A Traveller’S Experience

It has become customary among the immigrant Indian families to visit home during the weddings and come back with bag full of spices and pickles and memories of marriage.  Our family is no exception to this. During my last trip back from India, an interesting incident took place at the J.F.K Airport with a young American Customs Officer which ultimately resulted in this article. In the process of checking my baggages, he came across a suitcase full of plastic bags filled with powders varying in colors from yellow, green to orange. Some of them had leaked and stained my shirt collar.

Probably being newly posted into the job, naturally he expected a passenger to return with lucrative antique from an ancient land or finest liquor and canned meat from modern country. But this unexpected and unpleasant sight made him wonder at the small mindedness of an Indian. Curiously he bent forward and tried to lift one of the leaking bags when out of sympathy I tried to prevent him from doing so. By then the matter had slipped out of hand and due to the odor of the leaking powder, the young man started releasing a series of sneezes. The people around him started their traditional godly duty of showering the famous American sneeze blessings “God bless you”. But the poor young man could only reciprocate the good nature of his fellow beings with a few more sneezes. By this time, the situation had turned a little tense and his eyes were red, the nose was wet. Being annoyed with me and the powder, he pulled paper napkin from his side-pocket and wiped his nose and cleaned his nostrils with a deep noisy breath assuring the rest of the crowd of resilience and then asked me, “Why on earth did you bring these silly powders from such a distant land, man!”

He was further angered at my silence and continued, “What country you from” I said, “India”. Now a  kind of kidding smile appeared in his eyes and looking down he said, “What you only make babies and powders over there?” Irrelevant blame to my country in the midst of checking could not let me go without proper response. Slowly I put myself together and said to him, ‘My dear man! It is because of this powder, you and me could stand on this spot and talk. It is because of this powder, the land which you are talking at this moment, was once explored’. Moved by the spontaneity of the answer, the young officer first time noticed his Supervisor, a middle – aged man with blond hair standing by his side and enjoying himself the ongoing drama. He then turned and asked his Supervisor, “Ah! What this guy is talking big things about?” His Supervisor now raised himself on his toes, learned forward, took one look at my suitcase and casually said, “It is the spice. Indian spice; don’t you know that?”

Humbled by the mystery of the spice, the young officer asked me the history of the spice. Then we had a friendly discussion which is narrated here.

Interconnectedness of events in the history is such that right from the early days, it fascinated me. From time to time one could observe how a particular commodity appears from obscurity as a deliberate plan of  thought of nature ‘s universal consciousness  to shape the destiny of the earth and its children. It coincides or better  said  that becomes the key element in the  rise of a civilization of a country and sets in a new life style among the subjects which its common masses take for granted and the intellectuals consider as the progress in life. To put a seeker in the proper perspective, we may consider the rise of American civilization and the invention of oil. Prior to that, from the days of the British Empire had its unquenching desire to establish coal bases on the earth. Now  let us take a peep into the earlier time from the days of Babylon up to the days of England. So many civilizations waxed and waned like the waves of the sea. During that time no factor played a greater role than the commerce of India, neh the spice of India. For the sake of this, our mother earth was explored and re explored as early a time even before the coming of Christ. Initially it was the Greeks and the Italians who kept ties with India and established routes via Afghanistan through Khyber and Bolan passes. India would then produce the whole world’s demand of cotton, cloth, jute, indigo, lac, rice, pearls and diamonds. No other country could match the caliber of Indian silk or the fabrics of her wool during that time. Again it was the land of the abundant spices like cardamom, cloves, pepper, nutmeg and mace. It was the land of mass production for that was the only sub-continent blessed with abundance of dedicated laborers who day after day silently toiled and moiled in the fields to meet the consumption of the world like today’s mass production of giant machines and Japanese robots. But unlike these machines they labored with a sense of Karma Yoga to attain liberation from the bondage of “KARMA”.

Whatever was the country, it depended on India for these commodities. Trade followed through two important routes- one through the land via Afghanistan and Persia and the other through the Red Sea. Let me add one important line of history regarding the Red Sea route. Following the conquest of Persia, Alexander the Great called one of his Generals named Niarchus and ordered him to establish a new route to India by Red Sea through the mouth of Indus. That is how later this sea route came into existence. I wonder whether in deliberateness or in ignorance the Western historians keep silent of the fact as to how much civilization of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome depended on Indian commerce. When the Hellenic civilization and the Roman Empire were brought down, then the western markets of Indian commerce went into the hands of Baghdad, and Genoa in Italy. Then came the Turkish civilization and they closed the routes for the Italians to India and the western world of that time plunged into panic like the oil embargo of our times. Immediately, the brave Spaniards set their heart to find a new sea route. They said to themselves, the world is round and we will go around to reach India. They sponsored an adventurous young man by the name Christopher Columbus across the Atlantic. There came the discovery of a new part of the world and the promise land of today- the American continent. But the delusion of Columbus of India was such that whatever land or people he came across, he named them as Indian. So it is surprising to see that the islands of America are known as West India and the aborigines of American continent are known as Indians. When Columbus lost in a new part of earth, Portuguese sponsored Vasco De Gama to find a sea route by doubling Africa.

This new adventure, a new exploration and a new sea route to India-what a transformation it brought to the Western Europe. The fortune of India now smiled on Portugal and there sprang a new civilization. Then came the turn of the French, the Dutch Danes and at last the mighty English. But the last raiders who came in the disguise of shopping under the banner of East India Company took complete possession of the commerce and country. Oh! Almighty what a change! With this great commerce and revenue, a handful of people worth a fistful of land overnight became the mighty emperors of the earth on whose land the ‘sun never sets’. Their way became the code of the cultured men. Their thinking became the knowledge and their language became the tongue of the world.

Today if our European brothers are unwilling to admit these facts, it could be an excusable ignorance, but it is more painful to see our own countrymen failing to study the role of our land in the past history of mankind, knowledge of which alone could prevent us from aping the West blindly.

Today with the appearance of new commodities, newer life styles and the mass productions of America and Japan, the event that took place in the past may not be comprehendible. What the laborers of India can produce in a year, can be produced in a day by the gigantic American machines. Nevertheless, in the cycle of creation when the wheel slowly rotates, newer civilizations will again appear but thoughts of the yester year will transcend the space time and on the surface reflect as newer ideas and progress