Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Manchán Magan's "Manchán's Travels: A Journey through India" Book Review

As his website relates (see the link from my own blog, or the logically named ), Manchán, who goes by the nom-de-plume "Mocha," with his suave brother Ruán as "The Tiger," as in the epitome of the Celtic breed, wanders about in service of TnG (now TG4), the Irish television station newly established at the time of this travelogue (about a decade ago). It's much more thoughtful and carefully written than frankly I'd expected. I had to send for this from Britain, and it took over two months to arrive-- slower than a clipper from Goa, I reckon. However, the wait proved worthwhile.

Since my earlier post on Manchán summarized his own perspective, let me skip to the chase. Actually, not a whole lot of the subcontinent's covered. The map is little more than one you'd draw in the dirt for all it shows of the five destinations: two in the Himalayas, one out in the deserts of Rajasthan, Delhi, Mumbai, and Varanasi on the Ganges. But, while not aspiring towards Lonely Planet or James Michener completeness, for who can tell of a land with a billion people and three hundred million deities, it does concentrate upon a few sights and a few encounters in depth. Mocha knows when to describe, edit, and cut. He may have learned from his debut before Tiger's camera as the presenter of what adds up to only a pair of half-hour episodes. While he prefaces and concludes his narrative with a gentle admission that it may not be all entirely verifiable, I do assume-- and he obviously kept diaries as well as the TnG footage as his aides-memoires-- "that it's based on a true story."

As an Irish learner, I became intrigued by his snippets of not only Gaelic but his rather gloomy prognoses on the state of the language. More about this later in his career, famously in his "No Béarla" series to speak the "first official language" with its citizens, but he does hold--at least earlier in his TnG career-- hope that such a medium can jumpstart (especially when he learns subtitles will be used; they were not for his later film!) the relevance of the venerable old tongue, which, he reminds us, has affinities with Sanskrit. He contrasts the rot of the last maharajahs in Rajasthan with the decay of the Celtic Revival, while noting the riches of today's Ireland fund the two brother's exploits in a last-ditch attempt to revive the language. He wonders if he leads the language home, like a reluctant emigrant, to die. I was reminded of Antoine Ó Flatharta's comments about euthanising Gaeilge to let it pass away with dignity.

The era of excess, patriotic or capitalist, certainly permeates this account. He shows economically but effectively the damage done to Bingo and Nadav after their Israeli army experiences in the intifada; he also witnesses the disintegration of Hosto and Witlauf's family as environmental devastation in India shatters their utopian dream that they could leave Switzerland for some Third World ecological refuge. I wish, in fact, Mocha had explored this phenomenon of drop-outs from the West more, and he does draw considerable attention to it. The attraction of non-linear thinking, modes of thinking that accept the dream-like illusion of our "samsara" world, our fitful period as divine beings who fell to earth remains fragmentary in Mocha's mind (for he begins this book rescued from his own stint caring for lepers desultorily while drinking urine and talking to angels in a hill-country cow byre), but he does manage to argue that these collisions of gurus and stoners may, deep down, portend a new awakening that, no less than Blake or Leary or Huxley, may yet move us away from our own juggernaut.

A telling line: "The furrows of the rice terraces were lit up like zebra skins in the full moon" (217)-- this while he runs in the near-polar chill to comfort Witlauf after Hosto's beat her again. Certainly such a jarring juxtaposition calls any neat boundaries of our existence into question: amidst the beauty of the Himalayas, Hosto lashes out as if an animal after being warped by viewing so much relentless, if unwitting, cruelty at man's rape of the Swiss and now Indian earth. The humanity and the carnality, the higher aspiration and the lower instinct, certainly make this a heaven within a hell and vice versa. As Mocha notes of the digital camera's one-chip mind, we cannot process all we see and make sense of it, whether as a computer or computing mind. The mystery and the heartache of our mortality pulses here.

Much of his storyline remains in thrall of Tara, who begins this book a shy leper coming out of the closet, and ends it adrift perhaps for a Lakota reservation, the demi-monde of outré post-modern bohemia, or points in between and unknown. Mocha's own sense of responsibility-- at one early point he imagines himself in Tara's place, spirited away by a well-meaning anthropologist a century ago from a Gaelic outpost to find himself at the receiving end of bull-whipping jarvies in some Wildean Edwardian London den of iniquity-- impels this tale with a moral insistence. How much is the author to blame for Tara's rake's progress?

The whole mystery of Indian submission to fate, the permeability of roles played, and the tired Kipling-esque "never the twain shall meet" dichotomy manage, despite themselves, to become fresh again, through the Irish-Indian perspective rather than the Jewel in the Crown p-o-v.

He compares the Irish and Indian lust for goods that replaces old verities. He finds himself in the clutches, briefly, of a fearsome matron who's dying to hear about Dev and Collins; I never thought that the colors of the Tricolour inspired those of a former Dominion, but she asserts it! The sad life of a generation, as with the Israeli vets, condemned to sacrifice its youth for a dream of nationhood resounds with Mocha's own lineage, and he poignantly wonders if he and his brother's efforts for TnG can be akin to yanking from a dignified funeral on the Ganges a relic from the flames of the pyre upon which Gaeilge attempts its hari-kari, or at least a widow''s demure immolation. Perhaps Mocha's too skeptical, but on the other hand, I must admit his experience as the Irish-fluent speaker and presenter. (This book appears to have been preceded by an Irish-language version from Coiscéim, but this is acknowledged neither in this Brandon Press edition nor by the author himself; shades of Ó Flatharta with his Grásta in Meiricea vs. Grace in America play of which you can find my article unearthing what author and critics alike had kept mum or sub-rosa:

Ultimately, whether Tara's fate, Mocha's own debate between his being a foolish dreamer or a manifestation of the divine in us all, or the prospects of Irish, the book takes the long view, like the Indians. In the midst of a tellingly boorish party of the nascent middle-class, there's MTV looming with some frat-boy bacchanal from back home: the natives fail to notice what Mocha sees, enlarged on the upper thigh of a peroxided blonde. It's a tattoo of the message from the gods, the primordial OM that Forster's elderly miss quailed to hear in the Malabar Caves. Mocha comments: "It is said that seeing this symbol is a transcendent experience-- a profound moment of darshan -- [connection with the divine through a human entity], which would have blessed even the smooching couples on the dance floor, although they weren't looking at it and weren't even aware of its existence."(178)

This reminds me of the Jewish idea of the 39 just men, who also live among us and without whom we'd have been long doomed; Mocha's told early on of immortal yogis with a similar power. It's just as well he never meets up with them. The journey's best found in the getting there, although I would like to visit, come to think of it, the hill-stations left by the colonials, replicating Dingly Dell ten thousand feet in the air above the humid summer plain. Not to mention Mount Kailash of Buddhist fame that promises all karma cleansed on its four-sided facets of gold, quartz, ruby, and lapis lazuli. Mocha may never find his own philosopher's stone, but in a wonderful passage after he meets up with Tara again, he contemplates his own realized wisdom.

The continuum may be familiar to anyone who's heard of Kinsey or Masters & Johnson, but Mocha manages to capture its allure. He finds, in his own longing for the impossibly desirable Niishraah, that categories must be, in the Indian fashion, unstable, and "simplistic duality" turns suspect. "Limiting it simply to a penis or a vagina was like limiting the beauty, fury and passion of a fire to the lump of coal that created it. Gender is about essence-- far more significant than the mere mechanism that makes use of polarity points in the body to create biological life. This process-- sacred and all as it is-- is little more than a chemical reaction. The act of bacteria souring milk or high pressure causing rain."(244)

In the end, while no conclusion can be tidily reached, the episodes get made, and the search for Tara-- which I am surprised did not earn an etymological allusion from the grand-nephews of The O'Rahilly but perhaps Mocha sought subtlety-- remains an unfulfilled quest for another adventure into the soul and the spirit and the unpredictable body. Final words sum up Mocha's gallivant in this Brobdinagian land: "We were gods who pretended to live out live out silly, tawdry lives as humans now and again." (146) 
(Edited and posted to British Amazon today, where I do have all of ten reviews vs. nearly eight hundred on this side of the pond. On Amazon US 6-2-12)

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