Age, Travel, Life & some Steinbeck

Road, Vembar

The road leading a fishing village on the Coromandel coast, South India

One of the finest pieces I have read lately is this opening by Steinbeck in Travels With Charley. This set me reflecting on affairs in my own life and it coincidentally comes at the time of the year- that date which marks one’s age when I do take a one-eye-pressed look this question of ‘one’s course in life’. I now have a literary parallel and a much refined one at that for the stuff I have felt often. Not that I love thinking about it but as that guy in Finding Forrester says, it is like praying – how does it hurt? Here are the lines which add to my high this day –

When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself.

When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going. This to the practical bum is not difficult. He has a built-in garden of reasons to choose from. Next he must plan his trip in time and space, choose a direction and a destination. And last he must implement the journey. How to go, what to take, how long to stay. This part of the process is invariable and immortal. I set it down only so that newcomers to bumdom, like teen-agers in new-hatched sin, will not think they invented it.

Clearly, this is one of the finest I have read from Steinbeck. Reading this I am also beginning to think of literary analysis as an area of enquiry in sociology. One could also approach it from literature but somehow sociology seems to be a better vantage point to look at literary works. What does work of this variety suggest?

Travels With Charley for me is a reading in human condition – the confusions of a young man. Amazingly, these confusions have remained the same even after fifty years of this work. Fifty years is a good time for nations, politics and society to undergo transformations in a manner that the earlier ideas and practices no longer stand relevant. Take Iran for instance where Grandma’s and Moms had greater social freedoms than the daughters now.

I am taking it as social reader of the world of 1960s. Remarkably, young men still go through the same urge to travel, be ‘someplace else’. And taking the road was a recourse as much as it is now for a ‘wayward man’. Nothing quite appears to have changed in this regard. And I say this as a part time roadie myself. There is this ability in the road to re-calibrate for him- the wayward man, the social order that he seeks to escape. The experiences on the road allows him to engage with this social reality on his own terms and in his own way. He is free to ride into desolate, distant and empty lands if he chooses not to engage with the world for a while or for longer (people ride to Rann of Kutch in Gujarat all the time) and he could as well ride to bustling, packed and hyper energetic towns and cities (Kochi, Dharamsala, Pondicherry)when he feels like having a slice of people and the lives they live. The terms are his own as he is the rider!

Having a good friend who is a roadie as well, I must add that the person in Steinbeck’s piece could as well be a woman. Word for word the piece applies as much to a woman as to man. So no gender bias as I see in this. It can be read either way. Point is gender would not be appropriate to bring in. Roadies are perhaps another sex!

So there… take the road!

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