To become young fools again

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‘We travel, then, in part just to shake up our complacencies…’ Pico Iyer writes in a reflective and philosophical piece on why we travel. His keen eye on how the experience changes the traveler and the place he travels to, is revealing in a way. In these years that I have re-read the piece, it appears as though I have been graduating from one reason to the other. ‘We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.’ Check and check! At different times in life, both these observations were true of my travels too.

Lately, when I venture out, travel seems driven by a compulsive need to be in a state of movement. The movement, as though, will counter the slowness of inner life. The transitory state, where every place on the itinerary serves as a transit camp, seems appealing. The temporariness of program and of intent brings along a lightness that stands in contrast to the planned and predictable everdayness of home. Plans and precise knowledge of what one will do a month later, and the meetings one will attend three months in the future, for some, stand against the vital nature of life.  Unnerving too. To travel, then, is to resist this. Resist, in a way that doesn’t destroy anything. At best it destroys one’s financial prospects. This resistance is constructive. It is a conduit to that high-pressure frustration (or just fatigue) that some of us are building up in our professional and personal lives. We travel to heal. In this healing, one learns to love all over again. Unlike other experiences, the place that we leave behind, doesn’t always conditions the character of the destination ahead. We learn to cast away, molt fast enough to arrive at the next destination and take it as new, formative experience.

Healing, by tuning-out of the regular, taking time to get back (if one must) and renew oneself, is how I’d describe the deliverance of travel. This, of course, doesn’t apply to all. It is also dubbed as ‘escaping’. I have avoided that word because one doesn’t escape by undertaking an uncertain travel. If anything, this strikes more fear than the familiar spaces of one’s own home, locality and city. If one must see this as an escape, then it sure must be an escape as Santayana describes, observing that ‘the world is too much with us, and we are too much with ourselves’ –

We need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.

In these words, I see an unhinging that Santayana speaks of from the daily (‘into aimlessness’). It is unsettling, as I have experienced, yet empowering. I write this note on travel again (wrote earlier on meaning-making) to record this shift in perspective on travel. In these months, I have come to see its healing potential. Perhaps, the explorers, adventurers, expeditionists, Sufi saints and sadhus who have tramped the vast expanse of this country for aeons have known it all along. On me, it dawns this morning as I sit looking out of the window, awaiting the train to roll past the beautiful Chilika lake on the Eastern coast.

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When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi’s book When Breath Becomes Air is an unsettling read which at the same time leaves the reader with a compelling sense of optimism.  It is a stirring experience of knowing a man’s mind from the frighteningly close distance of his own words, as he prepares himself to meet his end. It certainly doesn’t seem like death. To use that word would be to demean all that Paul strives for since the time his terminal illness is confirmed by medical examinations. It isn’t death. It is a man trying to re-size a life time’s plan into the shortened time that he is given. The book is an account of the short span when every day is lived as a conviction to finish all that one can, instead of a surrender to the inevitable. It is not a fight as the popular versions of experiences with terminal illness go. Paul’s is a preparation and finding satisfaction in what is.

Paul is diagnosed with state IV lung cancer at the age of thirty-six and at a time in his career when he is about to reap the fruits of his long training as a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist. What does a man think in those moments after he is told that he doesn’t have much time to live? When instead, he has lived with a belief that there is a lifetime ahead to work and achieve his dreams? Does he pass away in dejection or makes the best of what he has? If he makes the best possible use of his time, then I wanted to know what does it take to be that hopeful against the hard and cold ceiling of the inevitability of fast approaching death. Paul’s writing answers much of it. In the face of mortality, Paul manages to show remarkable thoughtfulness and compose. From insights into a surgeon’s work to a young man’s quest and aspirations in life and on to a couple’s heartbreaking journey through the illness, the book is an insight into lived experience in situations of life that one tends to not imagine upon oneself.

Here is an intelligent young man who isn’t succumbing to despair but rather manages to see things objectively. From one of his early meeting with his Oncologist, he writes –

I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both noting and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.

Personally, to not despair in the wake of difficult situations has been hard. Perhaps, this makes the book even more important for me at this time in my life.

Again, the following conversation between Paul and his wife is extraordinary, in the face of what they face ahead and the clarity about suffering.

“What are you most afraid or sad about?” she asked me one night as we were lying in bed.

“Leaving you,” I told her.

(…)

“Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?” she asked. “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”

“Wouldn’t that be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.

In face of daily life situations one tends to feel pushed against the wall. Coping with them feels daunting. Reading this book is to know what the extremes can be and that there are people who have responded to such situations in a constructive manner. As the last moments of Paul’s life are described in the epilogue by Paul’s wife, Lucy, one sees a family united in sorrow yet cherishing a life that left behind a certain kind of completeness and contentment that is felt typically when people die in their nineties.

For the importance of this book, I find the reason in Paul’s remark “Words have a longevity I do not.” The final words of the book are for his daughter Cady, who is eight months old when Paul died. He leaves this passage for her and I believe this to be indicative of his attitude towards his illness and mortality. This shall remain a very fine piece on human spirit in the face of insurmountable odds, for me –

There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

That message is simple.

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

As this year draws to a close, I realize that I have spent several months grieving over matters that can never be as soul destroying and hopeless as Paul’s illness. In his writing I find an attitude to work and life that was unknown to me. If I were on as short time as Paul’s, these months I lost doing very little would have been a colossal waste. The book then brings back the importance of time and making the most of it, while has the good fortune of having that time.

Reading Biographies

Reading biographies can be an unsettling feeling. Since school, I have read several biographies – first being Gandhi’s My Experiments With Truth. It has become one of my favourite genre of reading for its deliverance and reflexivity that it comes along with. However, it has taken several years to understand the nature of discomfort, or that unsettling feeling which dawn upon after having read the book. Last evening, as I completed Ruskin Bond’s autobiography Lone Fox Dancing, the discomfort revealed itself. I realized that it is about the sense of time – a fear rather. A life of several decades gets compressed into a few hundred pages which can be read in a matter of hours. This has made me feel uneasy, as though time itself is a blink and biographies demonstrate it to the reader, right there, in his room! Ruskin Bond’s eighty-three years of life glimpsed through in a few hours alters the sense of ‘life’. The pages turns into a ticker tape and one can examine through decades worth of experiences in a fast-forward manner. It drives home the idea of brevity of life, which is where I feel my discomfort lies – that if one isn’t conscious of passing time, it ends all too soon. And consequently, my life until now feels like a blip! Missed in that blink, when I did.

Three years back when I read biographies it was about the events and particulars. I remember writing this after reading Salim Ali’s. It was a fascination for experiences of a  person I admired. I sense a slightly different concern and insight developing in my reading of biographies in later years. Oliver Sacks’ autobiography On the Move was another fascinating life story I read this year. I am glad that he could write this before his death. And equally glad that Ruskin Bond could share his endearing and admirable life story before it got too late.

Recollecting the time he met Billy, which was shortly after his seventy-fifth birthday in 2008, Sacks writes –

It has sometimes seemed to me that I have lived at a certain distance from life. This changed when Billy and I fell in love. As a twenty-year-old, I had fallen in love with Richard Selig; as a twenty-seven-year-old, tantalizingly, with Mel; as a thirty-two-year-old, ambiguously, with Karl; and now (for God’s sake!) I was in my seventy-seventh year.

Over half a century of life distilled in one paragraph. This is a mild shock for someone who hasn’t yet found his own sense of time or view about it.

In his book, Bond too, folds up time – a good fifty years, into a few short sentences which are lovely to read, but tends to leave the reader with ‘Is that all what it is about?’ kind of feeling –

Fifty years in the hills has made a great change for all those comings and goings during my boyhood and youth. It’s good to be in one place for a certain length of time, in order to savour the passing seasons, the changes in the foliage of the hillside, the comings and goings of people, and above all, to watch children grow up.

And here are the most pensive lines from Bond –

As for my writing life, it is a running stream, for there is no limit to the field of my remembrance. Even as this book comes to an end, I am conscious of not having written about important people, important events; but it is a personal history, and it is the ‘unimportant’ people who have made my life worthwhile, as an individual and as a writer.

And both as individual and writer, I have known my limitations, and I think I have done my best with the talents I possess. Sometimes it is good to fail; to lose what you most desire; to come second. And the future is too unpredictable for anxiety.

This is the evening of a long and fairly fulfilling life.

Except this feeling about time, I find biographies to be an important medium of sharing and understanding lives, experiences, possibilities and alternatives that exist in the phenomenal diversity of people around us. Only that I shouldn’t be keeping down every biography feeling that life, after all, is so short.

Is travel writing dead?

Granta Magazine pursued this question with a clutch of writers in Issue 138 on JourneysIn the bookstore last week, I took to a corner and began pouring down the responses. It wasn’t driven by curiosity. Instead, it was to figure out if there is a general perception among the authors (many of whom are noted travel writers) that travel writing is saturated with banality and overdone representations of places which no longer remain far flung in these times.

Travel writing has meant making sense of events for me (as I wrote here earlier). It is to draw and distill an understanding out of the experiences that I have when I leave home. This understanding tends to be about the place as well as the self in the place, as I felt in a post on Paris.  At other points I tried dealing with coloniality and places in post-colonial times, as in Luang Prabang and Tranquebar. It is for these reasons that Granta’s question stood out for me.

Travel pieces have become dry and try hard to sound interesting, often exotic, in my experience. Whereas, unknown and exotic is no longer the position one can afford to write from in these times of cheap air travel and with a flood of medium through which pictures, videos and news from around the world reach us, all the time.

Two views on travel writing are widely held – that its emergence lies in colonial times with the proverbial white man going out into the vast unknown to bring the exotic and ‘other’ back to the readers in the West. The other, that much of the world today has been discovered, seen and hyper-connected for such writing to now find a place among readers interest. What then is the state of travel writing and its future? Pico Iyer maintains his extraordinary equilibrium of views and gets to the future of writing than waste time on critical analysis of the present. The ‘inward’ journey ‘into the realm of silence’ is where a writer should be venturing, he suggests. He makes a case for nuance and personal enquiry. Ending on a philosophical plane which he invariably climbs up from the real, in the course of his writing, he settles the question with this delightful sentence –

‘But that doesn’t mean that travel writing is dead; only that we sometimes are.’

One can see that the old, seasoned hands of travel writing are tempered in their views. Macfarlane reflects that travel writing ceased being a matter of originality. It is about form instead.

The best writers rose to the challenge by seeking not originality of destination, but originality of form.

On the other hand, there are two angry and critical responses to this question from Hoa Nguyen and Rana Dasgupta. And I am with them! They make a compelling case for a shift in the concerns of travel writing as a genre. Nguyen’s piece reminds me of my impressions of modern day Luang Prabang, which align with her sentiment about travelers from the West visiting places in the East –

Do we need more Westerners consuming their way across Vietnam, commenting on local dress, smiles, food and sharing tips on where to get the best deal on bespoke silk skirts?

There is a sense of frustration and anger in Nguyen’s response, and it is compelling. I am again with her when she lands a few punches to that irrelevant and disrespectful narrative of Western gaze, in these questions –

Instead of more consumerism – the buying of experiences, the accumulation og things, of eating the ‘other’ – perhaps writers should name their own environment. What is the shape of your watershed? How is your electricity produced? Where is your water treated?… Homing as a way to place oneself in a constellation of process and being.

It is a compelling argument, which gets to the heart of politics in travel writing which many choose to pretend ignorance too.

Travel writing of the known variety is certainly dead, in my opinion. A writer can no longer be ignorant of his own immediate environment and get to places thousands of miles away to report critically on life, people and societies as they exist in distant places. It only makes for vacuous writing.

Ian Jack’s writing as a foreign correspondent in India has held good example for me to learn from. I have often gone back to his anthology Mofussil Junction for his style and empathetic tone. In response to Granta’s question, I think his thought is laden with wit and insight –

It could be enlightening, for example, to read modern accounts of travels in the Western world by writers from the East; if nothing else, we might then know how it feels to be ironised, condescended to and found morally wanting. Several such books may be in the offing. Some of our own medicine is surely coming our way.

And I completely agree!

It has been an insightful read – these responses to a question as commonplace as state of a genre of writing.

Outside familiar & routine: A cycle ride

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This is about a week spent cycling to Leh from Manali, alone. This distance of 480 kilometers has sent me home with a few lessons. Some obvious – about physical capability, perseverance and comfort with uncertain weather, and some less obvious that I hope to probe with this act of writing. Besides, every journey works on the traveler at many levels. Two for me are at the inner (about the self) and for the want of a better word, outer (the worldview). The cycle ride was a chisel, working slowly on both these parts of me as the journey progressed. The process has been pleasure and pain in parts, just as the terrain itself.

The closest one comes to ‘living in the moment’ is perhaps when the immediate environment poses itself as a challenge to one’s physical ability to negotiate it. The more diminished the physical state is, more sharply focused is the person in trying to get past that moment, without thinking  about anything else. The days spent cycling have been my experience trying to live in the moment – completely occupied with the present and nothing else. In urban life, I see no other way, wherein, I can pull the plug on all the thoughts (and concerns?) about people, events, plans and pursuits that occupy daily life. And do this, without sitting in a dark room or a leafy retreat, eyes shut in meditation. Cycling in the Himalayas was an experience in being in the moment. It was about days lived discrete. No carry over and no drawing from either. Each day squared off as it ended on the highway from Manali to Leh. The ride was about a couple of days lived in solitude, trying to get closer to the sense of being alone that has often been an uncomfortable though in our regular lives. It was a conscious thought to ride alone, self-supported for the requirements of the seven day journey that I was about to make over high mountains and into the Leh.

Dinesen meant to say this about writing – (write a little everyday) ‘without hope and without despair’ and I took that to cycling. On this ride I wanted to ride a little everyday, without hope and without despair.  Although, it turned out to be quite different in the following days of the ride. The weather left a lot to despair. My own thoughts about life and its ongoing affairs, day after day, on those mountain passes, blew like cold headwinds of the passes. Thoughts troubled me. The act of thinking as well. The attempt was to get past the day’s climbs and the distance, to the next shelter on this highway.

First three days were constant rain and wind. As one got higher up from Manali towards Rohtang Pass, the rain increased. First night I slept with a resolve to roll back down to Manali and abandon the ride if it continues to rain. Following morning, I hung out with boys who worked in the clutch of dhabas at Marhi, from Bihar and Jharkhand, waiting for rain to stop and sun to show up. Neither happened. Instead, their repeated questions about whether I head up or down, made me try the first few kilometers towards the pass. Thirty minutes into the ride, the rain picked-up further, and so did the spirit to face it. With that began the uncertain second day of the ride, riding in rain up to Rohtang and beyond it, riding for six hours. Where did that will to continue on that morning come from? I do not know!

Second day ended in Sissu, a small village in Lahaul valley. I am given a room in a homestay as I stood knocking on a door, soaked in rain with a cycle. I change into the only other spare set of clothes and stand by the window looking at the mountain range I pedaled out from all day and to the sound of a high waterfall. Both intimidated me. Slept that night again with a decision to head back, if the rain doesn’t stop. By late night, that decision seemed to be weakening as I sat writing in my notebook in comfort of the house, warm with people of the house and kids completing their homework by the hearth. It continued to rain the next morning, affirming what I heard at Sissu’s tea shop and grocery store, with people discussing the unusual weather this year.  I have believed that no two days are same on the road. Sure enough I thought, as I got out in the rain again and road descended to valley’s floor and followed along the river until Tandi, a village by the confluence of Chandra and Bhaga river. Chandra and Bhaga – lovers, who as the story goes, take a walk around the holy mountains of Lahaul valley, fall in love and embrace where the river meets. The river further down the course gets a new name, Chenab.

Over a small bridge, I continued in the warm morning’s sunlight towards Keylong. An easy ride along the gently rising and sloping valley floor. Third day of the ride and the plan to abandon it was still lurking in the head. Keylong could offer an easier exit with the cycle, on the following day’s bus to Manali, I thought. By late afternoon, I rode into Keylong, having eaten two small snickers bars and nothing else. It wasn’t the ride’s physical demand. I felt it then as I see it now. It was the state of mind. The confusion, the pointlessness of it and the dissatisfaction of the familiar and routine life back in Bangalore. Before I can even think of changing something, I wanted to know whats going on. Keylong passed by in these thoughts. Jispa was up ahead on the road and it didn’t look like much effort to break the journey there. A lone man in one of the restaurants plainly explains that he can’t serve food as it isn’t convenient for him to cook for one person. He suggested that I ride down four kilometers further to Darcha.

The slow chisel of journey worked – I was pushed to Darcha, when instead I wanted to end the day much before that. Darcha was six kilometers ahead. A busy stretch of restaurant-dhabas, and a preferred stop on the highway for lunch by every passing vehicle on this highway, except the bikers who are cared for and served by Jispa’s luxury tents by the riverside. After patiently watching me finish lunch, the dhaba owner insists that I take the climb above and ride twenty kilometers more to Patseo or beyond, which might be closer to the next mountain pass of Baralach La. I didn’t want to. He was happy offering a bed in the dhaba for the night, but insisted that I do, after describing the road and conditions until next stop. Darcha’s settlement sat by the river which flowed through the valley floor. The way to north of Darcha is by negotiating the shadowing mountain with a climb of over 600 meters. What I lacked by the way of team, people along the way filled it. They insisted and I got out. Who are these peple? And why do they do this? Every time! Soon enough it began raining as I got on the ascent to Patseo. However, I needed to keep the kind man’s expectations and live up to his words ‘you are riding strong’. These were the first four days of the ride, which took me by surprise. I wasn’t sure of riding in such a weather. All the nights I nursed the intent to abandon. All of the following mornings, I got back on the saddle, pedaling further away from point of start.

Reading about wayfarers and their beliefs, Tibetans say that obstacles in a hard journey, such as hailstones, wind, and unrelenting rains, are the work of demons, anxious to test the sincerity of the pilgrims and eliminate the faint hearted among them. Matthissen wrote about it in The Snow Leopard. In retrospect, days of rain, wind and cold didn’t seem much of a test. Being with oneself was. The silence of long distance, isolation of landscapes and being in one’s own mind were greater tests. Slowest thing in the landscape was the bicycle, making one take only small bits of the distance each day. The patience that it brings along feels transformational after getting to the other side of this journey.

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At Pang, the morning felt as though I was home. The landscape was changing fast. Changthang plateau lay ahead. A five kilometer climb and one would get a straight, ramp of a road on this high altitude space – Moreh Plains. On this morning, there was no one to be seen for several kilometers, except the oil tankers and the herders – yaks and goats. The landscape was dotted with hundreds of yaks and goats making their way in the spaces between the mountains, foraging in the silence of this space. Grim mood of the past days dissolved, much like the snow cover on mountain tops that turned water after the sun came up in Sarchu, on an earlier morning.

A slow ride, at the pace of a bicycle makes for a strikingly different experience on this highway. For one, the rider comes close enough to hundreds of those faces that toil away in this cold, inhospitable region, constructing roads. Under the hoods of the jackets are faces of teenage boys and men in early twenties, with skin cracked in cold wind. Some of them appeared strikingly young to undertake this hard labour. In the many accounts of rides and travel on this road, I do not recall reading about these workers, almost clawing away the hill sides, as far as the requirement of the road takes them. From working on very high passes to dark and cold gorges, these workers from Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa and other poverty stricken states, contribute an unimaginable amount of hard labour. On broken stretches of the road, we look at each other, as though a video tape set on slow-motion, as they take a moment to look up. The hammers continue to pound the hill sides, day after day, as long as the weather allows them to and India’s strategic interests requires them to.

The highest pass on the route – Tanglang La, lay ahead the sixth day. I can now affirm that in a good spirit and mental state no pass is high enough to scale. The defeatist spirit of first few days no longer prevailed. I was beyond the point of no return. Although, the delirium experienced in cycling up to this pass felt like I was a full two steps beyond my physical ability. Not sure of my control on the cycle, I rode closer to the right side to avoid rolling off the road into the valley unconsciously. Three hours of inching closer to the pass, the pass appeared plainly in sight and soon enough under the feet. I stood there in the cold wind, snow flakes falling on the jacket, trying to soak it in – the arrival at this place. However, it felt plain. Only a small realization about time and effort. Make the effort, however small and given enough time, one is over the highest of the passes.

From there on to Leh was a massive incline that I was thrilled to experience. One barrels down the road as though a darting falcon. I remembered with a wide grin, what a tour guide at Sissu said on the rainy evening when I stood dejected looking at the map. He mentioned that Tanglang La is as far as I need to make an effort and that after that it is no longer a man. It is a bullet shot from the pass to Leh. Almost 50 kilometers of blissful downhill ride awaits a cyclist from Tanglang La pass. It reminded me of the thrill coming down from Nandi Hill long years back, in Bangalore.

As I try to figure how to close this piece, I flip through my notebook for entries from every day of the ride. I notice that the pages only speak about terrain, weather, landscapes, people, hosts at several places and the sense of loneliness, solitude, intimidation experienced as well as the occasions when I sat eyes brimming over, trying to figure the road ahead through those teary eyes. None of these have been familiar and routine for me.

Arriving in Leh, the following day I shopped for books. I was hungry for words. Matthissen’s The Snow Leopard is perhaps what life wanted to throw at me. It is an account of his journey into Nepal’s Dolpo region with biologist George Shaller. What are the odds that he speaks of his inner journey to me, as soon as I finish mine. In a story written by a traveler in medieval era that he mentions, the concluding line is the following and which fits my little journey too –

‘One plods along in a state of amazement, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping.’

 

 

Reading Pirsig on road trips

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Ooty. August, 2013

It was a ride to Ooty in the monsoon of 2013. Being no good with dates, the ride registers a clear memory because Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) by Pirsig was in the bag. At the breakfast table, hundred kilometers down on the road to Mysore, ZAMM was making partial sense. Details and descriptions of the road, landscapes and the bike were identifiable. The thoughtful bits didn’t quite register with the same intensity as in later years when its pages were sought in moments when one wanted to feel enthusiastic about road trips all over again. For someone reading this classic in India it wasn’t a kulturbarer as Pirsig described in the book’s afterword. It was partly about biking and the rest appeared to be about the lives we live and the character of these lived lives. The words “strange and beautiful” were stuck in mind from a NYT review about ZAMM when the buying decision was made. Years later and at a time when I hear the news of author passing away, it feels glad to have come across this book. Beyond the culturally specific notes on life in America, the human condition and people coping with it is perhaps a worldwide phenomenon now, at least in the cities.

This morning when Prisig’s obituary came up, the only mental picture that flashed was a highway, breakfast table with a plate of idlis and coffee, ZAMM in hand, hurriedly getting past two pages to get back on the road. There was a pillion rider and it must be left at saying that those rides were good together.

Bandipur’s forest was bursting with green with the rain as it has every year that I have rode on its narrow roads. On the hills beyond, Ooty appeared cloaked in clouds. That must be the best appearance of this hill town of ruthlessly gashed hill sides to fit in yet another hotel. Coonoor’s YMCA had no guests staying in. That large bedroom on the first floor was almost a time travel. On a small table by the wall, by the evening’s descending cold a diary entry remembering the day’s ride was made.

Pirsig was along on that ride. Understanding what he wanted to convey in ZAMM was a progressive discovery. Some more insights flowed in even as the obituary came in today. It is remarkable that the man took that ride with his son, to square off the events that had occupied his life at that time. I haven’t known of many who reconciled things in life by taking the highway (before it was made fashionable by Bollywood) and returning home with such words and reflection.

There is a section in the book where he writes of teaching. It was easy to relate to. That year, I was about to begin teaching at Poorna. He speaks of experiments that the teacher does with his class, where through assignments on writing the students and he (as a teacher) both figure some important lessons – in seeing and what schools teach.

He writes:

As a result of his experiments he concluded that imitation was a real evil that had to be broken before real rhetoric teaching could begin. This imitation seemed to be an external compulsion. Little children didn’t have it. It seemed to come later on, possibly as a result of school itself.

That sounded right, and the more he thought about it the more right it sounded. Schools teach you to imitate. If you don’t imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade. Here, in college, it was more sophisticated, of course; you were supposed to imitate the teacher such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with your own. That got you A’s. Originality on the other hand could get you anything – from A to F. The whole grading system cautioned against it.

These lines are striking in their relevance to teaching and grading that we do in our school. At the same time, it also makes a teacher cautious about these biases creeping in.

However, it was the metaphor of motorcycle took a long time to hit home –

“The motorcycle is mainly a mental phenomenon. People who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this.”

Pirsig’s writing appealed to the traveler within and still does. May be it is that zeal with which he writes that is sort of enviable. Or may be about riding and living with this brief sense of being free to ride, take whimsical detours, enjoy the sense of arriving in new places and call it a day when it feels like.

 

Written word in our times

This morning, I read a very tender story – of a woman named Lois who fell in love with Kerouac (story via Brain Pickings). Their relationship continued on and off for several years. After several years, when Lois was under depression and grief from losing her mother, Kerouac turns up at her doorstep only to play a song. He had walked five miles, after a long journey.

Lois penned this poem on what she lived that night when Kerouac turned up and played a song for her, spent time with her and perhaps left. The poem is called Universe – One Song

UNIVERSE — ONE SONG
a letter to you Mr. Kerouac

how my mind was winter swept
bumped the spring time bud
o my god it could be quick
tho i will not attend —

in the middle of the night
my father answered the door
with great annoyance
i followed

you were there with tears in your eyes
you had walked five miles
with a heavy reel-to-reel
tape recorder on your back

you said
“i brought
St. Matthew’s Passion for you to hear
so you won’t commit suicide”

you had walked five miles
in the middle of that long dark night
to bring me your passion —

how my mind was winter swept
bumped the spring time bud —

i am still here Ti Jean
but wonder where you are on cold starry nights
my eyes as ever, tear bright!

For those who value words, this is a moving gesture. I wonder if everyone who receives words as an expression of a moment spent together value it the same. At least, if not value, shouldn’t people not try to trade it away as though something shameful was written which must be known to rest of the world? It is appalling to see books and newspaper articles emerging from letters that were at some point too personal for individuals involved. Yet, either one of them or someone else grabs them and lays bare what was meant for only the two involved – sender and receiver. It is of course a different matter when he sender himself permits the use. So, I haven’t been an admirer of biographical accounts that rest on some ‘rare’ letters as one of them on Lady Mountbatten and Pandit Nehru which was published some years back.

On another front, it is crushing to see how in relationships, during estrangement, some people end up sharing letters (with others or make public) which were meant for them as individuals, only as an act of revealing something detestable. Why were those words not detestable when received? For all that one can do and must do, at least some dignity and respect to words that bring the writer’s truest self to the receiver, must be accorded.

I went on this tangent thinking about how people around me value words. There is this tendency to read what a ‘famous’ author writes and an effort to remember those to be later used in their own arguments. Yet, when someone else, not famous, nowhere near it in fact, writes something, it is not even granted the basic minimum dignity.

In these times, written words matter. They have mattered and perhaps will matter even more with the onslaught of communication technologies which favour a virtual presence and dispenses with real human interactions – the touch, the presence and the shared sense of the moment spent.

 

Travel and meaning-making

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The following lines were written in July, 2016 as I took the road from India into Nepal’s capital. They remained frozen in their state of incompleteness for months until this morning when I find myself taking the same direction, if not the road. Meaning making from travels has always taken this disorderly fashion – lines retrieved from the past and recast with a new experience in another time.

July 13, 2016

The rains have set in. On the road from Narayangad where I first cross Gandaki river, to northern hills beyond which lies Kathmandu, the traffic is too heavy for the double carriageway. Long queues of trucks lie ahead for over 200 kilometers. To those interested in knowing what cross border trade looks like, need only to get on this road from India to Nepal. Almost all necessary goods – cement, steel, fertilizer, heavy machinery, sugar, LPG, petroleum etc, are hauled up these hills into Kathmandu and beyond. 8 on 10 vehicles on this highway are trucks. I have crossed overland from India through the Sunauli border.

This morning I am headed to Kathmandu again. In transit, it felt appropriate to dig out that abandoned note from last monsoon. Appropriate, because there does seem to be a sense of continuity. The city in the mind’s eye will resume from where I left it last June. Thamel has always looked as though someone pressed the play button after a pause – always in motion, stopping only if you blink. It has felt this way in every visit since the first. The unique play of events, experiences and memories is why I travel. To live this! This process in its iterations makes for an enriching way of life.

In a travel anthology, the publisher’s preface said – ‘I hope some of them, and their stories come to haunt you, just as do some people whom you meet on the road, even briefly, and who then go on to become the shades of your “memory palace”‘. I find myself walking this memory palace every time I have left home for a place unknown or known. Here is an instance where a little incident from Nepal gets stuck in the head, to replay in a completely unexpected and unrelated place.

October 19, 2016, Oslo : 

On a cold October morning even as the bag got identified, searched and the unopened El Dorado sauce bottle retrieved – to be taken away and dumped into a bin which probably the airport security guys return to during their snack time, I knew that the woman from the train to Gorakhpur will come back to us. She had lodged in the memory in ways I couldn’t tell its future appearance. She sold gooseberries – soaked in brine, in the train and as she approached us, asked if we had some pickle to share with her. Never had a stranger ever walk up and ask for pickle in a whisper. It was unusual. We laughed but shared much of what we had left from our two days of journey to Kathmandu. And all along this woman was remembered for her peculiar need for pickle for her lunch and for her manner of asking in a hushed voice. We joked that it is probably our turn to ask people for pickle now with our large bottle of sauce was confiscated. 

I figure that these are the experiences I travel for. To gather them and let the mind curate them in its sometimes conscious and other times unconscious ways. Pico Iyer in his piece Why We Travel opens with this elegant burst of a sentiment as though overcome and brimming with the urge to make meaning out of the extensive journeys he has made until that point in time –

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.

This morning as I prepare to arrive in Kathmandu I am reminiscing about the journeys taken and I find myself compellingly in line with the idea of ‘learning more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate’. The abandoned notes on Nepal will be completed not in retrospective but with the experiences of the re-visit. And meaning-making continues this way.

Mumbai in 42 kilometers

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CST, Mumbai (Image: Eraserheaded)

Last week at SCMM, I figured that a 42 kilometer loop around a city is quite an unusual way of experiencing it. May be that explains increasing popularity of running tours in Europe. A run around the city is much like our old town halwai offering generous bits of the assortment of sweets on display before one buys any.

With Mumbai, it was also a re-look at the city. It has showed up annually in my life ever since I stepped out of school. I have taken bits of of it on every visit and looked forward to the next visit without making an effort to know when. This year’s Mumbai was different. I was going past the same places that I have gone past earlier. The difference this time was running through these spaces, floating along with a stream of runners. The rhythm of a run, places gliding by, changing soundscapes, changing landscapes… all of these together have a rather unique effect on the visitor. It isn’t quite an immersion into a single site. Rather, it is a swim through the landscape. The effect is that of a visitor experiencing a closeness that develops spontaneously with someone, in first meet.

I’ve stood by CST, starting point of the marathon, several other times as a just arrived traveler, as a purposeful visitor, as an idler… but never under a pre-dawn darkness which is about to turn deep blue of the morning with an intent to just run around. The monument in those hours, void of its daily throng of people, was much like an artist in a completely different role than what the audience has seen her in, all these years. I couldn’t have imagined the magnificent CST building without people milling all over and this not because the city has shut down due to a terror threat, but for a different reason – when the city lets a whole lot of people see it, up close, and let them experience it on foot.

A runner in this country is somewhat privileged to be able to travel to different cities only to run and pay registration fee. If one is able to afford it, it offers a completely different and unique peep into the city. This isn’t a call for any sort of consciousness or action but a plain observation that it was upsetting to see children with huge sacks going after every single plastic bottle thrown by runners on the roads. There were easily a hundred of them who, oblivious to the event and people around them, kept their eyes on these plastic bottles and were out to collect as many as they could manage. That would be the day’s haul and perhaps a decent amount of money than other days when sold. At the same time another group of children were experiencing it differently – The Scindia School Band played from a stand. That was a lovely sight! The children showing up and playing for the runners.  The realities are stark – of the runners and of these children and of the worlds that the several pickets of policemen there on duty inhabit. Each of these overlap with the other’s only by virtue of their need or call of duty. Nothing else. I am not sure how these city marathons go in developed countries of the world. But in a place like India with its very wide spectrum of social and economic status of people, it can be a bit unsettling. Perhaps, this comes out best to a visitor when she comes attends an event like this.

At the same time there are several appealing aspects about it. SCMM is a huge fund raising event for social causes of a wide variety. The energy and enthusiasm among the people makes one feel quite good about being in the city and about the collective spirit of oneness. Even the diversity of people and groups seen on and off the course is remarkable.

My favorite part was to run on the Worli Sea link. There was something surreal about being on it and watch the steel ropes glide, one by one,  a little above the eye level. Modern structures as these are seldom seen on foot and at such pace. It isn’t a commonplace experience in India to be able to run right in the middle lane of a vast mega structure as this and take plentiful looks at the city’s skyline on both sides. It is as though this was an opportunity to come up close and know the spaces taking all the time that one wants. This aspect is quite distinct in urban runs and even more in large metropolises as Mumbai.

Amidst all this, I realized I was also doing a faster pace than my last run. I wanted to shave off some time from the Iceland run. Until halfway point, I was sure doing better and confident about finishing it well. It was a little surprising how I registered everything happening around and be mindful of the pace too. I can usually do either of the two -run or look around. Look around as I run, was new!

A couple of known faces passed by. Some were sure on their way to achieve a personal best timing. Meanwhile, I was bonking out. I hit the wall by 33rd km. Pace slowed. Shoulders drooped. The ones I tailed took off and were speeding to the finish line. And I was experiencing Marine Drive at a much slower pace than what I started with. There were kids reaching out for the strewn plastic bottles. There were policemen trying to mind them. The runners were all pushing themselves to the finish line. Meanwhile, there was an anticipation in the crowds which waited for the elite runners to run past, much like my brother and I used to wait by the small railway station in our town to watch a superfast train run through our little town leaving us in a storm of catering litter. Anytime now, the air suggested! There was this stepping in and out of the door that connected the chambers of past and present, which happens with me in almost every run. This was similar.

Running the 42 at SCMM wasn’t difficult. Keeping a faster pace, was. At the sight of the clock hung at the finish line, I started racing the seconds. Even before stepping on it, I was checking how much better than the last. The idiot inside overpowers ofern! SCMM course took 3 hrs 43, 15 mins less than Iceland’s. But a wholly different trip looking at Mumbai all over again while I was about to hit a personal best timing.

A day before the run, at Kitabkhaana, I searched for authors from the city writing about the city. Feels good to have come across an endearing volume of writing by Adil Jussawalla, edited by Jerry Pinto – Maps for a Mortal Moon. I knew that Jussawalla was a good friend of A K Mehrotra.  So this was also about discovering friends of a writer I admired. This morning’s reading from the book was a trigger to recollect my connection with Mumbai during the SCMM trip. The city lives in the heart of those who spent a lifetime here or have come to form an undying bond with the city because they came of age here, or found a career, or love or self or whatever. It is hard not to admire the city and its several cultural creeks as much as the geographical ones. Jussawalla writes about two writers who are pining for their Bombay in their time, which I think I am not quite capable of feeling about a city but several cities. Until next time, I too remain homesick and eager.

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“Six Authors in Search of a Reader”, Adil Jussawalla

 

 

Roundup 2016

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At the end of 2015, I wrote about the unusual solitude I experienced that year. The Walden Pond spirit of that year dissipated in the activity of work, school, university and travel with 2016’s – the year soon filled with people, places and activities. It feels remarkable how one set of days can be very different from another even though not much might have changed in the immediate environment that one lives in. Obvious though, to some. But this obviousness isn’t quite the same to those arriving at it via a process of gradual discovery propelled by the course of life. The change it appears lay in mind and spirit helped a little with a good spell at work which pushes the worries of making a living off the table.

It has certainly been the best for running – finished four marathons and managed to complete my first 50 km ultra run. I hope to do at least one 100 kilometer ultra this year. Pushing it towards La Ultra 111 would be easier later. Cycling suffered tremendously, though. The only continuous bout of 40-45 kilometers cycling every evening was during the few weeks in Oslo. Back in Bangalore, I was clocking double this distance everyday on motorbike. The year almost had an even tenor with days spent equally at school, university and at work. And then the remaining outdoors which included over four weeks of time in Nepal. This year I also read more than the previous. If there was any semblance of balance (a balance that I’d like) in daily living, 2016 was it.

It has been an immensely instructive year. Of these, I think the following are to stay as a pursuit hereon,

  1. Being with people unlike myself: The trouble with earlier years has been that I spent time hanging out, meeting and working with people who were a lot like me. This grouping of likes happens in a natural way I suppose. I learnt to be conscious of it and move out of such groups which sometimes tend to become echo chambers. I am enriched a lot more from knowing people with different vocations and interests than mine. Associating with diverse range of people has helped immensely in my learning and outlook. Related to this is an insightful book that I read in December was Oliver Sacks’ autobiography On the Move. He lived an extraordinary life as a roadie, one time record holder in weightlifting, a neurologist by profession and an amazingly prolific writer.
  2. Realization that mental health is an extremely important aspect of life: State of mind has a tremendous bearing on day to day activities as well as one’s zeal for life. I wouldn’t have known this. It came to me in course of last year when I saw my own spirit fluctuating through weeks and later with a couple of individuals at Poorna. It was immensely revealing. A completely able body can be rendered useless with a mind that isn’t up to it. This year and further, it is a resolve to pay much greater attention to mental health of others (if I can help it) and to keep a good, vigorous and healthy state of mind myself. This reminds me of one of the most interesting books that I read last year – “Mind Readings” – a collection of essays about writers’ journeys through mental states. This realization was particularly stronger with a kid in school whom I taught for two years (and with whom I failed in my feeble abilities as a teacher) and couldn’t help with how he felt in school every day that he was being forced through the educational system and exams. And then watching Lars and the Real Girlan outstanding film on human condition and the lives that some live.
  3. Keep pushing myself: I feel more convinced about it than ever before. I reached the physical edge of it during CTM’s last eight kilometers of the fifty that I was running on that hot morning in Chennai. Never felt so exhausted yet not wanting to give it up. That experience has been subtly shaping me since then, I realized.

The thing with lists is that they develop fast and turn banal soon after the third point. Most of the other takeaways from the previous year are likely to fall in one of three above. So, I’d rather keep it at this.

The post is four days late. I had been in the practice of writing this on new year’s eve. But this is another break this year – impulsiveness over predictability. Took an impulsive bike ride to Madurai to visit friends from APU days and spend time chaffing around. As years get added to life I hope this impulsiveness maintains itself. Thurber wrote, “He (E B White) has steadfastly refused to learn to play bridge or take out life insurance.” I wish that such a spirit of adventurism and refusal to seek insurance against what life throws on the way stays with me too.

Bonne année everyone!