28 December 2002

Book Review: Karma Cola, by Gita Mehta, ***

Beginning in the late '60s, hundreds of thousands of Westerners descended upon India, disciples of a cultural revolution that proclaimed that the magic and mystery missing from their lives was to be found in the East. An Indian writer who has also lived in England and the United States, Gita Mehta was ideally placed to observe the spectacle of European and American "pilgrims" interacting with their hosts. When she finally recorded her razor sharp observations in Karma Cola, the book became an instant classic for describing, in merciless detail, what happens when the traditions of an ancient and longlived society are turned into commodities and sold to those who don't understand them.

In the dazzling prose that has become her trademark, Mehta skewers the entire Spectrum of seekers: The Beatles, homeless students, Hollywood rich kids in detox, British guilt-trippers, and more. In doing so, she also reveals the devastating byproducts that the Westerners brought to the villages of rural lndia -- high anxiety and drug addiction among them.

An interesting, if somewhat disorganized, string of anecdotes about the strange ways in which Western materialism and Indian spirituality meet. In fact it is often spiritual Westerners who meet Indian materialists, who make fun and take advantage of them! Too many in the West think of India as if it were still living in the times of the Veda, which it most certainy is not!

On p. 101 she sums it up well: "for us [in India] eternal life is death ... no more being born again to endure life again to die again. Yet people come in ever-increasing numbers to India to be born again with the conviction that it their rebirth they will learn to live."

Easy travel and cheap communication is perhaps making East and West switch their roles in our global minds? Or perhaps in a globalized world there is no more difference between East and West, and we can try to be what we choose to be.

More about the author here.

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