The polished, elegant surfaces of Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning volume of nine short stories, An Interpreter of Maladies (Houghton Mifflin, $12, 198 pp.) belie the howling emptiness at their depths. In her carefully observed, minimalist tales, Indian immigrants discover the nightmarish price of the American dream of lots of stuff. Strangers in a strange land, imperfectly understanding, imperfectly understood, missing their community-oriented society, they wrestle with unfamiliar New World problems–loneliness, depression, and isolation which destabilize the marriages that, in at least five stories, agonizingly disintegrate. In a savage story, “A Temporary Matter,” a suffering couple, Shoba and Shukumar, tell each other erstwhile secrets, and we watch them steadily, viciously destroy each other as they face the death of their love and marriage. “Mr. Pirzada” and “Mrs. Sen” present Indian faculty couples, alienated and adrift in a foreign world. More restfully, the final story, “The Third and Final Continent,” details the not uncommon odyssey of the restless Indian (like Lahiri’s and my own and, it’s rumored, Rushdie’s) from India through England to America; and the advent of love within the confines of an arranged marriage.
Do Not Go Gentle: My Search for Miracles in a Cynical Time Ann Hood Picador, USA, $23, 256 pp.
Teach us to care and not to care,
Teach us to sit still
Our peace in His will.
In “Ash Wednesday,” T.S. Eliot describes the perfection of faith.
When a loved family member lies dying, that serene relinquishment is not easy to achieve. Faith can then become a kind of wrestling, a desire to wrest Lazarus from the jaws of implacable fate by brute will. Ann Hood’s memoir Do Not Go Gentle: My Search for Miracles in a Cynical Time limns this exhausting odyssey.
When her sixty-seven-year old father is diagnosed with lung cancer, Hood decided “to get him a miracle.” She goes to El Santuario de Chimayo, in New Mexico, to pray that his tumor would vanish. It does, but then, in one of the bewildering twists not unfamiliar in the life of faith, her father dies of fungal pneumonia.
The shock of this apparently divine betrayal is amplified by the earlier death of her only brother who, following arguments with his estranged wife, and then his soon-to-be wife, drowns in a bathtub. When, soon after the death of her father, Hood has a second miscarriage, the powerlessness of sheer grief plunges her into despair. “I became immobilized by my sadness. I believed in absolutely nothing at all.” The loss of faith left her “deadened” by “dark numbness.”
Funded by a book advance and glossy magazine work, Hood travels searching for evidence of miracles that might help her believe in God. She introduces us to much of the colorful efflorescence of Catholicism, including Guadalupe, where she sees the sun’s rays form a cross, and Padre Pio’s tomb. In Worcester, Massachusetts, she visits “Little Audrey,” a teenage “victim’s soul” in a coma, who lies surrounded by osmogenesia, the odor of roses, weeping statues, and Communion hosts flecked with blood. Despite the Catholic church’s protests, thousands of visitors pray to Little Audrey, rather than for her. Seeking to be spiritually moved, Hood visits Joan of Arc’s birthplace; Rocamadour in the Dordogne; and Mont Saint Michel in Normandy. She weeps before a veil of the Virgin in Chartres, “spiritually stirred” at last. Hood’s is not the absolute faith of Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him,” nor the rationalist creed of Thomas, “Unless I see and touch, I will not believe,” but a narcissistic, emotional creed–“Unless I feel and thrill and weep, I will not believe.”
Finally, Hood decides that, since she absorbed her faith unquestioningly from her Italian Catholic family, she might be able to resuscitate her faith by visiting her ancestral village in Italy. She describes her family with a quote from Rudolph Vecoli, “Italian Catholics are only nominally Catholic. Theirs is a folk religion, a fusion of animism, polytheism, and sorcery, with the sacraments of the church thrown in.” (In fact, Hood’s own faith, with its reliance on symbolic dreams, omens, psychics, tarot cards, and healing candles strikes me as positioned somewhere between the Dark Ages and the New Age.) This trip works. When an old relative advises her in cliches–“You have to have faith for prayer and healing to work,” and “Saint Anthony will help you find your way home”–she cries hard, feeling convicted. Soon afterwards, the familiar twentieth-century miracle of finding a lost contact lens restores her longed-for faith.
I remember reading the nucleus of this book as an article in Doubletake magazine. The present narrative is undermined by the attempt to inflate an essay into a book. Do Not Go Gentle evolves into a family memoir, a popular genre in an increasingly rootless and isolated America. Hood gives us the history of each parent’s family, and is especially deft in describing her abusive grandmother, revealing the petty verbal abuse that often lurks beneath the shiny exterior of the large happy family.
More than anything, the book is a testimony to the therapeutic and palliative effects of time and travel. Travel plunges you into a new setting, filling you with fresh ideas. In this new way of existence, the griefs of your old world seem less sharp and poignant. Gradually, time blunts the edge of Hood’s sorrow and she comes to accept a lonelier world “whose common theme is the death of fathers.”
Ann Hood calls this book “a spiritual odyssey.” Unfortunately, her story ends where real spiritual adventure begins: she decides that God exists, that God is benign, that there can be power in prayer. This is tame stuff compared to The Seven Storey Mountain or Surprised by Joy, whose electrifying apprehension of the holy leaves us with a gasping hunger to follow. Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, Pascal, and Augustine dive from Scripture into the deep sea of God. The response of these writers to God is quirky and individual; yet, since their quests begin by grappling with the story that culminates in the radiant figure of Christ, their journeys offer wisdom and illumination to anyone who wants to dive into the same sea. If Ann Hood sought comfort or light in the concentrated wisdom of Scripture at any point along her search, it does not show. With an irritating self-absorption, she seeks to base her faith on “spiritual stirrings,” intuitions, flickers of emotion–private stars with a private light with little general significance.
“Do Not Go Gentle” is a lively, gracefully written memoir, full of vivid descriptions of the beautiful places in which–possibly, not coincidentally–people have experienced miracles. It is a pleasure to read. To my husband’s despair, I took notes for future vacations. But finally I was more amused than inspired by the self-indulgence and emotionalism of this very American spiritual quest. For a guide on my own “spiritual odyssey,” I think I’ll stick with Merton or Thomas a Kempis, and, even better, the Word that was in the beginning.
Anita Mathias wrote “I Was a Teenage Atheist” in Commonweal’s October 8, 1999 issue. It was selected for inclusion in The Best Spiritual Writing, 2000, Philip Zaleski, ed., HarperSanFrancisco.
Sacred Waters A Pilgrimage up the Ganges River to the Source of Hindu Culture Stephen Alter Harcourt, $25, 368 pp.
A Review by Anita Mathias
Sacred Waters is a lovely, tranquil account of a spiritual journey undertaken by a third-generation missionary kid, born and raised in the Garwhal foothills of the Himalayas, where his parents and grandparents ran Woodstock, the American missionary boarding school. An atheist and a seeker now, Stephen Alter embarks on foot, over ten months, on the traditional Hindu pilgrimage, the Char Dham Yatra, to the four main sources of the Ganges, Yamnotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath in the high Himalayas, a path, according to popular Hindu belief, to moksha or salvation.
Alter’s fellow pilgrims are as diverse as those in The Canterbury Tales. Some are dressed in robes of saffron and ocher, others in jeans or loincloths. There are toddlers, feeble octogenarians walking while reading a prayer book, and even a pilgrim with a brass trumpet who is eager to serenade the company. Alter’s fluency in Hindi allows him to converse with the unusual people he meets: migrant Muslim dairymen, goatherds, grass cutters (gujjars), Nepalese watchmen guarding potato fields, villagers spinning wool as they walk along, an ascetic Dutch holy man (sadhu), a Belgian artist who shoots arrows into the landscape to photograph them later, rabid Hindu fundamentalists, the wildly popular film star Amitabh Bachan carried on the shoulders of Nepalese porters, women planting rice in paddies to the rhythm of a drum. He camps, “the roar of the Ganga as loud as a hurricane,” to listen to a sadhu blow away the darkness, chanting “om” on his conch shell, “clear, musical, like a trombone or a French horn.”
This dense, multilayered narrative especially fascinated me because I, too, went to boarding school in the Himalayas. Alter interweaves loving accounts of the unique, endangered flora and fauna with tales of swashbuckling figures from colonial history like Frederick Wilson (the inspiration for Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”), who built the first precarious bridges over Himalayan rivers, and the hunter and naturalist, Jim Corbett, still famous in my girlhood for his books on hunting man-eating leopards and tigers. Garhwal is called Dev Bhoomi, land of the gods, for “every snow peak and glacier, every confluence and village temple is invested with mythology.” Alter enriches the landscape for his readers by narrating the legends associated with each spot he visits, from the Vedas, the Puranas, and the great epics, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. At the same time he meets contemporary activists fighting the indiscriminate logging, motor roads, and dams that threaten the livelihood of the indigenous people, and, sadly, the mountains themselves.
Embarking on his journey as a traditional pilgrim on foot, renouncing tobacco, alcohol, sex, and meat, Alter leaves both maps and camera behind, believing the slow imprinting of experience on memory will be more effective than photographs. Detailed maps, though, would have helped readers track his progress, and photographs would certainly have enhanced his descriptions of historic temples and gorgeous vistas. Nevertheless, Sacred Waters is full of the serendipity and the peace of the wilderness. “I saw an egret flying low above the river, its white wings in sharp contrast to the gathering darkness. A peacock blundered out of a nearby tree, then glided into the valley, its long tail streaming behind it like an iridescent comet.” He wakes to find a multitude of moths cover his tent, “like delicate hand-block images pressed against the light”; he blunders into a black bear, shy barking deer, troops of rhesus and langur monkeys, and even a leopard.
The variety of Hindu worship is very much on display: a drive-by shrine to Hanuman, worshiped from the windows of a bus; a temple (nag mandir), where a cobra was worshiped; and darshan, or homage, paid at the high-altitude temples to the reclusive god Shiva. Alter is sarcastic about the lines of pilgrims five to six hours long. After walking 600 kilometers, they are efficiently herded through the sanctuary in mere seconds by venal, pushy pandits. Still, he provides sensitive and poetic descriptions of evening worship, the temple bells and the moaning of a conch, an oil lamp waved in front of the deities, while sadhus sing Sanskrit hymns, their voices harmonized into a moving tenor chorus. They then clap their hands in unison, and prostrate themselves in front of the idol, kissing the cold stone floor. A sadhu dances in rhythm with his prayers, his right hand holding an oil lamp, his left, a pair of tiny brass cymbals.
Alter, somewhat irritatingly, decries the motor roads, which provide the only way for those who lack his stamina, adventurousness, and leisure to enjoy the remote, beautiful, high mountains. He alerts us, however, to an alarmingly threatened Himalayas: landslides, precipitated by erosion and dynamiting for the motor roads, burying entire villages; and the destruction on a monumental scale of towns and hillsides to build the massive Tehri dam. Leopards are slaughtered for their skins; endangered musk deer for the six-ounce musk gland, used for perfume and medicine. Botanical poachers plunder rare herbs and flowers nearing extinction. Police are rarely seen and susceptible to bribes.
In a coda, our pilgrim visits the magical Valley of Flowers accidentally “discovered” by British mountaineers in 1931, though described in The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. In this natural wonder, like an alpine rock garden, “waterfalls spilled down cliffs, tiny springs seeped out of the ground, water so clear that it was invisible except for the wavering reflection of a profusion of flowers as in an ornate tapestry”–blue irises, primulas, dark purple lupine, fritillaria, delphinium, and columbine. Alter’s spiritual experience here is akin to Wordsworth’s pantheistic vision in his “Lines” composed near Tintern Abbey: “And I have felt / A presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts… / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, / …and the living air / And the blue sky, and in the mind of man….” This fascinating book concludes on an updraft
of tranquility. “The surrounding aura of sanctity made me bow my head. I was overcome with a sense of wonder and discovery. I felt completely at peace.” One believes him.