An American sojourner seeks to unlock the riddles of India by investigating its mystical sciences in this scintillating memoir.
In 1994, 50 years old and newly divorced, Gunderson traveled to the Indian city of Coimbatore to teach English and do anthropological research. There, she experienced both delight at the country’s vibrant culture and challenges to her Western sensibilities. Hygienic standards—garbage piled in the streets for animals to eat, cockroaches in hospitals—unsettled her. Pervasive sexism rankled: She was refused service at hotels and restaurants because a woman alone was considered a prostitute, and when she went horseback riding, irate men tried to unseat her. As a window into the Indian mindset, Gunderson began studying the fourth Veda, an ancient primer on traditional practices—astrology, palm reading, numerology, herbal medicine—that influence much of Indian life. (Vedic astrology, she notes, can specify that a man “will suffer appendicitis in the 36th year of his life” and “be accused of killing a cow”; many arranged marriages are aborted when the couple’s horoscopes prove incompatible.) Gunderson’s consultations mix the uncanny with the comic. For example, two astrologers divine that she is divorced and blame bad karma from her past lives but can’t agree on whether she will die at age 67 or 75. Written in rich, sensual prose—“fissures in the sidewalks lead to open sewers, odor balanced by mounds of jasmine flowers in the street strung like corn to wear in the hair”—Gunderson’s memoir portrays the author as both ravished and appalled by the splendor and squalor of India. But she doesn’t exoticize the place; she grounds her openness with a wry skepticism and an analytic eye that susses out social nuances and draws rounded, complex character studies of people she encounters. The result is a fine, evocative rendering of the clash of India’s grungiest material realities and its most rarefied spiritual aspirations.
A vivid, thoughtful, entertaining take on Indian society and religion.