Mujhe kya bura tha marna, agar ek baar hota [What would I have cared about dying if it were only once]
How does one write a travelogue when one wasn’t out to travel in the first place, when one is seeking instead? Indeed there is no contradiction between the two, they can very often co-exist, but perhaps for the first time, there was an overspin put on the simple act of traveling, and the journey must be seen in that context. It was after a very long time that I set out on a journey of the kind I once used to with great regularity. And from the very moment that I boarded my first bus, there was a pleasant feeling of fresh tentativeness, a long-lost excitement slowly blending with the lightness of the air surrounding me. With every passing minute, I could sense what I was getting into. I could recollect moments of ecstasy when something within me was unleashed, something that could not be contained inside, something that had a divine connection, an excess that called out to the larger whole. I could sense within me the completion of a full cycle, a cycle that left me at a distance from the origin. This was a segment of a spiral loop, there was no restoration on offer. There was no calm, no rest available to the soul. I had never been so weak, so torn from within, so reluctant and lethargic, as if struggling with my self-image, memories, and destiny.
At a juncture like that, one negotiates with pre-sociality, an emotion not of being aloof but of being one with what exists around. It is an encounter of the mutest kind, in which people one passes by and sees through need not be people, they might even be pebbles. It is not the encounter however, in the setting I sought I desired for this option though. As I desired for moments when I would carelessly walk to a tea-shop by the roadside and ask for a cup of tea, make small conversation, communicate through disabilities of communication, perhaps mock at language with a scorn that is greeted by the warmest of smiles. The choice I wanted was of inhabiting a universe that makes itself amenable to pre-social, semi-social, auto-social, para-social, modes that escape the clutches of sociality in various intriguing ways. Why, you may ask. Why would I escape the sociality that surrounds me? Perhaps because I needed to go back to the mark from where I would arrive once again to the peak of my run-up. Because amidst that deafening roar that surrounds you, there is a moment when you need to switch yourself off and walk back to your mark, turn and build up the rhythm. In those moments, there is nothing in front, nothing around, no sound, no sight. There is you, the earth beneath your feet that assures you with its firmness, the body every muscle of which slowly responds to your being, as you whisper* past and through all that could take your focus away. One needs the walking back with one’s head down, lost within oneself, to come to terms with the moment gone past. One needs to once again look at the red ball in one’s hands, admire its luster if its new, tightness of its seam holding onto the weathered surface if old. That red ball is all one has. Even when the last one of them have left you to fend for yourself, this one won’t. I boarded the bus to feel the leather in my hands, to talk to the earth I walked, and the air that whistled past me, to flick the sweat off my brow, and look at the world again, with a freshness of insides that only time and solitude can provide for.
It is in this context that I look at traveling. For me, it is a negotiation, between the known and the unknown. To know enough to be able to find your way, and never so much that you don’t allow destiny to intervene, is the trick. For every route you know, there exits one that you should be taking. It could be the same one, but it might very well not be. To always leave that little gap between your bat and pad, to keep the smiling assassin interested, has always been my way. When you walk into a new town as a stranger, you present yourself to destiny and hold its little finger. To have trust in one’s destiny is happiness, to know that one will be taken care of is happiness. Traveling introduces you to happiness that sees no conflict with anxiety, uncertainty, tentativeness, fear, and of course, disappointments. It shows you slowly how it is of extraordinary importance to have within oneself many universes without you residing in anyone of them. It allows you to absorb without displacing, retain without owning, inhabit without being arrested. And to delay the process of meaning-making. As you sits and stares, you are under no obligation to conclude. The moment is there to be relished at ease, and only later to be mad meaning of. It allows you to maintain a little distance from yourself, and distance means dialogue. Which brings me to landscapes…
It is most pertinent in today’s times to ponder about our relationship(s) to landscapes. The urban populations with their and their parents’ surplus income have been devouring landscapes like savage beasts under various heads. It is not just those who are ecologically insensitive, far more ruthless are those who violate in the name of sensitivity. It would be easy to invoke Illich’s brilliant response to them, “To hell with good intentions.” Much more nuanced, but also relevant, would be Herzog’s “The Grizzly Man,” a film that forces you to confront the conceptual limitations of being an intimate outsider. Can you cease to be an outsider because you are sensitive towards the natives? Is there an ethical and compassionate way of being in foreign territory that does not conflict with the journey that it takes towards becoming? And how do you restore yourself? What do you restore? What is the meaning of this cycle going from being the anxious outsider to restoring an insecure, undefined, underexplored self? Can you be yourself as an outsider when you cannot be your ‘self’ within your insides? There is a profound crisis in this slippage but an adorable romantic dream to inhabit someone else’s world, to be in the mountains, and in the forests, without being capable of inhabiting the domain of the self. But of course, a crisis that can be overlooked for the time being. Right now, it is about urban happiness, isolated homestays, folk wisdoms, and desperate photography. I cannot plead entiely innocent of that blame myself. The colonial ethnographer lives on within degenerate post-modern aspirations. We have language after all, we can talk, and explain.
When I set out, I knew I wanted to maintain my distance from this extra-sociality, retain my allergy to building desperate bridges that bridge nothing. We, as subjects, do not only have problems, we also are parts of bigger problems. Sharp and broken pieces of those problems stay within us as we move from one place to another. The pretense of an encounter with the other cushions our wounded insides and subverts the nakedness of a reflexive confrontation with ourselves. It defeats the very purpose of seclusion: to see oneself and one’s deeds to others through a pre-sociality, not blunt them within an extra-sociality that allows one to move on. The point is to acknowledge to oneself what one would not acknowledge in others’ presence. For there is no running away from oneself, something within always catches up. The wounds open every now and then, the lethargy and dishonesty never ceases to disturb. For just as the bowler must feel the power of that tiny red ball in his hands, the batsman must re-assess the position of his off stump. Everything else may be peripheral but to know where one’s off-stump is, is mandatory. There is a stamp of beginning in the dialogue a batsman has with his off-stump, a beginning before everything, a point of time when nothing else matters. Only when one roots oneself and one’s references within that vacuum like universe, can one be prepared for all that follows. As I sat on a big rock watching the big waves hit the bottom of the rock repeatedly, as I saw the two long stretches of beach on both sides, the emptiness around took me to that beginning, that moment which is an instance of pre-sociality, the time before the hands of the clocks started moving. It is this moment that was a moment of exile for Camus, something he also called ‘an invincible summer’. It is what he always carried within as ‘the first man’. It is what I would always carry within me, the mark to which one must return in order to come back. Losing that mark is to lose oneself, one’s reference points. To be adequately social, one must retain this pre-sociality.
However, we must maintain the distinction that this silent encounter between the landscape and man is peculiar in many other ways. You can feel the landscape embrace your being. It approaches you softly as its arms curl around you , fingers running through the hair, at times it sits next to you and talks to you, even listens to you talk if you don’t make a noise. Unlike a lover, it gives itself to you completely, but takes nothing of yours. In that sense, it is an encounter like no other. When you walk away you retain your entire being, plus those kisses behind your neck, the strength of the invincible summer, and much more. But no part of you is left there, you cannot feel the sense of loss that a lover enforces upon you once estranged. While I sat there staring at a kite playing with strong humid winds, a boy interrupted me to ask about my vocation etc. On being told that I was not from around and had come there to visit, he recommended Gokarna, dismissed Kaup, and went on to add, “Yahan kya hai? Bas patthar hai..” I would imagine that the cruel remark on the apparent lifelessness of those stunning rocks is not as much about their inert nature as it is about the realization of one’ own inability to deal with the moment of ‘beginning’. The real shift is in the inability to lose a part of oneself only to later fondle with the cavity left within so as to get a grip on what one begins to think as oneself. The lack of that lack throws one down into the uncanny, therefore the discomfort.
As I returned from the blissful confines of a beautiful pre-sociality, everything around seemed infused with vitality. The taste of Rava Fried Bangda and Kingfish had so much more meaning thereafter. The aftertaste, specially that of Kingfish, would remain on the tongue for hours. Thankfully, not everything leaves a bitter aftertaste. And even if it does, the invincible summer can often help one come to terms with it.
*With due credit to the great Michael Holding.
** Preferably, to be read along with two of my previous posts.