Posted tagged ‘Travel’

Background Reading on Contemporary India

7 October 2010

The purely economic pluses and minuses of staging the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi will become apparent long after the Games are finished, as is the case with many of these ambitious international sporting events. Much more immediate will be the effect on overseas opinion of the publicity generated by the intense media coverage of the Games over these 13 days. A more personal form of publicity which will be spread around many countries is that of the thousands of visiting athletes and spectators. It is therefore to be hoped that a wider interest in travel to India, with her varied exotic offerings, will be a positive result of the 2010 Games, eclipsing the effects of the unfortunate (but unavoidable) negative publicity and nervousness which preceded the Opening Night.

Those eager to acquire a balanced picture of contemporary India may enjoy the following selection of recent books by travellers who have provided us with very detailed accounts and analyses (warts and all), based on lengthy periods of residence and observation.

Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods (The Strange Rise of Modern India), London, Little, Brown, 2006. (Also: New York, Doubleday, 2006.)
Interviews and observations of India by the Financial Times’s correspondent from 2001 to 2005, during which time he learned Hindi and married an Indian wife. Highly recommended by Mark Tully, Professor Amartya Sen, and William Dalrymple, among other cognoscenti, Luce offers a wealth of insight and information, and includes analyses of the changing caste system, the status of India’s Muslims and the rise of Hindu nationalism.
See William Grimes’s Review: ‘The Power and the Potential of India’s Economic Change’.
Sample: “Much of the book consists of interviews and colorful vignettes intended to illustrate the myriad statistics that, out of context, can numb the mind. The blend of anecdote, history and economic analysis makes In Spite of the Gods an endlessly fascinating, highly pleasurable way to catch up on a very big story.”

Christopher Kremmer, Inhaling the Mahatma, HarperCollins, 2006.
An account of various aspects of contemporary Indian history and life based on seven years of travels and residence in India between 1990 and 2001 by a journalist and writer who took the trouble to learn Hindi and established very close contacts with influential Indians. Like Edward Luce, Kremmer married an Indian woman.
A recent REVIEW by Richard A. Johnson.

Sarah Macdonald, Holy Cow. An Indian Adventure, Sydney/London, Bantam Books, 2002.
An Australian journalist’s entertaining and informative account of contemporary life in India.
(A suitable bestseller for air travel.)

Sir Mark Tully
The doyen of British correspondents in India over the past 40 years, renowned in the UK and in India. His work in presenting India to the overseas English-speaking world has been recognised by awards from Queen Elizabeth II and the Indian Government. For this basic orientation list the following two works are recommended.
No Full Stops in India, London, Penguin, 1992.
The Heart of India, London, Penguin, 1996.

Bill Aitken
Like fellow Indiaphile and septuagenarian Mark Tully, Bill Aitken has spent several decades of his life living and interacting with Indians and writing about them and about India. Like Tully, he is well known in India, where he has lived as a naturalised Indian citizen for nearly fifty years.

Aitken’s special interests are spirituality, travel, climbing, the Himalayas, and Steam Railways.
The Penguin Introduction to two of his works reveals that “He has lived in Himalayan ashrams, worked as secretary to a Maharani, freelanced under his middle name (Liam McKay) and undertaken miscellaneous excursions – from Nanda Devi to Sabarimala – on an old motor bike and by vintage steam railway.”
For this basic list on “India for foreigners”, I recommend three samplers of Aitken’s specialised oeuvre.
Footloose in the Himalaya, Delhi, Permanent Black, 2003.
Of the three mountaineering travel books by Aitken that I have read, this latest one is the best, full of fascinating detail, observations and adventure.

The Nanda Devi Affair, Penguin Books India, 1994.
Aitken’s very special spiritual climbing quest.
Branch Line to Eternity, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2001.
His travels on the last railway steam engines operating in India.

Dom Moraes and Sarayu Srivatsa, Out of God’s Oven. Travels in A Fractured Land, New Delhi, Viking, 2002.
An investigative book by two Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), based on six years of travel and interviews on contemporary Indian issues.
(For an Asia Times Online review by Jason Overdorf in March 2003, see here.

Overdorf comments: “In a book of remarkable scope, the two writers address many of the seminal events of Indian history of the past three decades, ranging from riots by Dalits (formerly untouchables) …”

William Dalrymple
Dalrymple has harvested considerable acclamation and fame from his many scholarly works on India and Indian history. His latest book on spirituality in India has become a best seller (like most of the books on this list):
Nine Lives. In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, London, Bloomsbury, 2009.
These nine exotic interviews on very diverse aspects of religion were prompted by Dalrymple’s desire to investigate the present state of religious beliefs in India following a period of great economic and social change.

Trevor Fishlock, India File, 2nd edition, New Delhi, Rupa, 1987.
One of a distinguished line of British correspondents in India, Fishlock first published this slim volume in 1983. His first chapter, ‘Inheritance’ (pp. 1-19) is still well worth reading.

Justo Gallego – the lone twentieth century Cathedral Builder

8 April 2008

After I listened to a radio interview with Charles Happell, the author of The Bone Man Of Kokoda: The Extraordinary Story of Kokichi Nishimura and the Kokoda Track, the extraordinary mission carried out by a Japanese World War II soldier over the last 25 years of his life, my mind flashed back to a parallel epic of a Spaniard’s dogged determination to fulfil a self-imposed gargantuan mission inspired by very different circumstances.

According to Happell, Nishimura spent the final 25 years of his life (after abandoning his family, like Siddharta) in the jungles of contemporary Papua New Guinea searching for and recovering the bones of his Japanese comrades in arms who, unlike him, had been killed in the fierce battles with Australian troops on the infamous Kokoda Track in the early 1940s.

Justo Gallego’s travails over more than forty years are, thanks to the media and the Internet (especially the increasingly ubiquitous YouTube website), much more widely documented. Readers who are not familiar with this topic are invited to sample:
(Copy and paste the URLs, please.)
Justo Gallegos (born in 1925) entered a Catholic Trappist monastery in Spain in 1950, with the ambition of becoming a Catholic monk. Unfortunately, Justo contracted TB after several years of studies and (even more unfortunately, IMO) was ‘released’ from his vows by the ecclesiastical authorities, presumably in the health interests of the other monks. Despite these adverse circumstances, he eventually recovered and although (unfairly?) disqualified from becoming a Catholic priest (the only kind of priest then allowed to operate in dictator Franco’s Spain), Justo then made a vow to his mother to build a cathedral in his native Spanish village of Mejorada del Campo, to the greater glory of his God.

For more than 40 years Justo has steadfastly dedicated all his physical efforts to fulfilling that vow, canvassing local support, donations, and working with recycled materials. Against all the odds and quite significant local opposition, Don Justo has now virtually succeeded in building his ecclesiastical “Castle in Spain”. Although his idiosyncratic Cathedral is still not quite finished, when it is completed (possibly after his death), in view of this inspiring example of individual faith in an increasingly secular Spanish environment (and Western world), the Catholic Church really has no alternative but to recognise the Justo Cathedral, dedicated to Our Lady of the Pillar (Nuestra Señora del Pilar), despite local town planners’ misgivings about the structural soundness of this huge building, designed and built by a complete amateur.

My own interest with this fascinating saga dates back to1991 (when the Internet and YouTube, etc., etc. etc., had not even been conceived). Taking a break from one of my language research trips to Spain, I followed up an intriguing Spanish magazine account of Justo’s labours. (He had already been slaving for 20 years!)

From the centre of metropolitan Madrid I took a train, a walk and a bus to the prosperous village of Mejorada del Campo (today one bus is sufficient, from the Avenida de América bus station). Before the bus arrived at the village, the impressive soaring shell of Justo’s homespun cathedral was visible. When I reached it, I talked to Don Justo – who could not even stop working to eat his lunch sandwich, even though his helpers had gone away for their well-earned break. He generously answered my questions before resuming his labours. I then toured the impressive but rickety 2-storey skeleton. On the second storey I was filmed and interviewed by a teenage crew from the local High School engaged on a video project on the Cathedral. They seemed surprised and gratified at this foreign interest, especially from antipodean Australia. I took some photos and before I left, I offered Don Justo a 5,000 peseta note ($50). I am still SO grateful for the privilege of contributing this insignificant sum to the lofty and seemingly Quixotic dream of this ordinary and extraordinary man.

¡Que su Dios le bendiga, Don Justo!

I revisited the building – still unfinished – 3 years later (1994) and there were encouraging signs of foreign touristic interest, although the local Municipal Council were still nervous about the project and its structural viability.

Since then Justo’s obsessive energy has put Mejorada del Campo on the tourist map. Bus excursions are run from Madrid (only 40 kilometres away). The irony is that in the 1960s when Don Justo committed himself to his vow, Mejorada was merely a village and the Spanish tourist boom was only just beginning. Decades later, it is a prosperous township close to Madrid’s vastly extended and bustling Barajas Airport. It is under the approach flightpath so some clued-up tourists may also be lucky enough to check it out from the air, free.

For historical comparison, I enclose a few of my photos from 1991.

I also enclose the public statement that Justo Gallego posted in the Cathedral to avoid being overwhelmed by questions from the flood of visiting Spanish and overseas tourists attracted by his fame.

Debido a mis problemas de afonía, les ruego eviten hacerme hablar. Si desean información, lean este cartel.
Me llamo Justo Gallego. Nací en Mejorada del Campo el 20 de septiembre de 1925. Desde muy joven sentí una profunda fe cristiana y quise consagrar mi vida al Creador. Por ello ingresé, a la edad de 27 años, en el monasterio de Santa María de la Huera, en Soria, de donde fui expulsado al enfermar de tuberculosis, por miedo al contagio del resto de la comunidad. De vuelta en Mejorada y frustrado este primer camino espiritual, decidí construir, en un terreno de labranza propiedad de mi familia, una obra que ofrecer a Dios. Poco a poco, valiéndome del patrimonio familiar de que disponía, fui levantando este edificio. No existen planos del mismo, ni proyecto oficial. Todo está en mi cabeza. No soy arquitecto, ni albañil, ni tengo ninguna formación relacionada con la construcción. Mi educación más básica quedó interrumpida al estallas la Guerra Civil. Inspirándome en distintos libros sobre catedrales, castillos y otros edificios significativos, fui alumbrando el mío propio. Pero mi fuente principal de luz e inspiración ha sido, sobre todo y ante todo, el Evangelio de Cristo. Él es quien me alumbra y conforta y a él ofrezco mi trabajo en gratitud por la vida que me ha otorgado y en penitencia por quienes no siguen su camino.
Llevo cuarenta y dos años trabajando en esta catedral, he llegado a levantarme a las tres y media de la madrugada para empezar la jornada; a excepción de algunas ayudas esporádicas, todo lo he hecho sólo, la mayoría de las veces con materiales reciclados… Y no existe fecha prevista para su finalización. Me limito a ofrecer al Señor cada día de trabajo que Él quiera concederme, y a sentirme feliz con lo ya alcanzado. Y así seguiré, hasta el fin de mis días, completando esta obra con la valiosísima ayuda que ustedes me brindan. Sirva todo ello para que Dios quede complacido de nosotros y gocemos juntos de Eterna Gloria a Su lado.

Translation (added 27 December 2011)

In view of my throat problems, please do not ask me questions. If you desire information, please read this notice.

My name is Justo Gallego. I was born in Mejorada del Campo on the 20th of September 1925. From an early age I felt a deep Christian faith and wanted to devote my life to the Creator. So, at the age of 27 years, I joined the monastery of Santa María de la Huera, in Soria, but was expelled when I fell ill with tuberculosis, to avoid infecting the rest of the community. Back in Mejorada and with this first spiritual path closed, I decided to build, on a farm owned by my family, a work to offer to God. Little by little, using inheritance money at my disposal, I gradually erected this building. There are no plans for it, nor any official project. Everything is in my head. I am no architect, no bricklayer, nor do I have any training related to building. My basic education was interrupted by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Inspired by various books on cathedrals, castles and other significant buildings, I forged my path. But my main source of light and inspiration has been, first and foremost, the Gospel of Christ. It is He who lights my way and comforts me and to Him I offer my work in gratitude for granting me life and in penance for those who do not follow His way.

Forty-two years I have been working in this cathedral. I have to get up at three thirty in the morning to start the day’s work. Except for sporadic support from others, I have done everything myself, most of the time with recycled materials. There is no date for completion. I merely offer the Lord every day of work He wishes to give me, happy with what has been achieved. And so I shall continue, to the end of my days, finishing this work with the most valuable help that you care to give me. May it all serve to make the Lord pleased with us and may we all enjoy Eternal Glory together at His Side.


1. Facade 1991


2. Justo Gallego 1991 and a written request for donations to finish the work

(“Se Admiten Donativos para terminar la OBRA!!”)


3. Cathedral detail 1991