• September 30, 2020 10:59 pm

Reporting From Delhi

Paranoia, American style

ByMihir Srivastava

Mar 2, 2020

It’s not a judgement on a country or its people but American travellers, more than those of other nations, feel insecure and vulnerable in India

IN THE week when Donald Trump was in India with his family to celebrate the partnership of the oldest and the biggest democracies of the world, it’s pertinent to look at the life some of his fellow Americans who “escaped” from the land of opportunity–that’s dealing with obesity and depression as an epidemic. The story is based on the recent experiences of a few American travellers in India, particularly the nirvana seekers, who assert their hatred for Trump but never cease to flaunt their Americanness.

They seek spiritual solace in India, find the true meaning of life, the wellbeing of body, mind and spirit. This has become some sort of practice: the spiritual awakening as a means of doing well in the material world. The likes of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, after months of their stay in India and engagement with ‘self’ went back to American and changed the world and in the process created enormous wealth.

A similar paradox is visible with American travellers in India, particularly if they happen to adopt Hinduism or Islam or shun Christianity. The irony cannot be greater — these are the same set of people who are open to experiences, dope, massage, Ayurveda — some of the practices banned in the highly sanitised and regulated America. They live with sadhus, monks, tantriks or fakirs away from civilisation, but are paranoid about their security.

They carry existential baggage, the notion that by being an American in India, or for that matter anywhere in the “third world”, are a pet target of thugs, psychopaths, serial killers, sex maniacs (and so on).  This was told by Mohammad, an Iranian second generation in America, who lives in Delhi with a Hindu name, to an Indian host.

Mohammad, just entering his thirties, is knowledgeable, experimental, open to new experiences, doesn’t drink but likes to dope, moves around like a sadhu, sports a long beard and loose outfits, quick to make unsolicited comments, judgements based on the American way of life, which he’s escaping in the first place. He was invited by an acquaintance, a journalist, for a meal. Mohammad wanted to bring along a European woman, “A very nice girl with dreadlocks”. Since his host lives alone, he didn’t want to deal with an acquaintance and a stranger at the same time while they all smoke up. He also doesn’t like to host strangers in his ‘private space,’ which he explained politely to Mohammad. This was enough to unleash the paranoia in Mohammad — he wants to meet alone, refused a white woman, this guy seems to have some sinister plan, may cause harm, Mohammad concluded.

Given this was his assessment of the situation, he shouldn’t have gone. Instead, he, a few days later, agreed not just to go and smoke up, but also requested a night stay. He arrived with a big bag, made himself comfortable, unpacked his stuff, stored his food (eats only organic) in the fridge, and was ready for the marijuana party. They smoked up.

All this while, he was constantly in touch with the “girl with dreadlocks” and reported to her all that was happening. “I just want to make sure you’re not a serial killer, a psychopath, etc,” he told the host unabashedly.  Stoned Mohammad decided to get out of the apartment as it was  “stuffy” and “not safe” and started ambling in a gated colony in Noida where his host resides. He was politely asked to leave, but he wouldn’t. He took pains to explain that the host is responsible for his imbecile behaviour. The guards were alerted, the host spoke to a common friend to explain the situation, collected Mohammad’s stuff from his apartment — as he refused to enter — handed it over to him, and asked him to leave.

He didn’t for the next many hours, finally issued “I’m safe here” certificate and said, “I might stay after all.” He was asked to leave without further delay. His parting remark with a smirk on his face, “Don’t worry, will not inform the embassy.” Flaunted his Americanness to score brownie points. The next day he texted, “I’m sorry about last night. I’m wishing we can push forward past this and build a trusted relationship.”

Another nirvana seeker calls himself “Prabhu Deva”, 25, is a tall man with blond curly long hair, belongs to Los Angeles like Mohmmad. A Christain by birth, Deva has been practicing meditation for years and has a Master’s in Yoga Sciences. He lived for a couple of months on the banks of Ganges during Kumbh, Deva is a man of mild manners, a rationalist who believes in the occult, claims to have had many “out of body experiences” when he was “in the Himalayas”. He seems scary to others given the nature of experiences he likes to talk about.

After the Kumbh, Prabu travelled for months in India with his brother and promised a friend in Delhi to halt at his place on his way back, but didn’t because he was paranoid about his security.

Deva was more judicious in use of words than Mohammad to explain his predicament, “Many people resonate with my energy — it seems something in me makes people connected”, he wrote to his prospective host, asserting he’s indeed special, and added, “But because of this quality, I have been abused. A yogini who wanted to share her world, but what she was doing was not correct.”  Though, Deva clarified later, “abused” was a strong way to describe a few bad experiences.

Then another American, Ali, who knows Urdu, is openly gay, has converted to Islam, but doesn’t talk about it, for all official purposes uses his Christain name. He’s a privileged man in his late 30s, educated in one of the top Ivy League colleges, fell for a right-wing writer, a man of his age-group who’s dating a woman. Ali wanted to sleep with him, his ideology didn’t interfere with his desire. It didn’t work out despite a few valiant efforts. ‘How can he refuse to sleep with an American,’ he told a friend a few weeks back.

The same day, Ali, while attending a party, insisted that a drunk Indian friend drive an American couple — also drunk — home at 2 am in South Delhi. That was admirably chivalrous. The Indian friend gave in as it wasn’t a request, “Drop them home”. The girl was safely delivered and on the way back they were apprehended by the local police. A tall and petite man, Ali managed to hide inside the car. ‘Being an American, a Muslim and a gay and driven by a drunk man would have easily galvanised into a political issue,’ he later reasoned. Despite being privileged, it’s his need to imagine being vulnerable, gives him inner solace. “India makes an American vulnerable. That’s empowering,” he tells a friend while sporting an orange kurta.

He like Mohammad feels that his Muslim name will make him a target of the “right-wing nationalist government” and he will be denied a visa. But they’re not that important. They don’t like to hear that. “An American in India is always important,” Ali retorts. It’s perhaps good for their self-esteem to be paranoid. This is not true for travellers from the European countries, who are not so fixated about being a sitting duck.

Names have been changed to protect identities.