A free-flowing conversation with Maria Wirth, a prolific and highly readable writer on India, Indian spirituality and issues in contemporary Indian society and culture. A woman of German origin, Maria has lived in India for about 38 years, and “Thank You India: A German Woman’s Journey to the Wisdom of Yoga” is her first book in English. This conversation touches upon her love for India, state of current discourse in and about India, the prospects for a cultural reawakening in India and a few other related topics.
INDIAN WISDOM AND CULTURAL REAWAKENING
Beloo Mehra: Let me first thank you for taking out the time to sit down with me for this conversation. I am really looking forward to it.
Maria Wirth: I am also looking forward to it. I am happy to be here. And thank you for reading the book.
BM: Oh, of course! I really enjoyed your book. It was a delightful read, really. Very inspiring too. Now I do have a list of questions here which I prepared, but I would also rather see how the conversation flows and enjoy the process of learning more from your insights than following a more scripted pattern. Hope that’s okay with you.
MW: Yes, absolutely fine.
BM: So, let me just begin with my first question right away which is about the book itself. One of the most intriguing things about your book is the way your outer journey gets so beautifully fused with the inner journey that you have been on, a journey into the wisdom of India as you say in the title itself. What inspired you to write in this way? And did you hope to reach a specific audience by presenting the narrative in this manner?
MW: Well, after I started living in India, I had been writing for German publications about what I was discovering and experiencing here, and also about the wisdom of India as I travelled to different places. I say this in the book also. But the focus was always more on the inner journey, the spiritual wisdom that I was seeking through my travels, my time in India… and I am still seeking that, we are all seeking in a way. I primarily wanted to share this inner part with people in Germany. And then I started writing for Indian audiences too about this and also about some other topics. Some people suggested to me that I should put this down in a book, and I also thought it was a good idea. So, this book came about as a result of that.
BM: Did you keep notes about what you saw or experienced when you travelled to the various places that you mention in the book? Tell us a little about your travelling experience in India.
MW: Yes, I always kept diaries as I travelled, I put many details in those dairies. I used to travel with just two bags, one bag had my typewriter and the other had 4 changes of clothes. That was it. And I don’t I think ever stayed for more than 3 months at any one place…. Also, I would travel very simply, in second class train compartments, or in buses or whatever was available.
But then later I found out that the German magazine for which I was writing would have been willing to pay for my travel expenses. I didn’t know that earlier. So, then I could travel a bit more conveniently, e.g. in AC compartments etc. You see, people in my generation, I am speaking of Europeans, who went to the university in mid- or late 70s, were very different from the Indians of the same generation, for example. Most of us didn’t really think too much about what we really wanted to do, or had that one specific goal or ambition. I knew I wanted to travel, that was important for me. So, I started selling crepes, I had this small business and I was making good money, it was honest money, … and I wanted to earn money so I could travel….
You know, when this whole thing came about recently about selling pakodas as a means for self-employment, I was so amused. …. (laughter)… I mean what’s wrong with that, I just couldn’t understand how some people could even think like that. I was doing exactly that so many years earlier. But I didn’t have the kind of money to spend for luxury travel or for staying at expensive hotels etc, so I travelled and lived very simply. And that was fine.
BM: You have been a close observer of the current discourse in India, particularly these recent debates, some would even say a sort of controversy, over nationalism or over whether one should say ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ and all that. Having grown up in Europe, Germany in particular, do you think that there is some fundamental difference between the Indian view of nationalism and the more western, rational, secular concept of nationalism?