Tuesday, July 22, 2008
I have become good friends with several Indian student colleagues while in Rotterdam. Their most remarkable attribute is the curiosity they have in "Western culture". They are generally very eager to learn about our traditions, history and way of doing things in society and in business. My experiences with other Americans and Europeans is rather different. The boom in tourism and the easier access to foreign information has led a lot of Westerns I have met to think they are experts on a country/region basing their knowledge on little experience. I attribute the main cause to be a lack of listening skills. I constantly have the feeling that people I meet in international environments are always ready to tell me how it is. They are much less eager to listen to how it could be. My friends from India possess the dying ability to listen to what others have to say. Perhaps this eagerness to learn is a contributing factor to the growth and optimism in their country. This book, along with the next one I will be reviewing, demonstrate such a profound knowledge and understanding of the countries the authors are writing about, that the reader cannot help but feel the dwarfing effects in respect to our superficial travel culture made of Lonely planet, wikipidia and a digital camera.
It was my friends' curiosity in my culture that drove me to read this book on their own. It is the least I could. Rampini is a successful Italian journalist specifically focusing on Asia. His book is very similar in structure to The Good Rain which I reviewed a month back. Both books move along a current journey through the land, weaving in contemporary issues with historical events. This style makes for entertaining reading as new subjects and historical anecdotes come and go with a certain freshness. On the other hand, it does make it hard to follow a chronological unfolding of events. This book opens the door to a country dripping with intrigue. The writer also provides an Italian perspective that I found to be fascinating.
I have been thinking a lot about perspective in writing lately. Coming from the Anglo-American world with its dominant language provides numerous benefits as well as negative aspects. The fact we have access to so many books, journals, magazines, and blogs (!) gives us the possibility to immerse ourselves in the smallest of niche subjects. However, the perspective an American or English writer brings to their field has been conditioned heavily by the society in which they were raised. A certain historical bias is always alive in writing.
This leads me to ask, what is the need for an Italian journalist to write about India when the subject has certainly been amply documented by hundreds (thousands?) of Anglo writers? Because the Italian reader interested in India views the country differently than the way an American reader would. Rampini explores the intrigue the West has always possessed for India mainly by discussing the works on the subject written by Schopenhauer and Hesse. In addition, Italians themselves, from the early explorers to Passolini in the 70's, have documented their journeys. Remember that Venice was the largest port in Europe during the 16th century thus acting as the hub for the imports (mainly silk and spices) arriving from India. These occurrences are not nearly as relevant to an American because 1) philosophy is a subject that is not integrated into the school curriculum in America while a large part of Italian high school students are forced to study it. It may be seen as a form of punishment at the time but something certainly remains in the academic formation. 2) America was founded after the fall of Venetian dominance so our perspective of history naturally has a much shorter time frame.
So, I was introduced to the complexity India reading a book in Italian that introduced me to German thinkers I knew little about. Actually, my own understanding of India is largely "Italian influenced", first by Tiziano Terziani (a future post will introduce him to those unfamiliar) and now Federico Rampini. It is all very exciting...at least to me.