Karma Cola is a hilarious, if troubling, set of vignettes of the backpacker-ashram-hippy-trail India of the 1970s. But, unlike much writing about westerners, “spiritual tourists”, attracted by what they see as the peace-and-love laid-back ethos of India, Karma Cola is written from an Indian perspective, which pin-points far more effectively than most western writing the sham of it all. Mehta focuses specifically on those young Americans, Germans, Brits, Australians (and so on) “who traveled to India in the belief that they would find holy men able to free them from the boredom and despair of an increasingly material world.” (p. ix). Do they find it? Or is one kind of emptiness merely replace by another?
The naivete and arrogance of the travellers attempting to find enlightenment is astutely observed by Mehta. Much of the time the travellers damn themselves, and little commentary from Mehta is needed:
“’We discovered these places, Afghanistan, Nepal, Goa. When we arrived everybody loved us. Now the whole damn world is on the trail we opened up, and the same people who loved us, fucking hate us. There’s too many of them.’ Her wide gesture took in everyone in the café.
“They’re not in the same class as those of us who got here first.”” (p. 66)
Karma Cola is judgmental, yes, but it is also darkly funny. Mehta discusses Allen Ginsberg’s decision to “take a sabbatical” in Calcutta:
“Calcutta, he announced, is the most liberated city in the world. The people have no hang-ups. They go around naked. It was a characteristically original view. No one before had suggested to the natives that their destitution was a sign of advance. But the Bengali residents of Calcutta love novelty and are predisposed to regard poets of all persuasions with favour.” (p. 69)
Karma Cola was first published in 1979, and I wonder how much things have really changed? Mehta describes an India largely unfamiliar to me. The country is quite a different place now than thirty-plus years ago, as the liberalisation of the economy from the early 1990s altered the landscape in so many ways. I think there still are still travellers who behave the way Mehta describes, but perhaps, nowadays, they’re not in the majority.