Travel

No Full Stops in India

Mark Tully

A book published in 1991, and so the best part about it is that it involves a fair amount of time travel. It’s a collection of 10 essays with an introduction and epilogue that could pass off as mini essays too! While all of the essays are commentaries, what adds that little flavour is the author’s own involvement in it, which he somehow manages to balance with a near objective view. The first essay, for instance, involves the marriage of his cook’s daughter, and his experience at the village. But it also is about how communities in villages have been solving their own problems even better than the land’s relatively new legal system. It thus serves as an example of how we, the ‘educated elite’ make a clamour for egalitarianism without understanding the positives of the caste system.

Cultural imperialism is the theme of the next essay and is brought out through the carvings at Mahabalipuram, and the interaction and friction between British artists (sculptors) and their Indian counterparts, whom they rate slightly lesser- as craftsmen. The essay also touches upon Dalit Christians and how they are discriminated against even within the Church.

The Kumbh Mela is what the third essay is about and is a vivid telling of the massive festival. The author spends time with VP Singh’s brother, and meets the various people who ply their trade in this enormous festival – the pandas and later, the akharas who look to recruit people or get donations. In this, there is a note of sarcasm that creeps in occasionally, but Tully still manages to capture the faith driven fervour superbly. He has also correctly predicted the potential rise of communal parties towards the end of the essay.

One of the most interesting essays is the fourth one, especially for my generation which grew up watching Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan! The author reminded me of the impact of this mega serial long before we had reality TV and TRPs – taxi drivers who knocked on the author’s door asking for permission to watch it in his house, cabinet swearing in postponed so everyone could watch it, and so on. He spends 2 days with the Sagars while they’re shooting the Uttararamayan section (owing to public demand) and there Ramanand Sagar tells him how he has handled feminists and also the story of his own life. There is an amusing part about the filming of a scene – Lakshman having biscuits between takes, reusing marigolds for extra takes, and so on.

Operation Black Thunder is a more serious essay which involves covering the whole event live. This was an era before live TV and omnipresent crews and the author tries to delve deeper into how a section of the Sikhs and the Central and State governments reached this point, with interviews of civil servants and military, police personnel.

Colonialism in Calcutta is probably my favourite essay as Tully takes us through the city where Marxism, industries and religion co-exist side by side amidst bare remnants of an earlier era. In between are interesting anecdotes like the Oberoi Hotel’s origins. This happens to be the author’s birthplace and the affection does really come through.

The next one was a surprise since it dealt with a modern day case of Sati and it has never been proved whether it was suicide or murder. The author gets the varying perspectives of the villagers, politicians, civil servants, activists, the extended family, and it does bring out how laws at the end of day, should be made understanding the minds of the people they are made for.

Typhoon in Ahmedabad also surprised me but apparently that’s the name they use for riots! This is an era before Narendra Modi left his indelible mark and does show that riots existed long before him. The poor – both Hindu and Muslim, seem the most affected in the politically motivated result of a nexus between politicians and the underworld. SEWA’s activities also get some space as does Ahmedabad as a city.

A journey into Madhya Pradesh in what was the national vehicle of the time – the Ambassador, makes up the next essay. The destination is the village of an artist who has made it (relatively) big in Bhopal with the help of a government program. Jabalpur, the inconspicuous geographical centre of India, represents eminently the feel of a tier 3 city in the mid-late 80s. This essay also covers ground on tribals, their belief systems and I also found what could be the precursor to Arundhati Roy’s essays about the Narmada.

The last essay is about Digvijay Narain Singh, the politician from Bihar who also happens to be the author’s close friend. He belongs to an era when politicians had a conscience, and while you could say that the author is biased, much of the perspective is reportage – opinions from others. The politician’s relationships with Nehru, Indira Gandhi are well chronicled and throws light on the kind of politician who took the responsibility of being a public servant seriously.

The epilogue is a note on Rajiv Gandhi, and through this, the state of India as a nation. It ends with the news of Rajiv’s death and the author’s perspective on what this means for a nation.

In essence, a wonderful read that gave me insights about a time when I was too young to dwell on things happening around me and events that ultimately affected the present I live in.

Travel Gems

Paul Theroux’s “The Tao of Travel” was a goldmine of perspectives on the subject. While I did write a review on GoodReads, I really didn’t stuff it with quotes as I would have liked. :) But since this is more of a chronicle, I can afford the liberty here.

“You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back.” Paul Theroux

“Travel is flight and pursuit in equal parts.” Paul Theroux

“I think I spend more time thinking about what I don’t want to take with me: assumptions, iPods, cameras, plans, friends, (in most cases) laptops…… expectations.” Pico Iyer

“Unfortunately, the sort of individual who is programmed to ignore personal distress and keep pushing for the top is frequently programmed to disregard signs of grave and imminent danger as well. This forms the nub of a dilemma that every Everest climber eventually coms up against: in order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you’re too driven you’re likely to die.” Jon Krakauer

“My own feeling is that city dwellers invent the cities they dwell in. The great cities are just too big to be comprehended as a whole, so they are invisible, or imaginary, existing mainly in the mind.” Paul Theroux

“Travel is one of the saddest pleasures of life.” Madame de Staël

“I tend to think that happiness is a particular time in a particular place..” Paul Theroux

“It sometimes seems to me that if there is a fundamental quest in travel, it is the search for the unexpected.” Paul Theroux

until next time, wanderlust

From the Kerala diary..

An overcast sky met us at the Alwaye railway station on June 1st. As I sat inside the bus to Kothamangalam, I wondered where the rains would meet us. I saw school kids waiting for their bus, but not as many as I had expected. It has been a tradition in Kerala – on June 1st, when the kids begin their academic year, the rains are the first to welcome them. I remembered umbrellas, raincoats, pants hitched up, new wet notebooks…. But it seemed that things weren’t so anymore. I wasn’t the only one surprised – the Gandhi in Perumbavoor stood open jawed.  We reached our destination, dry. I learned later that most schools were opening on Jun 4th and the rains were scheduled on Jun 5th. On the way back to Cochin that night, starting from a near empty bus stand, I was able to relive the window seat. But I realised that just as the seer had changed, so had the scene.

****************************

There’s a wonderful quote that’s attributed to Bryan White – “We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public.” So when one goes back to places which only hold childhood memories, maybe there’s a natural pull to rewind to a time without that learning, and just let loose. And just like in that age and time, many impulsive, harmless things then become capable of delivering an incredible amount of joy.

******************************

For a long time now, Nedumbassery had been my exit point from Kerala. And so I sat, after a wedding feast, on a journey from there to Palghat and beyond, watching a series of places I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. Familiar landmarks and new sights, and the Western Ghats that stood solidly in the background. Hello, Kuthiran. Dad was surprised I could remember the name of the towns. How many ever roads a man walks down, his first roads remain etched….

The occasion for which we had made the trip saw 3 generations – one that had been born and had spent all their childhood in that village, another (mine) in which the majority of the members had cities that they considered home but had spent many a wonderful vacation there, and a third which was probably making a few memories. There’s that favourite Garden State quote of mine - Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people who miss the same imaginary place. In this version, ‘imaginary place’ is not a place that no longer exists physically, but one that exists in a certain state in  the memories of many people. I wondered when a place would cease to exist at all – is it when it disappears physically, is it when all the people who have memories of the place cease to exist, or is it when the place changes so much that even memories cannot bring it back. You’ll see when you move out it just sort of happens one day and it’s just gone. And you can never get it back. When the seer and the scene let go of each other. And that was why this trip was special – memories had been added, and the disappearing had been delayed.

until next time, seen there, done that :)

Once upon a place…

Travel used to be something I looked forward to – I can still remember train journeys  - from Cochin to Bombay, Chennai to Kolkata and shorter ones, from packed home-cooked food and getting Amar Chitra Katha bought for me at Railway bookstores to bringing books I couldn’t find in railway stores and getting down at stations and sampling local specialty food, the first rides in the Rajdhani and Shatabdi in ’93, from traveling in a group to traveling alone, and from listening to a walkman to listening on a mobile phone, the stories are endless.

Travel then became an escape from the mundane existence with known favourite destinations that would guarantee rejuvenation if only for a few days. Then travel became something I completely avoided, until slowly I began to unravel that mystery in my head, and here.

These days I look forward to my vacations, planning months ahead and carefully choosing destinations. Meticulous planning and research that even D has now gained a knack for. :) The idea of a mass of humanity that vastly differs from me in many ways, and yet connected to me by that sometimes intangible human chord. The sense of possibilities, the immense perspectives that one gathers just by observing a different way of life, and the comforting knowledge that I am not alone in matters of the human condition.

until next time, we’re busy getting Balistic next week :)

The window seat….

…at night. The sight of a person looking into infinity from within the confines of a moving vehicle. What sparked this memory was a single scene from a song in a movie (Malayalam) that I saw recently – Salt N’ Pepper. Not in this song, which is absolute foodpr0n, but in the other melodious song (2:50 – 3:05) You’ll probably not recognise Shwetha Menon. :)

In trains, it works differently for me. The lights are much further away, and flicker, as though desperately trying to get me to imagine their story. In buses, the lights seem much closer, and so are the people outside. Returning from work, knowing they have a night ahead to recoup before they face the daily grind the next day. On their way to meet friends, hoping they’ll have a good time. Rushing home, eager to see a loved one, whom they have missed all day. Stories of hope, stories with a face.

I don’t get to see this these days, but I remember when I was in engineering college and used to return home on weekends. My usual bus dropped me at home by 6, too early for this, but in case I got delayed, I’d be in a plodding bus, half empty, on a route and through a landscape that looked completely different when seen at night. Before I got the Kiney to Goa, the trip from Panjim to Ribandar at night felt just the same. The Mandovi just made it extra special. In my first job, there was a period during which I used to travel daily from Cochin to Paravur, about 20 km away. That was probably the last time I got the window seat in a bus, at night. Ironically, that was also the time I used to go back to an empty home. One of those times, when the spectator had his own story to tell. :)

There is something about the window-seat-at-night experience – romantic/ nostalgic/ wistful that makes it special. A feeling that I was not alone in the crowd. It used to give me a sense of peace, a feeling that everything would be alright.

until next time, the bus stops here.

More on the Uncertainty Principles

Ok, so it’s not long back that I wrote about uncertainty, but in this real time world, I can’t blame myself for thinking of it on a regular basis. I wonder if it also has to do with the macro environment I grew up in – the typical 80s kid in India, whose ‘options’ across the board – from movie heroes to restaurants to soaps and television channels usually boiled down to one. (remember?)

From my own experiences, I know it is possible even now, but it’s a choice and a very difficult one at that, and one that might be difficult to reverse later. An extended trip to Kerala sometime back- home, made me realise that there are those who have made that choice, or rather, have for some reason remained in a lifestyle with minimum choices. Belonging to an earlier generation, but who have refused to let the ever changing world rock their boat. It isn’t that the boat isn’t rocked regularly in their ‘small’ world, but the rocking seems to happen within a framework – as though there is some tacit understanding with the cosmos, a reward for not adding to the cosmos’ complications.

Uncertainty has a permanent live-in arrangement with most of us, and now dictates the relationship so much that we take it as a given. I am not a comfortable partner, but for various reasons, can’t do much about it. I wondered what the future would hold. As is becoming a practice with me, I found interesting perspectives in the book I was reading – ‘The Mammoth Book of Short Science Fiction Novels’.

Asimov’s “Profession” had a world where a person’s station in life, and life itself is dictated by certain tests he undergoes at 2-3 points in life – Reading Day, Education Day and every individual is slotted basis the result of these tests. (not exams, mental examinations which figure out the natural aptitude of the individual’s brain) John Jakes’ “The Sellers of the Dream” has a world where companies sell a ‘fashion’ for a season, which includes physical and mental changes done to an individual and changes his/her personality. But in Larry Niven’s “Flash Crowd”, one of my favourites, I sensed the best summation of our current status “For each human being, there is an optimum ratio between change and stasis. Too little change, he grows bored. Too little stability, he panics and loses his ability to adapt.”

I wonder if this is timeless, and am not too certain that the last sentence on losing the ability to adapt is very encouraging.

until next time, certain tees I can’t live without

A clocked up life

Time has always been one of the most important constructs for me. In most of my actions, it is probably the first parameter kept in mind. The debate on whether it’s a human construct or a dimension that exists anyway is still not resolved in my head. But I still swing more towards a construct because in the words of one Julian Barbour, “Change merely creates an illusion of time, with each individual moment existing in its own right, complete and whole.” He calls these moments ‘nows’ and further postulates that “Time is simply the measure of the space between two separate and unrelated ‘nows.’” Unfortunately, this seems to take us further away from any possibility of navigating that distance beyond the linear flow we experience.

I was reminded of this because of an article I read in TOI and from my own recent experiences. The article was about an Amazonian tribe called Amondawa that had no concept of time. They live in a world of events and had no words for ‘next week’, ‘last year’ etc. Also, no one had an age. Instead, when their position in life changed, they took on a new name!!

For a fortnight in May-June, I was in Kerala, spending most of my time in a hospital waiting room. My entire routine had been changed. Nothing can be more disruptive for a creature of habit, but it did gave me a chance to observe time and my relationship with it. I noticed that time played an intrinsic part in my life because of associations – from mundane things like when I had to take a bath/ go online to things like when I would see D next. The associations make memories and our visions for the future, and those make up our navigation mechanism. If the associations did not exist, time’s importance could be reduced to a minimum, if not completely.

On those starlit nights, it was easy to remember Dr.Manhattan’s  line from Watchmen, though in another context ” I am looking at the stars. They are so far away. And their light takes so long to reach us. All we see of stars are their old photographs.” But for us, it’s a now. So which really is the now -the stars’ now or my now or both? But then again, if not time, what would be my main narrative?

until next time, anti-clock-wise :)

Insignificance

I remember writing this post about 4 years back, with an insight on why I didn’t particularly like to travel. Things have changed since then, and I do travel as much as possible these days. The odd discomfort of viewing masses of humanity still persists, but the reasons are more nuanced.

What reminded of that post was this article that beautifully expressed the discomfort with the title “The Sad, Beautiful Fact that We’re All Going to Miss Almost Everything“. The article uses this in the context of books, films, music, television and art. But I relate it more to places and people. I still remember that the saddest part of leaving Leh was that it was perhaps my only visit to the place and I had not seen everything that had to be seen. In the case of people, the rise of the statusphere (Facebook and Twitter) has only added to the feeling that one is constantly missing something significant.

It is probably going to get worse, unless of course, we manage to do the Matrix-USB type thing of instant information absorption. Even then, it would probably go the way things are headed to these days anyway- consuming without experiencing. The real time challenge of being updated about people would still exist. And perhaps it will end up the way the line goes, “we will increasingly be defined by what we say no to”. But, as the author of the article I linked to, above, notes,

It’s sad, but it’s also … great, really. Imagine if you’d seen everything good, or if you knew about everything good………That would imply that all the cultural value the world has managed to produce since a glob of primordial ooze first picked up a violin is so tiny and insignificant that a single human being can gobble all of it in one lifetime. That would make us failures, I think.

If I had to adapt that to places and people, I could say that the creator might feel insignificant if we could discover all of it in a lifetime. However, the collective advance of humanity is not a complete solace when it comes to the individual’s existential angst. As one of my fave Calvin strips go

until next time, insignificant choices too?

Armchair travel plans

If I discount Pico Iyer, the travelogues of Pankaj Mishra, and Mishi Saran’s Chasing the Monk’s Shadow, I hardly read travel books. But I picked up Rahul Jacob’s ‘Right of Passage’ on a whim (influenced by Pico Iyer’s comment on the jacket) and quite liked it, mostly because its really not just a travelogue. Shall publish a more detailed post on that later.

I was hooked on early enough thanks to the last lines of the preface

Still, there is this final paradox of travel: time and again, these memories come back unbidden with the clarity of something that happened yesterday, long after we have returned to the rhythm of our lives

Later in the book, he compares flight travels with train journeys – that he can remember his first flight journey but the rest are a blur. In contrast, however, he remembers most of his train journeys. Though I’m not really the most frequent of fliers, I can relate to that.

I wonder if its to do with memories of childhood, in which train journeys played a very important part (for me), and that affinity meant that later journeys would also be cataloged better by the brain. Or is it the entire set of experiences – from ‘uniform’ airports to passengers consciously avoiding each other even if it means staring resolutely at the seat in front compared to colorful railway stations that seem to be oozing character to seats facing each other and almost forcing conversations?

I juxtaposed this with cities and their culture too. Recently, when I went to Cochin, and dropped in at its most ‘happening’ mall, I wondered how much of homogeneity was being created by malls. The same brands, almost the same store experiences, familiar multiplex chains that somehow give you an air of familiarity even in an unknown town (not Cochin for me, but otherwise). How much of a city’s original hangouts and culture will survive this  onslaught? In fact, I even told D that I could already see landmarks of my days in Cochin  (local shops famous for some particular item) disappearing and the new ones (like a Nilgiris store) being unfamiliar to me. Would most people prefer familiarity over serendipity? Or would a middle ground be found – carefully packaged serendipity?

Going beyond the things to be seen in a place, every travel experience is also about the  discovery of the character of the place you visit. Will we end up creating a homogeneous world, in our constant quest for convenience, and change travel from the train journeys they should be (opinion) to controlled fancy flights?

Fortunately for this generation, this is perhaps not a reality we’ll live to see, and even in the sunset years we will have our memories and photographs and be thankful that not all journeys need travel.

until next time, planed travel

Destination Nowhere

My reading habits are quite predictable, and as with most of my habits, they become more concrete over a period of time. I pessimistically call it building my own prison walls, and the statement works across contexts. :)

But sometimes I rebel against this. In the case of reading, one of the things I do while shopping is to consciously choose a book that I wouldn’t normally read, or better still, I let D choose a few books. But a better disruption happens during Kerala trips. At D’s parents’ home, I pick up a random book which I normally wouldn’t go anywhere near, and finish it. This time it happened to be Randy Pausch‘s ‘The Last Lecture‘. To give you a quick perspective, the book is based on the last lecture given by Randy Pausch at Carnegie Mellon, and adding to the University’s aim of “what wisdom would you share with the world if it was your last chance?”, he also makes it a message to his young children, since he has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

In many ways, though personal, it’s the typical inspirational book, but several parts interested me. At one level, the author’s penchant for following childhood dreams struck a chord with me, for I have always entertained a notion that our childhood aspirations are instinctive and free of the baggage of later life. In that sense, it’s perhaps closest to what we’re really meant to do. Debatable, but it’s a belief nevertheless. :) The professor also gives perspectives on following dreams, and the roadblocks one might encounter. He believes that ‘brick walls’ are there for a reason – to see if you really want something bad enough.

Later in the trip, we visited Cochin’s contribution to the country’s ever growing mall list – Oberon Mall, to catch a movie at Cinemax – Mammootty’s ‘Best Actor’. The story of a man who while working as a Hindi teacher to fulfill his familial responsibilities, believes that he is destined to be an actor, despite his age and the mocking attitude of several around him. (slight spoiler) In a desperate last ditch attempt, he takes the unintentional advice of a film crew (how Vivek Oberoi landed a role in Company) and becomes part of a street gang to ‘learn’ his role the real way. As is his wont these days, Mammootty excels in a role and the script gives him enough ammunition. Ranjith, playing himself, advises Mammootty’s character, and tells him that if he has decided to become an actor, then actor he will be.

I’m a sucker for cosmic message theories and two random works seemed to be giving me the same message. My problem though, is a step behind. I am yet to find what I really want from life – the one thing that will drive me, the thing I am born to do. Almost everything I do these days is an attempt to crack that question. I am also constantly seeking out Dutch uncles (another term learned from the book) to give me perspectives on brick walls and a kind of laziness I blame myself for.

Funnily, I also received contradictory messages – a random link shared by someone – Osho’s talk on anger and not desiring (so) intensely and later (via Surekha, who now believes that irrespective of destiny, my destination is the Himalayas :D ) Chinmayananda’s talk on the journey being the goal.

As always, this Kerala journey too gave me much food for thought. But Randy Pausch’s poignant line reminds me “Time is all you have. And you may find one day that you have less than you think”

until next time, time tableau