This is about an Australian woman who visits India once, hates it, but moves to New Delhi years later to live with her boyfriend, who is also a journalist. While she's there she investigates what seems like every single one of India's religions.

Naturally, I had to read this. Boy, did it get up my nose.

I'm reluctant to criticize her book for being inaccurate, because people's experiences do differ a great deal depending on where they are, when they are, and who they are. So, to take just one example, I can't say that her depiction of all Indian men as leering, slobbering, sexist gropers is factually wrong, exactly; there's no denying that India is a very sexist society (as is the US, in many ways), and it's true that when I traveled India as an adult I did get a _lot_ of men making passes at me (though not in a disgusting or physical way) until I figured out that jeans come across as provocative in a way that cotton pants don't. But I also met a lot of men who were interesting and courteous and kind.

I'm sure I got a get-out-of-sexism-free pass on account of being a foreigner, but it was still notable to me that when I tell American men I study karate, they often make some obnoxious joke or step back in pretend fear and say, "Whoa! I better not mess with you!" (Unless they're quite old, that last annoys me so much that I say, and not in a kidding voice, "Why, were you thinking of doing something?" Then they look flustered, splutter, and run away. (This is why I'm never going to get married.)) Anyway, when I told Indians that, they never said anything of the kind, but either told me about their own or their cousin-brother's studies, or asked me if I'd looked into (local martial art).

Also, Macdonald has a particular attitude toward poverty that makes me crazy. It's all "Ooh, ick, how hideous and nauseating and sad, gee, I must be sheltered to be shocked by lepers/beggars/homeless people, how lucky I am to be a priveleged white person." I hate to to fault an emotional response, but I wish people could experience that one and then get past it in order to help the situation in some way rather than just gawking at it, or to consider that there are also desperately poor and sick people in their own homeland who could be helped-- there's enough resources to do so-- but aren't, or to look at what Indians are doing to change conditions. Instead, she's stuck in "ooh, ick" for the whole book.

At one point she sees a woman with burn scars and "retches in horror." Gee, that's really going to make the woman feel good. But more than that, it's an example of her patronizing and distanced view of Indians: Macdonald would never have that reaction to a scarred woman in Australia, but because the woman is a beggar and Macdonald assumes (with no evidence) that she's a victim of a dowry burning, it's okay to retch at the very sight of her, that inhuman object of horror.

Her approach to her chief and fascinating topic, that of Indian spirituality, is shallow, smug, and dull. Her writing style is overwrought and clunky, and her persona is unbearable.

Almost every chapter has the same repetitive structure: Macdonald hears about some aspect of Indian religion or culture and decides to investigate it. At first she thinks it's stupid and pointless. But by the end of the chapter she realizes that though it's not for her, it does have something to offer. If she asked for some blessing, she will have received it by the end of that chapter or the beginning of the next. As you can imagine, this structure gets very old very fast.

The author's attitude toward India and Indians combines the worst of both the old and the new West: sneers at a culture she doesn't understand mix uneasily with breast-beating over her own pain at seeing poor people and a greed for exotic eastern spirituality to fill her inner shallowness.

For a well-written, funny, informative, intelligent, and open-minded antidote to this irritating book, read William Dalrymple's CITY OF DJINNS. Like Mcdonald, he too writes about being a foreigner in Delhi, but unlike Mcdonald, his book is good.
This is about an Australian woman who visits India once, hates it, but moves to New Delhi years later to live with her boyfriend, who is also a journalist. While she's there she investigates what seems like every single one of India's religions.

Naturally, I had to read this. Boy, did it get up my nose.

I'm reluctant to criticize her book for being inaccurate, because people's experiences do differ a great deal depending on where they are, when they are, and who they are. So, to take just one example, I can't say that her depiction of all Indian men as leering, slobbering, sexist gropers is factually wrong, exactly; there's no denying that India is a very sexist society, and it's true that when I traveled India as an adult I did get a _lot_ of men making passes at me (though not in a disgusting or physical way) until I figured out that jeans come across as provocative in a way that cotton pants don't. But I also met a lot of men who were interesting and courteous and kind.

I'm sure I got a get-out-of-sexism-free pass on account of being a foreigner, but it was still notable to me that when I tell American men I study karate, they often make some obnoxious joke or step back in pretend fear and say, "Whoa! I better not mess with you!" (Unless they're quite old, that last annoys me so much that I say, and not in a kidding voice, "Why, were you thinking of doing something?" Then they look flustered, splutter, and run away. (This is why I'm never going to get married.)) Anyway, when I told Indians that, they never said anything of the kind, but either told me about their own or their cousin-brother's studies, or asked me if I'd looked into (local martial art).

Also, Macdonald has a particular attitude toward poverty that makes me crazy. It's all "Ooh, ick, how hideous and nauseating and sad, gee, I must be sheltered to be shocked by lepers/beggars/homeless people, how lucky I am to be a priveleged white person." I hate to to fault an emotional response, but I wish people could experience that one and then get past it in order to help the situation in some way rather than just gawking at it, or to consider that there are also desperately poor and sick people in their own homeland who could be helped-- there's enough resources to do so-- but aren't, or to look at what Indians are doing to change conditions. Instead, she's stuck in "ooh, ick" for the whole book.

At one point she sees a woman with burn scars and "retches in horror." Gee, that's really going to make the woman feel good. But more than that, it's an example of her patronizing and distanced view of Indians: Macdonald would never have that reaction to a scarred woman in Australia, but because the woman is a beggar and Macdonald assumes (with no evidence) that she's a victim of a dowry burning, it's okay to retch at the very sight of her, that inhuman object of horror.

Her approach to her chief and fascinating topic, that of Indian spirituality, is shallow, smug, and dull. Her writing style is overwrought and clunky, and her persona is unbearable.

Almost every chapter has the same repetitive structure: Macdonald hears about some aspect of Indian religion or culture and decides to investigate it. At first she thinks it's stupid and pointless. But by the end of the chapter she realizes that though it's not for her, it does have something to offer. If she asked for some blessing, she will have received it by the end of that chapter or the beginning of the next. As you can imagine, this structure gets very old very fast.

The author's attitude toward India and Indians combines the worst of both the old and the new West: sneers at a culture she doesn't understand mix uneasily with breast-beating over her own pain at seeing poor people and a greed for exotic eastern spirituality to fill her inner shallowness.

For a well-written, funny, informative, intelligent, and open-minded antidote to this irritating book, read William Dalrymple's CITY OF DJINNS. Like Mcdonald, he too writes about being a foreigner in Delhi, but unlike Mcdonald, his book is good.
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