'The Hot Unconscious' by Charles Foster, is a book about the author's travel experience across India. As he crosses sacred rivers, navigates the Himalayas, and fights the heat of the south, he begins an even more compelling odyssey. He voyages within. In the noise and the echoing silence of India, Foster confronts his own religious presumptions, and wonders whether the mystical traditions of east and west can be married.
Here's an excerpt from the book:
For long periods I spoke to no one, and almost forgot how. This is common in lone travellers. When I had to speak, there was a strained mute moment, like air being blown across a stopped organ pipe, before any noise came. Once launched, sentences usually sailed well enough, but starting new phrases was an effort. So, to avoid the danger of a stammering break, I tried not to punctuate. Breathing was the worst casualty. Like everyone else, I’ve learned to make my breath last for the phrase being spoken, and to take breath at natural punctuation points, points worked out with an eye to the substance of the talk. This requires a good deal of forethought. You need to have an idea how the phrases will fall. That pacing skill was lost quickly in the silence. I was a funny, inarticulate creature, who’d take deep breaths, run hard at sentences and lose momentum, ending in a squeaky decrescendo of embarrassed despair.
Aloneness has other side-effects. When you are alone you can buy facts without using the debased currency of second-hand perceptions or presumptions, and so you get better value from the world. But it’s not all good. There’s the arrogant dogmatism of thoughts unchecked by the usefully dismissive laughter of others. I became sure, for instance, sure beyond doubt, that Indian flies, unlike English ones, remember the way out when they fly into a room.
There’s no question, though, that aloneness is a fine tool for exposing the multifacetedness of things: you simply have more time to turn over and over the toys we call facts. You can see how they glitter in the light of quiet. But aloneness is hopeless for discovering new facts. In aloneness, without external boundary markers, the Self quickly asserts itself as the absolute. And here is where we start getting religious again. The ‘facts’ uncovered by the light of the ‘absolute self’ are narcissistic delusions. The lonely cross-legged men in a za-zen trance aren’t doing the ego to death, as they hope, but rather worshipping it in a new language. The language of their devotion is so obscure, so alien to the common idea of selfhood, that the men think that it can’t be addressed to the Ego. But the Ego is clever, multi-lingual, and catholic in its tastes. It is happy to receive compliments in all tongues. It can feed off many foods, and grow secretly grotesque.
Book: The Hot Unconscious; Author: Charles Foster; Imprint Tranquebar Press; Extent 233pp; Price: Rs 250; Publisher: Westland