The Ganges in America

Even when the Ganga is a continent away, Indians who have immigrated to the US have managed to find an alternative – Jamaica Bay in Queens. Proving that while you can take an Indian out of India, the rituals and customs will emigrate as well. The park rangers in the US were mystified to find coconuts, bits of cloth, saris and coins float to the surface and on investigation, discovered that Indians were treating the Bay as an alternative to their sacred Ganga. It probably explains why the Ganga Cleanup project, announced with such fervour over a couple of decades ago has not managed to progress on several fronts. What we consider holy, we deface with impunity. Take a look at the Haridwar and Sabarimala shrines where millions of pilgrims make their annual trip. The ecosystems there have been put to tremendous strain with the collective ablutions and defecation of the hordes, all of whom are doing it for nirvana. It’s a strange phenomenon. We worship God on one hand and at the same time, defile the area that surrounds the holiest of holies.

We’ve all heard stories of how Indians cling to their roots but for me, the defining experience was in London. I was travelling to Bristol with a doctor, an old friend from Bangalore. Since he had come to London for a conference, he offered to pick me up and drive me to back to Bristol, a couple of hours away. I was surprised to hear the strains of the ‘Gurbani’ – the holy chant of the Sikhs, playing on the radio in his car. Amritsar is in North India and a long, long way from Bangalore. It was like hearing Gregorian chants in a discotheque. My friend was not even religious, so when I asked him when he had discovered Sikhism, his explanation surprised me – he said there were very few ‘Indian’ channels that he could tune in to at Bristol and so, he wanted to catch whatever he could when he was in London. To me that was astounding – how can one be nostalgic about an experience that you have never had in the home country? I still haven’t been able to figure it out.

So does a sense of nation and country get amplified when you are far away from it? Do you long for things that you took for granted when you were in the home country and do you shape the land you emigrated to in your own image? I suspect nostalgia triggers a huge loss in an unfamiliar environment. Indians in the US teach their children classical music, follow festivals with far more fervour than their relatives back home and try and recreate ‘home’ wherever they are. Even if it means immersing ashes in the glacial waters of Jamaica Bay.