From the Ganges to the Snake River: An East Indian in the American West; Debu Majumdar; Caxton Press, 244 pages; $14.95.
Westerners can benefit from seeing themselves from the viewpoint of a native of Calcutta, India. For almost 40 years, Majumdar has lived in the United States, much of that time in three Eastern states before settling in Idaho, where he works for the U.S. Department of Energy.
In a collection of thought-provoking essays, he talks about fishing, hunting, horses, the Fourth of July, LDS Church missionaries and American Indians, among other things. During his first Idaho winter, he looked out his window in mid-December to see a foot of snow piled on the roofs of buildings and immediately concluded it was a "snow day" with no school or work.
Easy for an Easterner to say.
But when they went out to investigate their white world, they saw unexpected things — like cars going both ways at high speeds. Incidentally, it wasn't a "snow day."
The Fourth of July was another adjustment. Several days before the holiday, small bombs exploded outside. Friends said, "For good fireworks, you have to go to Wyoming." So they did, and promptly found M-80s, cherry bombs, fountains, pinwheels, bottle rockets, crackers and long sparklers.
Majumdar remembered that in Calcutta people used to walk the fields in search of dried eggplant stems, then burned them to make charcoal. "Very few knew this secret — light charcoal powder makes the sparks fly high up." Now, in Idaho, he worried that fireworks would threaten the vast wilderness of pine trees.
But surely Western enthusiasm over fireworks was a symbol of freedom.
When the family thought about driving somewhere on the Fourth of July, neighbors panicked. His wife had no desire to be added to highway statistics. Majumdar compared it to driving in Queens on the Long Island Expressway and said, "How bad could the traffic be?"
Not bad at all. After all, they were in Idaho, not New York.
When two LDS Church missionaries knocked on his door, Majumdar was struck by their youth. "Hmm! These two 19-year-olds wanted to teach me about religion! I was above 40 years of age and had lived on two continents in two widely different cultures. What did these two boys know about life, let alone religion?"
When he told them he was born a Hindu, one missionary said, "You worship your God through cows and snakes."
It occurred to Majumdar that "one gains wisdom when one is old, and only then does one have something to tell others." A colleague told him that LDS missionaries are too much controlled by authority, and "some fall apart when they return because there is no one to tell them what to do anymore."
This book is a mixed bag. Although often insightful, the author fails to get it right every time. Sometimes, he lets the West off too easily. There has to be more to Fourth of July celebrations, for instance, than fireworks.
úHe fails to detect the latitude many missionaries enjoy — and he misses the fact that a few never adjust to missionary life. But seldom do they "fall apart" because of the absence of authority. In Western culture there is never any shortage of people to tell you what to do.
Mostly, this is a delightfully honest book, a candid appraisal of things Western from someone from outside the culture who has no ax to grind.