iMahal Interview Series:
Robert Arnett
August 15, 2000

iMahal:  How do you feel about the way the American media portrays India and Indians? And the way the Indian media portrays the US and Americans? I know that when I go and visit my family in India, they have a very different impression of what my life here is like.

Arnett:  Unfortunately, it is the nature of media to hype everything, and by and large emphasize the negative. Now because of President Clinton's visit to India, it is getting better media coverage. How India is portrayed in the media here, as are most Asian countries, is disgraceful. However, by the same token, when I am in India, I cringe -- just imagine what your impression of the US would be if you were in India and you formed your opinion based on the US network nightly news. It is just the nature of the media - to emphasize the negative sides of the culture, and not the positive. It is incomplete and inaccurate. It is more than just disgraceful, it is disgusting.

iMahal:  Do you hope to play a large role in changing these impressions?

Arnett:  We are all doing our piece. I'm just one person. I am just a grain of sand. But, if we get enough grains of sand, we can make a difference. We are trying!

iMahal:  When you lecture in the US about India, what do you tell the audiences that really catches their interest?

Arnett:  It is the stories I tell that catch their interest. Two stories come to mind that really have a big impact on the children and adults alike. One is a story about dharma. Traveling in Rajasthan, I lost my billfold. It contained a large sum of money. A young child found it and returned it to me. I tried to give him some money as a reward, but he would not take it. He did not speak any English so I tried to find someone to translate for me. This man, translating for me, told the child that I wanted to reward him for his honestly and kindness in returning my billfold to me. The child responded that he didn't understand why I was paying him to return something to me that was mine to begin with. This has a big impact, especially on children, because many Indian kids here in the US, just like their mainstream counterparts, like to be paid for such deeds.

A second story is from when I was in Indore. I met a young girl there who asked me to find her a pen pal in America. I told her that I would. She said that she would give me her address before I leave. A few days later, just before leaving, I still had not heard back from the girl. I asked someone to find her so I could speak with her again and get her address. When I asked her why she had not returned to give me her address, her response was, "After thinking about it I am not sure if I can write to someone for the rest of my life."

   ... in India, dharma is not a religious thing but a cultural one, righteous action is a cornerstone of Indian cultural ...
I love that story because it makes the point that, in India, dharma is not a religious thing but a cultural one, righteous action is a cornerstone of Indian cultural, keeping your word is an integral part of Indian culture. In the West today, giving your word means very little. Unfortunately people grow up learning to just say what suits their purpose, at that time. So when kids hear this story, it makes a huge impact on them -- that when they give their word, it means they have to keep it forever. Kids love to hear such stories.

iMahal:  Indeed, stories do have greater impact and leave a more memorable impression. Do you lecture in India as well?

Arnett:  I haven't yet, since I have been so busy travelling and doing the photography, I definitely hope to on my next trip. I have had opportunities and offers but I haven't yet taken them up. Definitely on my next trip I will. I think it will be fun. It would be a presentation on my perception of India. You would say why tell Indians about India. It's because many Indians are so engrossed in the material and technological aspects of America that they have temporarily lost sight of much of the beauty of their own land and culture.

iMahal:  One of our iMahal interviewees, who spent a considerable part of his professional career in North America, had this to say: "Indian organizations are unfriendly, but individual Indians are very friendly; American organizations are very friendly, but individual Americans are less friendly." How would you respond to it?

Arnett:  That is an interesting statement! Let me start with the first part regarding Indians. I will say that Indian organizations have been often downright rude to me from an organizational point of view. As you know I do a lot of touring around the country [in the USA], lecturing about India. So when I'm going to a city, often people would tell me to contact a certain Indian group or organization while I am there. I usually do so. I send them nice press kits, asking them if they would be able to arrange a talk for me there. I would say that two-thirds of the organizations won't even respond to me - someone who has an interest in their culture and offers to do a presentation for them.

But once I make a personal contact, I have a friend for life. It is rare that I am not invited to stay with someone in the organization. They pick me up from the airport, feed me, and make all the arrangements for me to give a talk. Once you can break through that fašade of organization, the people in the organizations could not be any nicer. Of course this is a generalization.

On the other side the statement is probably true. I find that when I contact American Organizations, such as Churches, etc., they are much more pleasant to deal with. Especially when they think I'm a missionary over in India trying to convert people to Christianity, but when they see the book and see that it is a favorable impression of India and realize that I am not a missionary I get a different response. They usually call me up and say my speaking does not coincide with their schedule.

I cannot say this for all organizations but in general, superficially they are friendlier but often on an individual level they are more hypocritical on telling you where they stand.

In contrast, the Indian way of not telling you where they stand is that they just don't return your calls or respond to your correspondence. I think this is a very disrespectful way to represent one's organization.

iMahal:  Are most of your talks with Indian organizations?

Arnett:  Many are but I also do a lot of talks at public and private schools, public libraries, colleges, universities, museums, and anyone I can get to listen. For example, this past Christmas I was a speaker at the Parliament of World Religions in Capetown, South Africa. I gave a slide presentation on "India: Glimpses of Eternity," showing the underlying threads of unity that exist in all religions, dating back thousands of years in India.

Afterwards I had a unique blessing of the Indian Government in South Africa. They put together a speaking tour for me in Johannesburg, Durban, and Pretoria. Because of apartheid and the volatile political situation, a lot of Indians living in South Africa could not visit India. So I was the one who got to introduce the spirit of India to South Africans of Indian descent who had never been to India. They were fourth and fifth generation South Africans and did not know what the real spirit of India was. It was a lot of fun and an honor for me to be able to introduce the spirit of their culture to them.

iMahal:  There is a common perception that Indians in India behave differently from the Indians living in North America. Have you experienced this? If so, what are some of these differences -- both good and bad -- and what do you think might be the underlying reasons behind it?

Arnett:  What accounts for the differences is the environment, and until we progress to a higher level of spirituality, environment is going to influence our actions. Even in Christian scriptures, Jesus said that the environment is greater than your will power, the mind is willing but the flesh is weak. Though we encounter isolated exceptions, by and large the people in India and Indians in the US are quite similar. People are people, their minds are the same, they work hard, they are good sincere people. But when they come here, they encounter a different system. The system here enables one to express one's entrepreneurial and creative dimensions that the system in India does not allow.

One thing that comes to mind and that I love about India is the devotional nature. Who could live in India and not be a little more devoted or attentive to the family than you are in America? Whereas the emphasis is on materialistic or monetary success here, it is to a great degree on spirituality in India. Environment affects us a lot more than we like to give it credit for.

iMahal:  How would you describe your experience in India to someone who hasn't been there? Would you recommend them to go?

   ... India is going to drag us outside of our comfort zone, and it's going to bring up things from within us that we would never let surface normally ...
Arnett:  I would describe India as a personal growth experience. India is going to drag us outside of our comfort zone, and it's going to bring up things from within us that we would never let surface normally. For instance, when something sends me out of control or make me lose my cool, instead of blaming it on someone or something, I turn the searchlights of my minds inward. Instead I ask myself, "Why am I not at peace with this? Why am I getting upset with it?". I love that aspect of traveling in India - to allow myself to grow personally. Here in America, we all keep too many controls over our lives to let these things come up.

   ... visit the country: to see and experience the devotion, hospitality, and sweetness of the people ...
I would encourage people who have not been to India to certainly visit the country: to see and experience the devotion, hospitality, and sweetness of the people. I would recommend that people go there to see how much the country has to offer; how much one can grow spiritually and emotionally.

iMahal:  You have traveled throughout India, can you tell us what are the more impressive places you've been to?

Jain Temples
Palitana, Gujarat
Arnett:  There are so many places I like. However, if I were to pick one, it would have to be Ellora/Ajanta. The next on the list would be Palitana, in Gujarat. It is an ancient Jain pilgrimage place on a mountaintop. There are some 700-900 temples there. I learned of Palitana from a Hindu doctor in Surat, Gujarat. He had a poster of it in his office. I asked what that place was and he said Palitana. He told me that he goes there on pilgrimage every year for a week because it is so peaceful. Two days later I was on a bus to go there.

iMahal:  Based on your travel experience, what advice would you give to an American in preparation for traveling to India for the first time, both from a physical (health-wise) as well as an emotional point of view, to get the most out of his/her visit?

Arnett:  Going to India is like going to any other Asian or third world country. Use common sense. They tell you to not drink the water from the tap, but instead drink boiled or bottled water. Avoid eating at the roadside stalls [some of the best, real Indian food is found in the roadside stalls, which is unfortunate for many of the tourists who don't venture to eat there]. I must confess that I like to eat adventurously and tend to ignore the warnings.

As for language issues, you can usually find someone in almost any town who speaks English and can help you. So, in my view, language is not a big problem. Just using the language of the heart and some hand gestures will get one by. I remember being on a bus several times where no one spoke English nor did they understand my pronunciation of where I was trying to get off. So occasionally there are moments of consternation but it always works out. Indians are just so helpful and friendly.

Street scene
Jaipur, Rajasthan
I would caution the new travelers to India about the masses of people they will see. There are so many people in India, that there is no such thing as personal space. In western culture, it can be quite uncomfortable when people intrude in your personal space.

In India you see people piled into an Ambassador [a popular Indian car], and even when it is more than full, they would make room for you if you need a ride. I often wonder what the record is for fitting the most number of people into an Ambassador. This is something I love about India. Two or three people will sit in others laps, if that is necessary, to make room for you. I remember right after I came back from India trying to get a ride from Columbus to Atlanta. This was with a friend of mine -- a husband and wife with two children. They were traveling in a van but they wouldn't take me because they said they needed room for the children to spread out.

iMahal:  India has often been described as a world within a country - due to its various climates, customs, cultures, religions, and languages. Would you please share your views on this diversity?

   ... the language, the food, the dress, the religion, the climate, the art, and the architecture change completely. In terms of cultural diversity I think it is the richest place ...
Arnett:  As you travel from one region of India to another, the language, the food, the dress, the religion, the climate, the art, and the architecture change completely. In terms of cultural diversity I think it is the richest place in the world. India is the most diverse country in the world. There are 18 official languages recognized by the constitution and over 700 minor dialects. In America we often complain about things being bilingual sometimes -- in English and Spanish. It is amazing in India how so many customs, languages, and cultures, among other things, can be in one country.

What holds this country together is often a question. There was a survey done in India to see what bonds all these people with different cultures together, and they said it is the mystique of being Indian. I think that spirituality is the underlying factor. It is the old Vedic adage, that the world is one family. I think that is the hope that India offers to the world, that the world is one family, yet you don't have to follow my way, my culture, or my religion.

   ... Creation of modern India is one of the greatest sociological experiments in the modern world ...
I love the Jain concept of non-absolutism or multiplicity of viewpoints, that there is room in the world for all forms of truth. To me, this is the greatness and hope that India has to share with the modern world. Creation of modern India is one of the greatest sociological experiments in the modern world, with all of this diversity within one national boundary. I have no doubt that India is not only going to survive but will also be one of the leaders in the coming centuries. As India goes, so does the world.

iMahal:  Even in North America, I think that Indians feel a bond towards each other. Indians are willing to help other Indians just because they are Indians.

Arnett:  Quite true! That reminds me of a story. A friend of mine, Hasu Patel, who lives outside of Palm Springs, California, told me that one day he got a phone call from someone named Patel who was passing through Palm Springs and his car broke down. [Patel is a common surname or family name in India. It is not considered inappropriate, in India and among Indians, to address a friend by his last name.] The fellow whose car broke down had his wife and children with him and he didn't know what to do. So my friend Patel told him not to worry -- he went right over and picked them up, brought them back to his house, put them up for the night, got their car fixed and took them back the next day for their car. He never heard from them again, and it is unlikely that he ever will. That's the Indian way - no formality. But can you imagine my passing through say some town in Wyoming, looking in the phone book for an Arnett, and saying my car broke down and asking them to help?



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