes, dirt, noise, cockroaches or heat…’ adding on the very next page, ‘In spite of it, a smile comes easily to Indians…’
Maria’s matter-of-fact writing has a sense of connect with the masses, perhaps because she does not claim any special powers, only a special interest in India, its culture, spirituality and the meaning of life. A lay reader could be muttering, ‘But for my job and family, there go I’ as he turns over the pages. He may be excused for feeling he is not reading a book but undertaking a pilgrimage: such is Maria’s clarity. He would also encounter the nuggets of wisdom that Maria keeps dropping while relating what she heard and learnt during her association with different gurus, and from even the ordinary Indian with his cool attitude towards life. The book indeed is a vicarious spiritual journey across India that may leave you gasping for more, and the further you go, the more difficult it would be to put it away.
Maria doesn’t hold back about the prominent gurus she met. During a chance stopover in India on her way to Australia, she got introduced to the wisdom of yoga and Indian wisdom by Swami Vivekananda’s book and became Indian in spirit, following a number of gurus. She is effusive in her admiration for the gurus, and is also forthcoming when she gets disillusioned with them–and there are quite a few in this category as well. For example, she stayed at Satya Sai Baba ashram at Puttaparthi for 7 years, living a simple and devoted life but decided to leave when a series of events made her wonder if the claimed enlightenment and the miracles were that innocent after all. She notes that many sages may not be beyond human frailties like jealousy and ego.
Maria also takes the trouble to set the record straight on issues that are holding India back or ones which her detractors use to beat her with, say caste system, English education and ‘Hindu terror’. Born a European Catholic Christian, she is in a good position to compare Sanatan Dharma and Abrahamic concepts, and she does it in her no-nonsense manner. She concludes her book with a chapter titled, ‘The world is in need of Indian wisdom’, where she informs that she feels incensed when India is under attack, as her sense of fairness is violated. This unadulterated love and respect for our country and its culture in a person not born here may itself be a reason enough for one to read the book, though there are so many other reasons.
The very title of the book is phenomenal. Any others would perhaps have fallen short of the sense, the spirit of what Maria tries to communicate in over 300 pages. Moreover, gratitude is a wonderful quality to have, as all our gurus have taught. One can read this book simply to know more things one can be thankful for with respect to India.
What in the book could have been better? Perhaps its proofreading. A few errors of grammar and spelling can be sighted in the book. Maria issues a caveat about her English handicap right in her prologue, stating this is her first book in English, a tongue in which she became fluent only after coming to India. In the chapter on ‘English education– a big blunder’, she mentions how all this while she used to think ‘callous’ and ‘casual’ meant the same. Her candid admission could be a lesson for all our Desi Anglophiles who would rather put English above their own mother tongue, feel ashamed to admit any inadequacy therein and look down upon those not as well-equipped in this foreign tongue as themselves.
Another part is one which relates to history. For example, she mentions, Prithviraj defeated Ghori ‘several’ times. And that Pythagoras himself had visited India. Credible primary sources for such assertions are hard to come by. In case of Pythagoras for example, the very historicity of the person is in doubt, and reason points towards his concoction by Europeans several hundred years after his supposed life ended. But these are only passing remarks and do not take away from the flow or import of the point she wants to make.
So should you read this book? Well, would you like to know about the inside world of spiritual India? About foreign seekers and their motivations in leaving their land and calling this land their own? About how our ancient culture compares to the much later invented religions from our west? About evolved Indian gurus and how their thoughts could shape the world within and the one without? And the ones who may not, after all, be so evolved? If yes, please go ahead and read this book by all means.
It’s not often that objectivity, curiosity and love for this land and its ancient heritage come together for 38 years and then make the effort to describe themselves in 300 pages.
By Hemant Kumar
At Amazon for Rs 425 including shipping
At garudabooks for 399, no shipping charges