Pilgrimage to India

Pramila Jayapal

Read August 2005

Jayapal, raised and educated in the US, develops an interest in her Indian roots and spends an extended period of time in India. Jayapal is the kind of person who closely reads United Nations reports, which would align her closely with NGOs (non-governmental organizations), whose influence has definitely been mixed. Fortunately, she is critical enough to question many of the aspects that a person of her leanings might unambiguously praise. For instance, she describes the state of Kerala's vaunted literacy levels, but then proceeds to view them with an appropriate skepticism, going so far as to warn of the dangers in praising the state. Despite her views, she is sensitive to the problems with NGOs. She also experiences and reports on ambiguities regarding beggars, the caste system, and so on.

The book has some strong points. Most importantly, skepticism from someone so obviously on the left is more likely to draw the attention of most NGOs than a tirade from the right. She is also wonderfully evocative when she describes her experience of Varanasi.

The book sadly also suffers from several flaws. The most significant is its anecdotal nature, making it difficult to understand exactly how representative these episodes are, or even what value they really have (given her tendency toward reporting narrative). Second, there is a large emphasis on her own spiritual search (hence the title), but this is not especially interesting or novel. Third, the last part of the book contains an extended and poorly edited account of Jayapal's experience giving birth in India, whose relevance was utterly unclear. This fragment merely highlights a broader weakness of writing and editing that is surprising in one so well (and appropriately) educated as Jayapal.

The book also contains a strong claim that I wasn't able to verify, namely that elite Indian universities have different admissions standards for men and women: ``Indian men can score 60 percent on an entrance examination and be eligible for admission, while women must score 80 percent'' (pg. 49). Needless to say, this claim carries no citation.