Saturday, May 26, 2012

What is the purpose of foreign travel?  Well, it might be (as I assumed in my youth) to view important works of art and architecture in their original setting.  Or it might be to visit the land of one’s ancestors. Yet again, it might be to scope out a pleasant spot for one’s retirement.   Or (to put the matter crassly) it might be just to get laid.

On reflection, though, none of these grounds strikes me as central.  The most important reason is to advance in the understanding of oneself and one’s culture by savoring the contrast.  It is very agreeable to travel to Toronto or London (as I have done several times), but those destinations do not afford the heightened contrast of which I speak.

This challenge is posed in a splendid new film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” which concerns seven elderly English people who have decided to “outsource” themselves to India.  Their reasons are various.  One woman, magisterially incarnated by Judi Dench, finds her first real job there. Another woman, a crotchety medical patient, has gone there for a hip replacement.  An aging Lothario (played with great panache by the aptly named Ronald Pickup) finds his last companion in Carol, a woman of English heritage who has always lived in Udaipur.  A retired high court judge, who is gay, goes there to find his first great love, an Indian man with whom he is finally reunited.

The particular interests of these people are various, but they are all confronted with the challenge of dealing with a radically different culture.  To be sure, their encounters are inflected by the heritage of the British Raj--something Americans need not cope with, at least not directly.

All the same, I found India the most problematic of all the 46 countries I have visited.  This wonderful film helps me to understand this issue better.  I plan to go and see it again.


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