Two Women from India, and God: A Review of Visa, Stickers and Other Matters of the Soul

I am yet to meet Lom Harshni Chauhan, but I'm quite sure that if any of the sort of unpleasant men who have been spotlighted in recent news stories about India got near her, she would leave them feeling truly sorry. A karate expert and a yogini who once did the Natarajasana (lifting one foot off the pole and touching the top of her head with it) while standing on a crossbar on an elevated pole, Chauhan is also a professional and a mother raising a young daughter in China.

She is in many ways, like the many Indian women of my generation who have come of age in a time of change, of globalization, migration, and greater mobility professionally and socially for women. Now, her daughter, an Indian in China growing up on American pop culture princess figures (though one might guess she is now into warrior princesses rather than the more stationary pink and perfect ones), also represents a future generation that is coming of age in a world with far more change, complexity, and diversity than before; and a world in which women will know their place is not what "knowing their place" has meant in a patriarchal sense, but in a more empowered, and egalitarian manner. I have no doubt, in other words, that the young shy child we see in Lom Harshni's debut memoir, Visa, Stickers and Other Matters of the Soul, will grow up to be a strong, independent, and deeply spiritual woman too.

But here is the seemingly strange thing about Chauhan's life. She owes her strength and spirit, it seems, not only to her Rajput heritage but equally to her Master, and her experiences in his rather conservative and austere ashram-style residential colleges in India where boys and girls seldom even interacted with each other.

It is that underlying, and skillfully understated tension, between modern ideas of freedom and agency, and a world of spiritual reflection ancient and timeless simultaneously, that makes Visa, Stickers and Other Matters of the Soul a powerful, captivating, and insightful book. Following no particular narrative arc other than conversations between the author and her smart little daughter about things like souls, supreme souls, ethics, and courage, Chauhan's writing takes us into a world many women and men of a particular generation are living through right now, but have somehow lacked an adequate literary or cinematic reflection for, at least one so rich and compelling. It's the story of my generation as it enters middle age and parenthood, and realizes suddenly that the world in which we have to bring up our children is incredibly different from the world our parents seemingly took for granted when we were children. Though Chauhan doesn't theorize it that way, students of culture and religion will see an incredible, humbling, worrisome and still hopeful phenomenon in her work: the emergence of a careful, critical self-consciousness in matters of religiosity as well as parenting.

Simply put, I do not recall my parents reflecting on religious traditions or practices the way my generation has started to do, with friends, elders, and most of all with children who ask far more questions than perhaps what we even did. I do not know if the Hinduism my parents lived changed from their parents' version of it as much as how it has between my parents' time and mine. It will no doubt change even more by the time our children's generation grows up, mostly, I hope for the better, and the signs of that are in evidence in Chauhan's account. It does not suffice for parents to insist on dogmatic definitions or rituals any more, and religiosity becomes more of an intergenerational exploration of meaning and value. The ideas, witty remarks, and most of all the very contemporary idioms of expression for age-old metaphysical concepts make this book a pleasure to reflect on. As a diasporic child, Chauhan's daughter naturally knows all about passports and visa stickers, but what things like these mean in this book will, to use more of a psychedelic expression than an Indian ashram one, blow one's mind.

Chauhan's focus is mostly on her self, as a parent, friend, and a student-member of one of India's more contemporary spiritual movements. She is funny, honest, and somehow self-deprecating and confident at the same time. We find, in the best manner of a contemporary global memoir, references not only to her own beloved Master, but to a range of other influential spiritual figures well known in the West as well. What makes the book vivid is also the sense of place that figures so much in the writing; Chauhan's childhood in the hills of Shimla, the urban anonymity of modern China, a trek on an isolated span on the Great Wall, and most of all, her memories of her college days in the proximity of her Master in the ashram. In parts, Love, Stickers and Other Matters of the Soul feels like a spiritual travelogue, though it is contemporary placelessness-a North Indian hill woman from a south Indian plains college now in China with a young daughter-- rather than a litany of places, that weaves through the narrative.

Chauhan's fast-talking and funny-profound voice made me think this is how it might have been if Eat, Pray, Love had graduated to something called Love, Question, Parent - crossculturally at that. While Indian readers will see themselves in her narrative of modern parenting, far different especially from the experiences of those with traditional mothers who did not work, global readers will find in it a depth and complexity that at least some recent purported spiritual travelogues on India have clearly failed to engage--a sorry low that was looming in Indian Writing in English ever since Karma Cola left a whole generation of Indian writers afraid to speak accurately about their own thriving, vibrant and ever-changing cultures of spirituality. Visa, Stickers, and Other Matters of the Soul, kicks the karma cola can out, hopefully, right out of the alleyway of South Asian literature. As she writes:

I began this journey questioning whether my daughter needed religion. Ironically, raising Kyra has made me grow in many ways, including in the understanding that religion, with all its ills and shortcomings, remains the most powerful individual and social tool available to us to transform for better, ourselves, and those around us.

My only criticism of the book is on a matter of ethical perception, rather than on the writing itself. For a mindful parent ever worried about how to raise a young daughter, especially in a foreign land with very little help from grandparents and extended family, Chauhan forecloses a wider debate on one important point; the question of whether to view one's children's diet through the lens of desire alone, or to consider the issue of animal right ethics as well. Given her Master's advocacy of vegetarianism, she does debate the issue, but not quite within the same terms as those eloquently and poignantly set up by say, Jonathan Safran Foer. She quotes Swami Vivekananda to argue that being vegetarian without an overall spiritual practice might even be hypocritical. This argument, I found somewhat anachronistic and trite, but that might well be because it does not address the whole picture with the same perceptiveness that many other issues are covered in the book.

The last few chapters of the book move somewhat away from the tight mother-daughter conversations to a vivid and poignant reflection on how one first deals with loss: in Chauhan's case, the passing of her Master in April 2011. I follow her in referring to him as Master here, but it is not difficult to guess his identity. While I did not share as close and intimate a relationship with him as Chauhan did as a student in one of his colleges, I felt a deep sense of sadness, gratitude and renewal too while reading her impressions of those seemingly rudderless days after his passing. Most of all, I was struck by how she made sense of the sharp polarization that arose among his alumni on how to respond to one of the most vicious, one-sided and baseless character attacks made in the history of the Indian media at that time. Undeterred by the admonitions of many of her friends against speaking out, Chauhan organized a petition campaign signed by many former students to assert a deeply felt and known truth: that of his innocence. Recalling an anecdote of Sri Ramakrishna's in which a meek devotee is urged to speak up and a quick-tempered one to mellow down, Chauhan sees her bold move as part of what her Master had done which was quite remarkable in India at that time: he had taught the men in a traditionally male-centric culture gentleness and restraint, but more importantly, he had in his own quiet way, passed on the torch to speak for him, and for the values he stood for, to the women who called him guru and god. I don't know what passport Chauhan now carries, literally, but in the sense of what passport means in this book, I see an eagle on it.