Troubador Dancing to an Indian Tune

Released: 28/02/2021

ISBN: 9781800461376

eISBN: 9781800468306

Format: Paperback/eBook

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Dancing to an Indian Tune

An Education in India


Dancing to an Indian Tune; an Education in India tells the story of an English woman’s life-changing experiences as a student of Indian Religion and Philosophy at the Hindu University of Banaras (in Varanasi) between 1963 and 1965. Mary Searle’s decision to take a step into the unknown initially seems to have backfired when people in India express disapproval of her culture, and she struggles to adjust to her new life. The young innocent seeks relief from dry study by exploring the ancient city where she meets renowned holy men, predatory Romeos, a man who was tortured by the British and an eccentric Irish woman. She learns to spin wool, grind millet and watch over cattle in a Gandhian community. Later travels take her to tribal regions of central India, and to Nepal, where she treks with two Sherpas towards the Tibetan border over passes of 17,000 feet, sleeping rough under rock overhangs. Mary sees history being made when she is present at the ceremony for the scattering of Nehru’s ashes. By the time she returns to Britain, her values and habits have changed so much that everything appears alien, demonstrating that so much of what we know is influenced by our perception of our surroundings. 

An intense experience of cross-cultural engagement, perfect for readers looking for a different kind of autobiography and travel narrative. 

My previous books are academic studies related to India and anthropology (see below). This does not mean that my writing is grimly academic all the time. Three of my comic pieces (nothing to do with India) were shortlisted in in the Women in Comedy Festival Comedy Writing Competition in 2017; I perform comic monologues at local venues, and in an earlier phase of my life, broadcast humorous travel pieces on BBC radio, Woman’s Hour. I have also published travel and opinion pieces in the national press.

My grimmer publications include Reversible Sex Roles: the special case of Banaras Sweepers, Pergamon, 1981; Contextualising Caste (ed.), Blackwells, 1994; Religion, Language and Power (ed.), Routledge, 2008.

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Writing Magazine

Dancing to an Indian Tune - Mary Searle-Chatterjee (2021).

Like many others, Mary first went to India looking for philosophical and spiritual enlightenment. However, she did so as a student at an Indian university on a Commonwealth Scholarship in 1963, somewhat before the hippy trail got going. She both enjoyed and suffered the inevitable culture-shock of a Westerner in India, for two full years. Then her grant ran out and she returned to the UK. When she went back to India in 1969 under her own steam – by train and overland, alone - she did so as a qualified anthropologist. It had been the challenge both to her own cultural assumptions and to understand another culture that had interested her the most. She has since made a career as an academic anthropologist and explorer of Indian culture.
However, this shift is not the direct preoccupation of the book. Instead, it’s the enjoyment and the suffering - as well as the adventures - which occupy the pages. Mary was a student at the Benares Hindu University. Benares – or Varanasi - is one of Hinduism’s most important and culturally rich cities, on the banks of the River Ganges, and she had the opportunity to witness some of the major gatherings and rituals of Hindu religion. However, university terms were apparently short and she also had time to travel – to the South, to Bengal and to Kashmir - and even beyond, to Nepal, very nearly to Tibet. However, it’s the people she met along the way that are the main point. She lived with other foreign students in the University Hostel – some western, some from further east, all of whom gave her cause to reflect on her own reactions. Above all it was the Indian friends she made who both invited her into their culture and who questioned hers.
Reading the book brought back to me my own experience of arriving in India in 1979. I also enjoyed and suffered, and made huge friendships with the people among whom I lived. My own culture has never been the same again. I would recommend Dancing to both the general reader and to anthropologists – indeed to all those interested in India, in understanding other cultures and in a good story.

Kevan Bundell

by Kevan Bundell

This memoir of a young English woman’s experiences in the India of the early 1960s combines a pacey narrative with a telling evocation of time and place.

Mary’s choice to do an MA at Benares Hindu University was highly unusual in 1963 and yet in keeping with emerging social currents. Behind the decision was a tangle of influences shared by many of her generation, ranging from childhood dreams of adventure, to a loss of Christian faith, to the notion, imbibed in her case from a left leaning Protestant upbringing, of an individual search for truth. Her decision was made possible by a scholarship provided by the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

Just sixteen years after independence and five years before the Beatles’ much publicised visit, perceptions of each other’s culture, both in India and Britain, were coloured more by memories of the Raj than by general tourism or the Hippy Trail. Benares was both a heartland of conservative Hinduism and a magnet for foreign artists and scholars and Mary paints a vivid, often amusing picture of the mutual misunderstandings, hostility and fascination which marked relationships in the City. Particularly striking in the light of the present, is the freedom which a young woman could enjoy, despite so much up front misogyny. Both she and the young men she encounters come over as rather innocent and distinctly principled. Time and again we see Mary taking what might be seen as foolish risks, putting trust in strangers and accepting companionship from men she meets by chance, and although she is often perceived as strange, she is not punished for it. A salutary reminder that people can rise above limitations of gender and culture.

By Margaret Dickinson

by Margaret Dickinson

Enjoyed the book, easy to read. Having spent time in India recently it was particularly interesting to feel the experience of Mary in the sixties. She was definitely a trailblazer.

Original review:

by NetGalley review

Interesting and easy to read book from an English woman who went to an Indian university in the early 1960's. If you are at all interested in Indian culture, you will enjoy this book. I did. If you enjoy travel books, this one is a bit out of the usual formula, but I think you'll enjoy it as well.

Original review:

by NetGalley review

Mary Searle-Chatterjee

Mary Searle-Chatterjee is a retired Social Anthropologist, author and editor of academic books on India, including Contextualizing Caste. She has also published travel, opinion and humorous features. Her cross-cultural interest has always been combined with exploration of her own social and historical roots. Hence this personal narrative, Dancing to an Indian Tune.

Born in London in 1942, on Empire Day, inspired by the ascent of Everest in 1953, the young innocent dreamed of Tibet. Ten years later she began studying Indian philosophy and religion for two years at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi. A return journey overland alone by public transport in 1969 (the first of three) led to a dramatic change in her life.

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