The most educational experience I have ever had was two years spent in India.
In 1963, at the age of twenty-one, I set off from Britain to follow an MA course in Indian Philosophy and Religion at Banaras Hindu University. That was thanks to a Commonwealth Scholarship, awarded by the Government of India. My undergraduate studies had included philosophy but only of the European variety. I wanted to broaden my knowledge, and to find adventure, perhaps even wisdom. Career futures could not have been further from my mind. It was the 1960s, after all. Perhaps this was not the shrewdest choice for a world that, eight years later, would plunge into recession.
The scheme was set up in 1961 to mark the ending of empire and the start of a hopefully more egalitarian relationship between Britain and its former colonies. By the time the scheme ended in 1998, one hundred and twenty British students had travelled to South Asia for higher education. The scheme transformed my life, as well as the lives of the forty other returned scholars I have been able to interview.
Like me, a surprising number who travelled in the 1960s were inspired by the ascent of Everest in 1953. Dreams of snowy peaks, and of Tibet, with its society and religion, turned us towards Asia. Tibet was now closed. India would surely be the next best thing – albeit teeming tropical plains instead of empty frozen wastes.
My step into the unknown initially seemed to have backfired when the locals expressed disapproval of my culture, and I struggled to adjust to my new life. I sought relief from dry study by exploring the ancient city where I met renowned holy men, predatory Romeos, a man who was tortured by the British, and an eccentric Irish woman.
I soon discarded the stereotype that traditional Indian thought is mystical rather than logical. The stature of the intellectual giants of mediaeval India became obvious. I learned, too, about the diversity of traditional Indian schools of philosophy. These included atheistic materialism. Sceptical agnosticism was common, particularly among the Buddhists.
In my long vacations, I travelled throughout India. I visited a Gandhian community where I learned to spin wool, grind millet and watch over cattle. Later travels took me to tribal regions of central India, and to Nepal, where I trekked with two Sherpas towards the Tibetan border, over passes of 17,000 feet, sleeping rough under rock overhangs. I saw history being made when I was present at the ceremony for the scattering of Nehru’s ashes in Kashmir.
I learned the hard way that my own values and truths are only one bundle among others. Gradually I began to see through other eyes. I abandoned any hope of finding universal truths and instead developed a deep curiosity about the roots of cultural difference. I grew to realise that I, just like everyone else, am a product of a particular era and culture.
By the time I returned to Britain, my values and habits had changed so much that everything appeared alien. That impression faded but I had altered for ever.
Four years later I returned to India, travelling alone, overland by local transport. I would go on to spend another eight years there. Study abroad can be an extremely educational experience, provided the student is not restricted to life with compatriots.
Retirement spurred me to write a book about my early years in India. I wanted to lead the reader through experiences that would be as unusual today as they were then. I had written academic books, but not literary narrative, so it was a steep learning curve. Lockdown enabled me to put in the finishing touches. The book has just been published: Dancing to an Indian Tune: an education in India (Troubador/Matador – available by order from Waterstones, or W.H. Smiths).