Moonlight on the Ganga - reviewed by Poonam Srivastava

"Moonlight on the Ganga"ISBN: 0-595-39655-0 $11.95 Author, Claire Krulikowski

Review by Poonam Srivastava

Sometimes, It's the Journey; Sometimes the Telling


Readers of Claire Krulikowski's Moonlight on the Ganga will learn an important fact:  India is still, at the beginning of this high-wired twenty-first century, a destination for the spiritual seeker. This remains as true for  X-gen lost souls, new age soul-searchers, or fusion Asians seeking their roots or shoots as it was for ancient Africans or Tibetan monks. The world has long been beating a path to India's holy speakers. Moonlight on the Ganga is 104 pages of short, compelling chapters that form a very readable account of one woman's journey into the whirlwind experience that is Indian spiritualism.

Moonlight on the Ganga chapters move the readers at a fast clip through the varied experiences of the autobiographical journey of transformation that the subcontinent is famous for. Each chapter is introduced with a clever quote, some of which I have copied and placed over my writing desk. Thirteen in all, these quick views into people and places also delve into the author's experience of the sights and sounds of "exotic" daily practices of faith.

Remember that India is the land that stumped Alexander the Great.  Herman Hesse spent time in India in 1910. His Siddhartha was published in Germany in 1922, only to become a major cultural influence in the U.S. in the sixties.  Henri Michaux spent a short eight months in India and wrote a book, A Barbarian in Asia, that would have him labeled racist by some for many years to come. Christ is said to have spent his mysterious years there. If Einstein is right that time is relative, then nowhere is that more apparent than in India. Krulikowski finds out early and repeatedly that in this land, things are not what they seem. While she is not always sure how to interpret what she sees, her saving grace is she goes slowly and gently and is not quick to pass judgment, other than the expression of her utter joy of being there. Fair enough. She's come far enough.

The word Ganga, pronounced with two hard g sounds, is the Indian name for the river Ganges. This is the most holy river in India. The river courses through Benares, the city full of temples and ghats and steps and sounds of prayers and smells of incense, which makes for much of the book's setting. It forms the current of Krulikowski's book, carrying the reader through a series of sights, sounds smells, and conscious evolutions whether or not you admit it.  Vats of boiling milk steam street-side in the morning air and their smell mixes with the "bad fuel" of the rickshaws.

The author also travels to other spots on the Ganga such as Rishikesh. Sleep is dashed out of jet-lagged brains by devotional music that blares at sunrise. At one point a 'nutritionist' advises our traveler to drink only the water from the river. It's from drinking too much purified water, too many chemicals that westerners are becoming so sickly this 'expert' claims. Our traveler listens with believers' ears to the words as they are spoken in the sweet cadence of the accent that she traveled so many miles to hear. Lucky for us all though she does choose to drink only cola and bottled water.

In the chapter Seeking Higher Ground, she is part of an encounter with an injured wild monkey. Now, this is a scenario not possible in very many places at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Where are there towns that accommodate the free range of wild animal within the constraints of its streets? (Quite frankly the cohabitation with other members of our animal kingdom is what I miss most when I return from my trips to the subcontinent.) The monkey is a young adult, male. He was healthy before he bit into an electrical wire. Soon a crowd forms around the fallen beast and you have what you often have, a tamasha. The power dynamics between men and women, between tourists and locals, between animals and humans that ensues would delight any sociologist or novelist.  What in the U.S. would most likely have been officiously settled by a simple badge and a bullet, in India grows into a session of psychic humming equivalent to a reiki session for a suicidal monkey.

Throughout the book we meet many souls journeying: not only the author, not only tourists from outside of India, but Indians also. We meet them and we are treated to insights that make up some lovely portraits. In the chapter Conversations on the Sands of Time, we meet a beggar who turns out to be a pilgrim, a fellow seeker, someone whose words the author feels the need to document. Reading further, this "simple man" becomes quite obviously a member of the Indian bourgeoisie.

At times the language in the book is quite poetic. There are moments where it is uneven and almost dizzying in its enthusiasm. Still, you want to forgive the text for its overreach in the face of such newness. As with any traveler's vision, it's one perspective in a myriad of choices. However, I certainly am glad for the direction that Claire Krulikowski chose to point her travel lens.

Here, I have to state the obvious. India is more than the spiritual. This statement is made in response to the unfortunate history of the world. The common misery of colonialism and the anthropologisitic imaginaire that haunts us still, whereby all sexuality was assigned to the African continent and all spirituality was deposited in Asia. Nevertheless, I have traveled enough to state that India is hot when it comes to the spiritual.  It's a good bang for your spiritual buck. You can find ashrams and swamis and mystics and have an actual, honest-to-goodness consciousness-expanding adventure rather easily.

Travel books often reveal as much about the author as they do about the places visited. Having traveled into spiritual India, I am pleased to see that Claire Krulikowski brings to her work a certain sophistication and maturity as well as a sensitivity that is human and politically correct without becoming rigid or idealistic and indianistic or hindu-philic. (I take upon myself the presidential liberty of vocabularizing, also called Bushing.) However, it is her first visit to India. She is not claiming to be an expert.  This gives freshness of perspective, but sometimes at the cost of mistaken interpretation of information.

Case in point:  As an Indian woman, when I read about that pilgrim described above in Sands, it was so clear to me that the man was presenting a class argument from the upper-class perspective. This is complicated in a country that has ignored a huge poverty problem for essentially five decades. He probably owned factories. In some way or another, he likely exploited Indian labor to get foreign contracts. He might have been a Thakur.  He is one who is doing devotional duty just as would any Mafioso who goes to Mass and prays. Krulikowski can't get away from seeing him as a gentle Hindu, possibly an angel. Well, that did have the bonus of getting us this dialogue:   "America must run country, (India!, my exclamation point.), manage factories. America has machines and America will make things better for us."  Only one kind of Indian talks that way.  Thank you, Claire, for letting us hear what your "angel" has to say. One finds all types of people on the rounds of temples and cathedrals and holy sites in India.

For those of us inclined to seek things more elusive than the three dimensions of beauty, things commonly referred to as "spiritua,l" or those of us who have an attachment to India's spirituality, Claire Krulikowski's Moonlight on the Ganga is a worthwhile read. While it may not offer any answers, and its interpretations are at times difficult for this reader to abide, the visuals were well worth the ticket price. If you don't have the ten C notes for the flight at the ready for your own spiritual journey to the land of mother Ganga, take the armchair option. Get some chai. Start here.  Enjoy.