In search of one's roots
India remains, especially for people in the West, a land of mystery and mysticism. Paul Hyland happens to be one of those drawn to a land that is noted as much for its political history as its cultural heritage. Hyland focuses on the latter, a particular reason being that his ancestors once made what was, back in the 1830s, an arduous trip to India and then stayed on to breathe in the aroma and the pungency of a country as varied in its landscape as it was, and is, in its cultural diversity. The author's hundred year-old grandmother, not in the best of health in Devon, perks up when grandchild Joy speaks of Narsapur. And Narsapur is what the centenarian associates with her own past. For she was born Lily Bowden 'at Kakinada, on the eastern delta of the River Godavari which flows into the Bay of Bengal'. As Hyland takes care to let readers know, only forty years earlier, her grandfather William Bowden had been an apprentice stonemason in Barnstaple but soon took off, along with his newly-wed wife, for Madras.
That is where the tale begins. Hyland sets out on a new discovery of the route the Bowdens, his great-great-grandparents, must have taken when they first alighted in India. And Indian Balm, the title he gives his book? Hyland notes that within two years after his grandmother's death a shop in Barnstable stopped selling an ointment that had been a popular demand for as many as eighty-five years. The ointment cured people of a variety of ailments, among which were muscular complaints, skin diseases, burns, eczema, piles, chilblains and rheumatism. W. Bowden's Indian Balm it was called. The author's great-great-grandfather had produced, 'concocted' is how Hyland puts it, the ointment during his years in India.
Indian Balm occupies, of course, a bigger canvas than its medicinal parameters. It is a metaphor within which the author brings his own perspective to bear on the Indian religio-cultural background. He descends on the country, as it were, in search of his roots and yet remains acutely conscious of the reality that where his great-great-grandparents and their friends disembarked in south India fired by the kind of nobility which informs individuals with the missionary spirit, he can only go around rediscovering the spirit that sustained the Bowdens in the country. Along the way, he does come across Christians, some of them relatives removed from him by time and geography. They are all part of the legacy left behind by missionaries, and not just English ones. Hyland goes beyond them and walks through the narrow alleys and cacophonous roads of such cities as Hyderabad, drops in at temples to listen to songs directed at Hindu deities and eats at restaurants brimming over with pungent Indian food.
It is a timeless India that Hyland travels through, in cousin Joy's old Ambassador car or riding pillion with a new friend. To be sure, it is India, or a segment of it, that has for decades been offered up to westerners by modern-day tourists come visiting. The difference with Hyland, though, is the sense of involvement he brings into his observations of the culture of the place. He watches Hindus, Muslims and Christians (he hardly meets any Sikhs here) energising, endlessly, the multi-faceted heritage in Andhra Pradesh that in its broad sense speaks of secular India. The Charminar evokes a tale of a long ago Muslim presence in the region. Pushing his way through crowds of devotees at Hindu temples, he notes the poverty that has denoted the country for ages, through the hands outstretched for alms or tugging at his shirt sleeves in attempts to draw sympathy. The sheer stretch of geography he covers --- he is in Vijayawada, Madras, Amaravati, Machilipatnam, Narsapur, Rajahmundry, Hyderabad, Golconda, Nidadavole, Muskepalem --- at times leaves the reader reeling from the details of the sights and sounds that inform the author's sensibilities. But tedium? It is simply not there, for every place Hyland passes through and every individual he communes with has an altogether different story to tell. In the end, it is the vibrancy and vigour of India which shine through in these tales.
It is a robust narrative of the southern end of India, indeed of the idea of a composite India, that Paul Hyland takes readers through. What starts off as a search for the trails of a journey undertaken by William Bowden in an era now lost to time and space subtly and most happily morphs into a wider examination of the ties that have bound India, piece by exquisite piece, across the centuries, in geography and in the imagination.