December 4, 2005    Arts

Book Review: “Seeking Home”

Recently, my wife went to a small stationary store in our neighborhood to buy some office supplies, where she saw spiritual words of wisdom posted around the cash register. She asked the Indian man behind the counter what his religion was. He said he had no religion. He then gave her a copy of the book he wrote. My wife came home excitedly and gave me the book called “Seeking Home—An Immigrant’s Realization” by Jayant Patel. She had a hunch that I would be interested in reading it, for I too am an immigrant. She was right. Something about it, especially the story of how she got the book, was intriguing to me.

I have lived here in New York’s East Village for over 15 years. On East 6th Street, there is a congregation of Indian restaurants that some people call “Little India.” Every time I go to one of these restaurants and see the hard-working Indian wait staff, I wonder what their lives are like. In New York, one could get to know a variety of cultures from around the world without going anywhere, but not many of us take advantage of it. We live practically right next door to each other, yet the worlds we live in are vastly different. This book, I felt was the key to bridging this gap.

The book turned out to be about so many things that I felt the title of the book was misleading. Among other things, it is about being a father, husband, entrepreneur, immigrant, Indian, spiritual man, and materialist. The book is broken into three parts. In the first part entitled “Issues and Opportunities”, he successfully overcomes his financial and family problems. This part is emotionally moving, informative, and fascinating.

The most notable difference between Japanese immigrants and Indian immigrants (at least so it appears from reading this book) is the reason for immigrating to the US. For Indians, money appears to be the primary motive for the majority of the immigrants. This would make sense if you were to compare the economic states of India and the US; a dollar you earn in the US would go a long way in India. This is not true for Japanese immigrants. For most of us, coming to the US does not give us better opportunities to make money. In fact, we would be at a disadvantage because of the language. Therefore, the reason for our move tends to be more cultural (artistic, academic, scientific, philosophical, political, etc..).

For this reason, I would not be surprised if the US attracted more materialistic Indians, which seems to be the case with this author. He admits his own materialistic tendencies. When he first moved here, he was obsessed with owning a brand new car, even though he was poor. He eventually got one, but it lead to a financial disaster.

Because his reason for moving was materialistic, it also makes sense that he was not particularly interested in truly assimilating to the American culture. His goal was to eventually go back to India and enjoy the wealth he accumulated here in the US. In a way, he was willing to sell his body to the American capitalism, but not his soul. For this reason, morally, spiritually, as well as egotistically, the base currency by which he measured himself has always remained Indian.

Most Japanese immigrants at least try to assimilate. We talk about our American friends as a point of pride, as a symbol of successful assimilation. The author of “Seeking Home”, on the other hand, appears to have mostly Indian friends. The only mentions of his encounters with Americans are his business associates.

Since I grew up with a father who was an employee of a big corporation all his life, entrepreneurship has always been a foreign concept to me. The fact that I went to an art school did not help either. The most informative aspect of “Seeking Home” was the story of the author’s struggle to start and grow his own business. It can almost be a textbook for becoming an entrepreneur, though it is of a very specific type.

He describes in detail, how he came up with or found the business opportunities, how he raised money, how much money he risked, how he spent his money, how much he made, how he managed, and how he expanded. Much of it, I had no idea how to do. His modus operandi is to buy an existing business found in newspapers. He almost does not care what kind of business it is, as long as it can be profitable.

Being surrounded by artistic types, for me, the idea of not caring what kind of business it is as long as it can make money, feels quite strange. It’s like saying, “I don’t care what kind of books I’m reading as long as I’m reading.” For me, the point of doing anything, especially business, would be to build something that reflects who I am. In other words, a business is a creative expression. Sure, I do have to make a certain amount of money, but that is just a constraint inherent in business as a creative medium. Every medium has its own constraints. With a painting, for instance, it must physically last for a while; it can’t just fade away in a few hours. With a business as a medium, it must make profit to sustain itself. It feels pointless to me to go into business not caring what it is. I was not even aware of the fact that people look up existing businesses on sale in newspapers, and buy them out. If you are just looking to make money, I suppose that makes perfect sense. After all, why bother trying to build something from scratch?

Just as I was never exposed to entrepreneurship, the author was probably never exposed to the idea of self-expression, and never saw business as a venue for self-expression. In fact, the stationary store he owns now is quite generic. Aside from the words of wisdom posted around the cash register, the owner could be anyone: a man or a woman, Indian or American, Christian or Muslim. There is nothing unique or interesting about it. The only benefit of the store for me is its location.

The second part of the book details his encounter with Dada Bhagwan, his spiritual guru. The story about how he ended up meeting him is amusing. His cousin is a fanatical fan of Bhagwan, and he practically dragged the author to meet Bhagwan. At their first meeting, Bhagwan said to the author, “... But that is the name given to you by your parents as a means of identification. That is only your name and you are not the same as your name. What is yours cannot be you. Who, then, are you?” If you are involved in any type of art, this is a question you ask yourself almost every day. So, I didn’t make anything of this question. The author continued, “This exchange confused me. It seemed a most significant question, and yet I had no answer. ... never in my life had I asked myself this simple question...” This was almost a shock to me. Do some people go through life without ever asking this question? It seemed almost impossible. No offense to the author, but I’ve always assumed that this is a question everyone goes through in their teenage years.

The story is followed by a series of conversations with Bhagwan in the form of questions and answers. The author became quite close to Bhagwan, and was beside him when he died in 1988. Unfortunately, I became bored reading the questions and the answers, not because I disagreed with Bhagwan’s philosophy, but because it was a mishmash of typical guru-talk that I’ve heard many times before. Perhaps he was a great man in person, but his words alone had nothing inspiring.

The third and the last part of the book, entitled “Homecoming” presumably presents the author who was transformed by Bhagwan. We come across many references to his teachings, but I had a hard time seeing exactly how he changed. It is quite obvious he is still his old materialist self, looking to make money for the sake of making money, dreaming of a fancy big house in India, wearing an expensive wrist watch, etc.. I am not sure what his guru did for him, despite the fact that he was supposed to be able to achieve enlightenment very quickly under his method (“gyan program”). It appears to be a typical story of seeking enlightenment through a guru; even though he didn’t get the result he was promised (“permanent happiness”), he somehow keeps blaming himself for the failure, and never questions his guru.

When you are in love with someone, you are in fact in love with yourself who is in love with that person. In this last section of the book, the author seems to be expressing his love for himself who is in love with Bhagwan, because the latter represents his ideal human being. In this sense, it is an expression of his narcissism. He is proud of himself for loving Bhagwan. This is a difficult trap to get out of. As long as his love for Dada persists, his narcissism would feed his own ego and make it bigger and stronger, thereby pushing himself further away from where he wants to be, which is to eradicate his own ego.

Another contradictory aspect of his pursuit is his search for “home.” The idea of “home” becomes necessary only if one tries to stabilize one’s identity and ego. For anything to be built, the foundation must be stabilized, but everything in life is in flux. So, we artificially create a fixed foundation in order to build something. This is what “home” is. “Home” is the foundation of his ego. If one wants to eradicate one’s ego, one must subvert the concept of “home,” but the author does the exact opposite. Ironically as the title of his book suggests, he seeks home. He is not only unable to subvert it, but he firmly embraces it. In speaking of the cultural differences between India and the US, he says, “It is unfortunate that children cannot just pick up the good features of a society and somehow bypass the bad.” It does not seem to occur to the author that this distinction between “good” and “bad” only exists in his own ego, which has been artificially stabilized by the help of India as his “home.”

His children who were born in the US will stabilize their egos using the American culture as the artificial foundation, and will draw the line between good and bad very differently from their father. Since his children were exposed to both cultures, they would have a better chance of realizing the artificial nature of these moral lines. In this manner, the last part of this book is not particularly interesting in and of itself, but it is, if you were to analyze it from the perspective of how the idea of spiritual enlightenment changed or did not change him.

I would recommend this book if you are interested in knowing how Indian immigrants in the US live their lives. I believe my original expectation of bridging the gap has been fulfilled by this book. Now, I feel that I can approach the Indian people on East 6th Street with more ease.