An ABC of Indian Culture is an authentic interpretation of over 400 Indian concepts and practices
derived from a personal exploration of India over a period of 50 years. ‘Padayatra’ is a journey
on foot and each selected concept and practice is treated as a stepping-stone in a journey to
understanding what India is all about. It is a journey through an Indian envisaged as a vast
globule of mercury, perpetually slithering away from the traveler and expanding on other,
impossible to hold, segments.
The book is a sensitive and sophisticated introduction to India for an intelligent and serious
readership, as well as for the frequent travelers desirous of benefiting from its insightful
perspective. It will also be an invaluable resource for libraries, cultural exchange agencies, and
business orientation courses, especially for those anticipating an extended interaction with
Peggy Holroyde was born in 1924 in England and studied Hindu philosophy and Buddhist
thinking under Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan at Oxford. She traveled all over India, returning
innumerable times, and has lectured on Indian history and cultural attitudes at various teacher
training colleges, police academies and social work conferences. She is also the author of Indian
Music, East Comes West and Social Change amongst Asian Families in England.
The first stepping stone
ABHAYAM, ‘fearless in the sense of moral courage such as Gandhi and Socrates displayed’.
These are the words of an old Indian friend, Purushottam Mavalankar, the very first Indian whom my
family came to know in London long back in I949. As a student of Harold Laski at LSE he was
addressing a large conference of Sixth Form students on World Citizenship and a mutual friend,
David Ennals, later to enter Parliament as a Labour MP and complete his career in the House of
Lords, had roped me in to be one of the group leaders. Our immediate postwar generation were full
of high ideals and dedicated intentions to build a new world. Here was a young Indian speaking
with articulate passion of his new freedom as an Independent India held its collective head high.
He spoke with pride, doubly so as his father, G V Mavalankar was about to take on the
responsibility of steering India’s Westminster-style Parliament as Speaker of the first Lok Sabha
or House of the People.
Purushottam suggested this word as symbolic of the task ahead of me when he considered my
embryonic list of 'sign posts' I had finally assembled to help other travelers along the various
routes into understanding India. Abhayam is a quality Gandhi demanded of all those, who in the
civil disobedience campaigns underwent privations and imprisonment to release Indians from
A massive task to assemble one's own truth about India, each person's truth so different. And
being a devotee of GANESH, with a home in Ahmedabad watched over by many gloriously
carved or intriguingly minute images of this Lord of all Beginnings, Purushottam suggested Abhayam
as taking appropriate pride of place as the very first word, the first indicator into India...
removing obstacles for me in this pathway along the luxuriant but often devious and hidden byways
of its terrain. And how
many tripwires? ...perhaps some triumphs!
This is after all a leisurely personal exploration through thickets and across hidden minefields
where I am only too aware of the foolishness of rushing in where angels fear to tread. To have the
temerity to try and encapsulate Indian culture, to compress what makes India sparkle and dilate as
a dark pupil in the eye of the beholder with that distinctive sense of Indian—ness. what
impertinence as a firangi - a foreigner! Not even Indians can compress India—this conglomerate of
plural identities bulging like a globule of mercury—pushed on one part of the circumference of
truth, it bulges immediately in another gigantic segment. Hundreds of books have been written by
India’s own great scholars, knowledgeable in Sanskrit, and profound in comprehending the symbols
and myths that constantly transform into contemporary relevance, so resilient and constant is the
continuum, the idea of Indian-ness, despite a lack of geopolitical unity many times during at
least 5,000—possibly up to 10,000—years. However, the accumulation of that sense of being part of
a mysterious ’way of life' is more readily understood if one uses the proper term for
Indian-BHARAT(A) pronounced with emphasis on the first syllable, Bhaarat.
'India' is a concept wished on a multitude of diverse peoples by non•Indians, the nation—state
singularity having so possessed the European mind (but only since the I8th century) as the ideal,
not recognising that India’s pluralities have given its civilization such a resilient strength in
the face of all the physical onslaughts it has endured from alien rule, that this seeming lack is
in fact India’s gain. For instance, under the overall direction of the Indira Gandhi National
Centre for the Arts in New Delhi, a major groundbreaking project, running into volumes, is under
way. An august array of India’s scholars are compiling this multi—volumed series, the
Kalatattvakosa (pronounced Kalatattvakosha). Several volumes already in print since I988, their
vision is to explore 250 Sanskrit words as an essential core of the Indian view of life in a
comprehensive series of articles (kala = the arts; tattva = fundamental core or quality inherent
in something; kosa = lexicon or dictionary).
This is the erudite high ground. Its towering peaks dealing with diverse disciplines ranging from
biology, medicine to mathematics and metaphysics stand guard at times over my own ground level of
everyday life, a compendium of over 310 words, sayings, idiosyncrasies, startling events, even
miracles... as overwhelming as GANGA MA in full flood—but that is India!
So Why Try? Why search out the middle ground between the straightforward guidebook
language, the geographic and practical skeleton of a different country and an alien culture and
the scholarly Himalayan tomes, peppered with diacritical marks and kangaroo—hopping between
foot—notes and end-glossaries (enough to give you nausea on an Indian train!). Immediately one is
in difficulties with pronunciation in even attempting such a SADHANA, a
personally-imposed, almost devotional self—discipline (with its characteristic emphasis on the
first syllable = saadhana, a stress which goes against the grain of most European speech). This is
dealt with in a short note immediately after this on how to respond to the exactness of Sanskrit
and its derivative languages which put considerable store on accuracy of sound.
That in itself is several stepping stones along the route, hence the system which worked itself
out because of alphabetical orderings, of marking STEPPING STONES in the text in BOLD CAPITALS
(and to note where fundamentally relevant, their inter-relatedness with other words further along
the route, or, probably forgotten as the padayatra went over the next hill)... and see in this
regard PRANA, SANSKRIT and VAC (pr. vaach).
A Compendium Is Born. In searching out that middle ground I realised that India’s greatest
quality which the most unlikely people recall long after and which draws them back, is the magic
humanity of Indians as well as the heritage embedded in the landscape. So often in guidebooks,
almost of necessity, the psyche and the heart get left out; also the constancy of thought
patterns, signals and symbolic shorthand transmitted by art forms, cultural impulses in the case
of India transmitted through oral disciplines across at least 6,000 years of consistent
development, are not highlighted. I always remember in my initial encounters an ebullient poet,
Hirendranath Chattopadhya, larger-than-life at Delhi’s gatherings Pushing me into a corner at one
of our first BBC receptions, this lively gentleman was not only telling me in his inimitable style
that I must have been born in India in an earlier reincarnation, but with his charming poetic
hyperbole imprinting on my mind this truism:
India responds to those with heart. We can look you straight in the eye and ‘know’ if you are to
be trusted with our truths that are not to be laughed at with the coo! Western eye of total
scientific rationality... Or the superciliousness of some of your memsahibs!
And then he chuckled that infectious giggle I so recall as a mitigating factor to the rightful
stiletto barb of truth! And so an assembly not just of fundamental foundation stones in core
concepts such as DHARMA, KARMA, ARTHA, MAYA, MOKSHA; matters to do with government;
regional roundups of quite arbitrarily chosen areas of India which had special significance for my
family; high philosophy and down to earth attitudes of minds, idioms and idiosyncratic behaviour
such as the simple shaking of the head, the Indian wobble, began to take shape along with miracles
that had come my way.... Not a Dictionary, nor a short, sharp Glossary but a very Indian
narrative, quite uncontrollably so at times took me over—a headache for any editor!
By chance (or was it?) the fact is that during five decades or more in which this 'presence’ swept
into the fabric of my being a curious patterning implanted itself, hidden away at first with no
conscious effort on my part. And yet what more unlikely for someone born Anglo-Saxon as far as I
know to the core, in the heart of Leicestershire, with a staunch Christian mother who instilled
strong Victorian verities into my upbringing along with a conventional Protestant schooling than
to be so captured by an idea that insisted on becoming a reality? Gradually remarkable touches of
serendipity, not all acceptable to my trained rational Western sense of reality, imposed a focus
which took me unawares. There were sudden lurches onto crooked pathways which, part of the Indian
paradox, were sequential logic now I look back bemused by the auspicious nature of the swastika
emblem which had so disturbed me on coming across this symbol of India's logic so soon after my
experiences of Nazi aggression.
The patterning now sends a frisson down the spine with its continuing influence as the last
stepping stones were laid in this text, even to the almost meant-to-be learning curve with Mapin's
editor guiding me over some very dangerous tripwires in harnessing such a volatile substance as
How Then Did All This Come About? Again an unexpected lurch... a chance request by a German
business couple attending a residential orientation course at the Centre for International
Briefing at Farnham Castle in Surrey where I had regularly lectured on the South Asia courses for
I2 years on return from living in India. The patterning was beginning to intrude consciously by
then. I found myself being invited back to Farnham Castle after an initial crucible of fire, yet
another Sixth Form Conference. How to sum up India in six easy lessons? I-low I wished for an ABC
then to pick up the out-of-the way truths of India which are not part of general information, or
too detailed for traditional guide books. But that could have involved 26 separate hours of talk
through the alphabet to get to Z! However, the idea was born in 1964.
Not only groups of British business and governmental agency personnel and their spouses attended
the week-long residential courses before appointments to India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, later
Bangladesh. There were a number of Dutch and German concerns, electronic ventures from Philips and
Century Enka, pioneering factories in Maharashtra as the Indian transistor revolution began
exploding. The continental members of the course appeared to be so well read (in English also)
compared with their British counterparts and much more knowledgeable about Indian philosophy (was
this influence from Max Muller’s era?). They certainly were keen to discuss ideas; aspect British
businesspeople seemed to shy away from. Talking about DHARMA and why Indian workers would
want to open a factory by invoking the blessings of Ganesh or Ganapati were not exactly
urgent topics for what Napoleon derisively called ‘a nation of shopkeepers’! Tough questioning,
however, even put the Indian speakers on their mettle. I went searching for the answers. Being a
residential week-long course there was time to reflect and this process of challenge, a sharp
learning curve, set into a pattern.
Reading the letters from course members ’out there' commenting on their initial reactions to the
sub-continent and their assessments of our introductions, as well as the policy of the course
planners in inviting returned personnel back for their own perspectives was salutary—but
encouraging. That was a true SADHANA, tough, amusing, close to the bonel It was on one of those
occasions before a civilizing dinner, mellowed by a strong gin and tonic in the resonating beamed
Great Hall of the 11th century castle that these knowledgeable Germans suggested I try to pin
India down in an A-Z in two hours flat!
Nothing venture... Nothing do... sprang to attention again deep within the depth of my
mind. It had been a homily, slightly shifted in meaning by the Protestant work ethic of my
adventurous, slightly idiosyncratic mother. It was woven into my childhood upbringing- ABHAYAM. By
the end of the week it was tried out... And AHIMSA... In the first instance I never got
beyond PALIMPSEST, my favorite word in summing up India, a subject for a two-hour long
dissertation on its own, learned from Pandit Nehru's famous book, Discovery of India written in
and out of gaol incarcerations, enforced by my own Anglo—Saxon ancestors, or in third—class rail
compartments travelling from one important Congress Party meeting to another while strengthening
the struggle for freedom and independence. It was compulsory reading in New Delhi in 1954 soon
after arrival in India.
At this particular period of my life, Britain was undergoing alarming challenges. Enoch Powell,
MP for Wolverhampton, had delivered his 'rivers of blood' speech. Tempers were rising. Race riots
exploded. Suddenly many professional people involved with a large increase in the UK of Asian
immigration as well as Ugandan Asian refugees wanted background information. People realised
despite all those centuries of imperial rule how very ignorant they were about Asian cultural
backgrounds when dealing, for instance, educationally with Hindu, Sikh and Muslim children in
increasing numbers in school—or medically with Asian patients, women for instance, who would not,
could not, make eye contact with a doctor, whose children even had to be the interpreters for
parents they should defer to.
That was when EAST COMES WEST: A Background to some Asian Faiths, written for the Community
Relations Commission in London was published in 1973. Working closely with my Indian and Pakistani
colleagues in Yorkshire at the time as editor of this project was yet another dimension in
experiencing village India and people, most especially women unable to write in their own Urdu,
Punjabi, Gujarati, the kind of Indians I had only infrequently met on their home soil, only
fleetingly staying in villages in our many travels through the sub-continent.
Unknown cultural factors became everyday events not only for myself but intimately involving a
very patient husband and children... especially when one of my Asian daughters! a Muslim, say,
would run away with a Sikh boy—or vice-versa. As a result the Quaker Rowntree Trust requested a
study in social change of 50 Asian families, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim. This was written for the Home
Office, supervised by Leeds University where my husband then was pioneering educational
television. I was plunged into yet another level of Indian society and social challenges.
But There Have To Be Beginnings. The patterning had already begun 30 years
earlier—unbeknown to me as a naive English girl plunged unexpectedly into an American culture from
the even flow of my school life until then. A shake-up of the system, as equally startling and
unfamiliar then coming straight out of a very orthodox girl’s school at the age of IZ as India
might be to a visitor nowadays. Our family were rejoining my British naval father in New York,
sent earlier and urgently to help Britain re-arm. This was a result of Roosevelt’s controversial
Lend Lease policy to bolster Britain's severely depleted defences after the Fall of France. Pearl
Harbor was only just three months away.
My formidable headmistress, Dame Emmeline Tanner, knew only of Radcliffe College and had
negotiated my entry based on past exam results—and the fact that I had learned Latin! I knew none
of this, being torn out of school before my final exams by the sudden war-time passage fixed by
the Admiralty. Within weeks I was transferred from Brooklyn to Cambridge, Massachusetts. There I
was to remain for four years until I gained my BA degree in English Literature and Fine Arts in
1945, all our professors and tutors being Harvard to a man because of wartime exigencies.
Serendipity, which has marked my life (my father would have put it down to my rare auspicious
caul, a fine extra membrane which has to be peeled off the face of a new—born at birth and which
is carried, dry as parchment, by superstitious sailors as an amulet against drowning) laid another
personal stepping stone in 1942. I was brought face to face with H N Spalding, an English scholar
deeply interested in Indian faiths, stranded at Harvard because of the war. He and his diminutive
wife had befriended me and some of my Radcliffe friends when he discovered that Dr Annie Besant
and Theosophy sourced in Adyar, a suburb of Madras (now Chennai) had become the unlikely cult
figure of our student circle. It was only later that I learned of his eminence as the benefactor
of the Spalding Chair of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford University, Professor
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan its first incumbent in 1956.
Cocaine and marijuana, the Beatles and canny maharishis on the dollar trail were unknowns in those
innocent student days at Radcliffe. Why Theosophy and Besant at this distance from the 1940s I am
none too sure... certainly Aldous Huxley's concept of a 'perennial philosophy’ was stirring as our
questioning generation searched beyond the constricting views of orthodoxy—’ours is the ONE and
ONLY truth' syndrome. Already known in the USA for her free—thinking radicalism, Besant had been
praised by her close friend George Bernard Shaw as a fellow Fabian socialist and as a remarkable
orator (there not being many women trained in the art). She inspired women to form their first
trade unions, as well as advocating birth control long before its time. I knew none of this in the
land of my birth! No wonder she upset the British establishment of the time and was somewhat of a
heroine in my discovery of American attitudes.
In the USA I had anyway caught a whiff of a different perspective to the British Empire from my
own conservative and patriotic 'service' upbringing, a stirring in the colonies for Independence.
Annie Besant had fought vigorously for Home Rule, a courageous act for a woman born in London
(mainly of Irish descent, however) 1OO years ago. That led to her internment by the British in WWI
and eventually her election as President of the Indian National Congress—which says something for
India's natural bent towards a tolerant inclusiveness to strangers who show empathy, this also
being well before the suffragette movement emerged in Britain.
H N as he came to be known to our Radcliffe group was himself deeply interested in Indian faiths,
but disapproved of hybrid movements such as Theosophy and certainly of suspect figures like Madame
Blavatsky 'who had gone all occult Indian'! Scholar that he was, he was concerned at our own
gullibility. ’Go to the primary sources,' he gently prodded, chuckling in his spare frame. I
clearly remember him exclaiming; ’Throw Annie Besant out of the window!' He thrust into my hands
instead a translation of an Upanishadic text and then the Bhagavad Gita to follow. My mind was
blown. That text, those books have disappeared physically but like a tightly-bound ball of thread,
the slow unwinding had begun, skeins wafting out into the intricate folded tissues of the brain,
interlacing in lateral thinking across the synapses.
And then another skein rolled down into Boston Naval Harbor. I was an 18—year-old sophomore, my
Englishness being prised open by American anti—imperia| attitudes. Gandhi suddenly came into my
sights. I also foolishly thought I could help the war effort by providing hospitality at the
British War Relief Club-an activity my Radcliffe friends were only too keen to share! There I met
my future husband, a very dashing Englishman, every girl's dream, in naval uniform, his destroyer
in for repairs from a collision in the Atlantic. There followed two and a half years wartime
parting adding depth to such a brief haphazard meeting.
My degree in hand as war was ending in Europe, the Admiralty suddenly found a passage for me to
return to England. Within a month Derek and I were married as the atom bombs dropped, my husband
on a shore course having survived being torpedoed in the Arctic Russian convoys... The war was
over. A year later demobilization of service personnel presented a chance to renew disrupted
education. Where to go for Derek, who was considering a degree in History at which he excelled,
American History his concentration?
At this point serendipity played its magic throw of the dice again, my elderly mentor surfaced
unexpectedly after a year incommunicado due to erratic wartime communication. His six—month old
letter re-directed by Radcliffe reached me miraculously. H N was back in Oxford... so it came
about that another stepping stone was quietly put in place. On his advice, my young husband,
released from the Admiralty Signals Division, found himself at Brasenose College in 1946-48, part
of an extraordinary married generation of students, many with babies of the boom, a degree
compressed into high- powered study of two years... impassioned ideals, a charged and changed
world, pent—up yearnings to be rid of the old tired social divisions and narrow, inhibiting
And there, at All Souls College was Radhakrishnan (and Dr E Conze into the bargain, eminent
Buddhist scholar and author of many books on Buddhism) occupying the Spalding Chair... inevitable
therefore that I find myself literally sitting at the foot of this high-browed Tamil Brahmin,
Upanishad-style... but on a 16th century sloping Tudor wooden floor, nothing venture' echoing its
challenge once again. Surrounded as I was with graduate students (to a man) in Philosophy, with H
N's amused encouragement I entered those hallowed corridors of All Souls (all masculine souls be
it understood without question!) having cycled up from Folly Bridge with an 18—month—old son
Michael strapped in his pillion basket, my babysitter husband dragooned next door in Brasenose
College to hold the fort while I considered such subjects as Action and Contemplation, even
writing a dissertation on the same between washing nappies and coping with a husband studying for
exams. Action there was—but little to dilate on contemplation! And who then was to know that with
his degree in hand in 1949 other stepping stones had been invisibly placed, moving ever onwards
from my husband's first appointment as a current affairs producer in the Overseas Service of the
BBC, to 1953-and promotion as BBC Representative to India and Pakistan, never envisaged in all
those years of ’preparing the mind'...
Something I little understood then only to come into sharp focus 4O years later in Australia... a
chance ABC Science broadcast, a discussion between Hubert Alyea, retired Professor of Chemistry at
Princeton University, and the famous crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin (awarded the Nobel Prize for
protein research in 1964 and then President of the Pugwash Conference on nuclear matters). They
were discussing the random nature of knowledge, of reaching the truth, sometimes erratically when
Alyea, talking of Pasteur’s own discoveries, let slip a phrase from the great man: Chance favours
only the prepared mind. So chance it was, already the patterning prepared.
Our family lived in New Delhi, travelling widely all over the subcontinent, mostly by rail and
car. That was India so soon after Independence, a golden era historically, incorruptible
politicians, their personalities honed in integrity on the anvil of imprisonment by my people. I
still remember with the utmost clarity after the 16-day sea journey from Southampton to Bombay by
classic P & O liner (how civilized travel was then!) with Michael, then seven and Caitilin aged
three, the crisp sheets of the khaki canvas bedrolls, a true Australian-style 'swag’ but with the
smell of starched pillow cases, boarding the immaculate coupe on the Frontier Mail of Bombay.
Arriving in the evening at New Delhi railway station, India exploded in a cacophony around us. I
had the strangest feeling however rippling through my being. I had ’come home’... and just before
the beautiful festival of Diwali, November 1953.
Our youngest son Christopher was born a Delhiwallah to return himself later aged 18 for a year’s
stint in voluntary service living very humbly, teaching at Mitraniketan in Kerala under his mentor
and guide, Dr Visvanathan in a Gandhian- style education centre for poor rural and tribal
An accumulation of this life—time pathway and so many recurring questions, my own as well as
others, led me to wish I had been handed in compressed form a set of guidelines written along the
lines suggested by that German couple, a format filling out the basic information of the regular
guide books—but which was human as India so decisively is. A month after my husband died
unexpectedly I decided with valour to defy discretion! ABHAYAMU… a discipline for grieving.
The 55—year—old journey continues, the first stone laid by H N... or was it in my own karma as a
diffident young student just IZ feeling very homesick all of a sudden, torn from all my friends at
school in England, in a strange American culture, and on my own for the very first time, to sink
or swim, parents way down in New York, and sipping coffee in that Brattle Street Café off Harvard
Square with its red gingham cloths, impulsively to go up to this strange Englishman and his wife
on overhearing their accents and, with fearlessness, abhayam, introduce myself as English also! A
very un-English thing to do. To this day, I cogitate upon that hidden impulse which is all of a
piece with this padayatra reaching the last stepping stone. And so it has been a continuing
journey, a resplendent lifetime enhanced and expanded by all of India’s explosive joys, anguished
yearnings, perturbing humanity, perplexing paradoxes! Thus warmed at the edges and in the heart by
that quality of Indian friendship—loving care and overwhelming hospitality, naughty humour and
unexpected miracles, I dare to commence with the first A.
Art & Culture (697)
Emperor & Queen (479)
Mahatma Gandhi (263)
Send as free online greeting card
Email a Friend