Mythical or mystical? Revisiting India Syndrome, which afflicts well-meaning, spirituality-seeking Westerners
India Syndrome is defined as the delusional behaviour which “hits people from developed Western countries who are looking for a cultural space that is pure and exotic, where real values have been preserved”.
Allegedly Problematic' is a monthly column by Kuzhali Manickavel, which takes a cheeky look at literary/cultural offerings from the past that would now be considered, well, problematic — and asks, 'But are they really?'.
Read more from the series here.
Salutations fam! Here we are, still caught in the loving, iron grip of the lockdown.
Illustrious Acquaintance advised me to use this opportunity to say something interesting about my lockdown experience but frankly, there is nothing interesting to say. Also I feel like we need to hear less from people like me and more from those who don’t have the privilege to just be bored on the internet during pandemics. If this was a better column, maybe we would actually hear from those people here. But this is not a better column. This is a column where we just say it should happen and then pat ourselves on the back for being so woke.
Now that I have been high and mighty about the lockdown, it’s time to get high and mighty about one of my favourite things in the whole, wide world — white people! Today’s column is about a syndrome which only affects white people! Well, “westerners” technically, but we all know what that means. It is called ‘India Syndrome’! This syndrome, which is called ‘India Syndrome’, is not a syndrome. It is apparently more of a psychosis — it does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV and more importantly, it does not appear in Wikipedia. (At the time of writing this, Paris, Jerusalem and Florence Syndrome all have Wiki entries. Just saying.)
India Syndrome is defined as the delusional behaviour which “hits people from developed Western countries who are looking for a cultural space that is pure and exotic, where real values have been preserved”. That sound you hear is the peal of a million bells saying ‘we are just bells and even we think this sounds problematic’.
But let’s keep going. This definition comes from Regis Airault, a former staff psychiatrist at the French Consulate in Mumbai who wrote about his experiences with this syndrome in a book called Fous de l’Inde, which Google translates into ‘Crazy About India’. People who contract India Syndrome may experience delusions of having superhuman powers or being the reincarnation of a saint. Some may claim to have successfully activated their Third Eye or that they can recollect past lives.
In most cases, India Syndrome can be cured by simply sending the person back home. Some people however, become permanently delusional — some have died, others have vanished. Those who succumb to India Syndrome are usually people who come on spiritual journeys. A heady mix of hardcore yoga, visits to various ashrams, physically-taxing meditation sessions, drugs and culture shock often culminate in a mental breakdown. But can this only happen to Westerners in India? With a regimen like that, isn’t a mental breakdown possible anywhere? To anyone? Airault says no. "It's important to understand that sometimes we go crazy in India because it's a culture too different from our own," he says. "It doesn't mean that we're mentally ill.”
I don’t know. Saying “we go crazy in India because it's a culture too different from our own” seems…odd. I mean, does this happen the other way around as well? Do Eastern people (wow that sounds weird) go to Western countries and go crazy because the culture is so different? We certainly don’t hear about it in the same way. In fact, we don’t really hear about it at all. But the idea of Westerners getting lost and going crazy in India is something that seems completely plausible. We almost expect it.
I have to stop my words now because I have written too much already. But! We will be back again with our second instalment where we will talk about…something. Frankly fam, India Syndrome is way weirder than I thought it would be and I’m not sure what to say. But stay tuned anyway, it might be fun! It probably won’t be fun.
Kuzhali Manickavel is the author of the short story collections 'Insects Are Just like You and Me except Some of Them Have Wings' and 'Things We Found During the Autopsy', both available from Blaft Publications
When it comes to Murder By Death, I’m profoundly guilty of saying things like 'Sure it’s racist/homophobic, but-', which is basically a roundabout way of saying yes I enjoy this problematic thing but I tut-tut at the right places and know those are bad so it’s fine.
From 'White Saviour' to 'Poor People Who Work Hard and Get Rich', there's no end to these problematic movie tropes
Rightly or wrongly, I would like to continue sharing with you some of my go-to favourites when it comes to problematic movie enjoyment. I am so sorry fam.
A brief and highly subjective rating of the common problematic tropes you'll encounter in pop culture offerings
There are certain kinds of problematic cinema which will make me cringe or say ‘tut-tut’ in a marked manner. But I definitely keep watching, fam.