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!

 

 

Truckers on the highway to Akureyri

Iceland: Driving, Running & Northern Lights

Downtown Reykjavik, Iceland in October, 2016

Downtown Reykjavik on an October morning

This place is completely twisted (in an endearing way though). Everything that a traveler sees is almost guaranteed to end with I-have-never-seen-this-before. Its people (Viking idiosyncrasies, music videos, sense of humour), food (Hakarl?), landscapes (any given sight on the island except the airport and the supermarkets) and above all unbelievably difficult to pronounce names, of places mostly. But these are mostly post-trip thoughts. Something completely different got me there – a movie watched on a mid-week afternoon in Bangalore. We were binge-watching, helped by cheap 100 rupee tickets on weekdays at PVR.

Iceland is as close to the Arctic circle as I could get this year.  The island was not on the travel list until Secret Life of Walter Mitty released. Watching Mitty take that downhill on a skateboard, across a stunningly beautiful landscape on a big screen was magical. The landscape looked extraordinary to a mind familiar only with tropical imagery. In retrospect, it feels that I was also in awe of this adaptation of Thurber’s short story into a film and Ben Stiller playing Mitty. The conversion of landscapes from screen to real had to wait two years from that afternoon at the cinema. In October, 2016 my friend and I found ourselves heading to Scandinavia and were to spend several weeks in Oslo. This was Iceland’s call via Scandinavia for us. Thurber was right, beautiful things don’t ask for attention. They just remain lodged in the subconscious space, until one gets to live that beauty and finds oneself right there, witnessing it. We were fanboys traveling to Iceland. Reykjavik’s Oddsson hostel had a few more – a South Korean college kid who got on the plane after watching Mitty. And then a whole pack of instagram-led young travelers who wanted their own instagram album set in Icelandic locales. That the common kitchen overflowed with people and conversations was a sign of backpackers making use of the crashed Icelandic Kroner and easy connectivity from Europe. Those from  US however, were on travel offers from Icelandic air which has been pitching Iceland as the most suitable en-route destination for travelers from US to Europe. And this was working!

Reykjavik harbor area

Reykjavik harbor area

On the eastern highway to Vik

On the eastern highway to Vik

Truckers on the highway to Akureyri

Truckers on the highway to Akureyri (Image: My friend Eraserheaded )

The flat hill top in the distance is Eyjafjallajökull volcano

The flat hill top in the distance is Eyjafjallajökull volcano

Driving

Over the four days in Iceland, we took the highway to Vik, a pretty little town past the beach with black sands, on the eastern highway. We didn’t have a plan for the place. The thrill and anticipation of Iceland week was so much that neither of us knew the lay of the place, places to see or cared about changing money, checking public services etc. The only thing we had booked more than a month in advance – a car to drive around and live our time there at our pace. A motorbike would have been better, but Iceland demands extensive preparation (riding gear, GPS, good bike, breakdown backup etc) before one can take on its weather and the roads. We set out to see the legendary Eyjafjallajökull volcano, not because it brought Europe to a standstill with its eruption in 2010, but that Mitty runs for his next clue on the island even as Eyjafjallajökull  is erupting and the people have vacated the town. Another weather twist – the volcano is covered with an ice cap! It was unlike a volcano. It appeared as a flat hill range with a pretty set of houses nestled by the base. I wondered if this is how Icelandics play dare, by settling down by the base of an active volcano and then drive away as fast as they can in their SUVs when the fireworks begin. The tranquil and country idyll was perfect with baled harvest waiting on the farm, horses grazing in the distance, near empty highway passing by the settlement and the scene rendered even more unbelievable with a waterfall from a hill not too far from the settlement left alone. The sight is hopelessly appealing only to the traveler who can’t believe that the people have all of this for themselves everyday of the year. And a handful of them at that!

A day later we took the highway heading north of Iceland, via western rim of the island, towards Akureyri. However, the weather and time allowed us time to reach up to the peninsula region of Borgarnes about a hundred kilometers from Reykjavik, a busy little town with a population of under 1200. The drive in this direction was as stunning. But this was the arterial highway to northern Iceland and so visibly more traffic than the eastern highway. There was heavy cargo movement on this route and the large trucks had a sense of urgency which felt unusual for Iceland. Were these the Poles driving trucks for Icelandic companies? Probably! One of them almost ate our little red Corolla, showing up on the rear view mirror and staying behind menacingly or may be in his view, patiently. The sun shone bright on the highway after a rainy morning. Spiked tyres that most vehicles here have made a roaring sound on the road. This stayed as the road’s music in my head long after that.

The sense of open space, complete absence of human activity except the presence of the road and the unique combination of weather and geography, struck me the most about Iceland. Snow covered hills, lava plateaus, glaciers, waterfalls, grasslands, sea, active volcanoes, hot springs, rain, strong winds and sunshine and the clear blue skies at times… it all comes together as though nature pitches to a weather symphony and it chose Iceland for its performance.

Running

I ran the Reykjavik Autumn Marathon on October 15th. I trained for the cold weather run by training in Oslo (which had a similar early morning temperature as Iceland) in the preceding two weeks. The week leading up to the marathon went without practice due to work in Budapest. I was unsure about the run and about my performance. And this was also to be my first international run. The participants were mainly from Europe, a few from US and quite a few from running clubs in Iceland. No one from India in the full or the half category, although I did hear about a small Indian community in Iceland.

Arriving in Reykjavik after midnight, on the day before the run was the first mistake in a series of mistakes that I was about to launch myself on! The second – picking up the self-drive car on the airport, soon upon arrival. It escaped me that I would have no clue about the roads and orientation of the place. And making to the guesthouse by driving on my own was as stupid as I got in the last season. Third – figuring out the ways and systems of a completely new country in the darkness of night, with rain and cold which wasn’t quite factored in.This found us trying to drive out from the airport with a left hand drive car, re-fueling it at a gas station by swiping cards and filling in from an assortment of variously rated octane fuel (unlike petrol/diesel and premium grade labels of India). With a good load of fuel on my jacket sleeve because I couldn’t work the nozzle control to flow smooth, we got out in the rain to look for our guesthouse. The next mistake – to save on rental, I had not rented navigation for the car. I had prints to work our way through, on an Icelandic night. Everything was a first! Truly, out of the comfort zone where nothing was familiar – neither the roads, nor the names or sounds or machines.

8 am on the trail, Reykjavik Autumn Marathon, 2016

8 am on the trail, Reykjavik Autumn Marathon, 2016

The run started at 8 in the morning. We checked in at the guesthouse at 2 am and needed some sleep after 6 hours of flying and even more tedious drive from airport. I had no clue that I’d be hopelessly lost in the morning, looking for the race venue! This was perhaps the most terrible case of being lost (for what was at stake – a run that I had dreamed of all the way from India) after losing my way on the under-constrution outer ring road in Hyderabad, years ago. Starting at 6 in the morning, we drove all over Reykjavik, out and in and out again only to get back in and pull over at a filling station, despondent, looking for directions. There is just no one walking about by the road side in this country! Stop but ask whom? The Indian in me kept looking 360 degrees in disbelief. The filling station guy heard the mention of a marathon and that’s when the lights came up in my miserable morning – he had seen a lot of cars and runners next to the stream a kilometer down from where we were. Drove the car as though I was flying the jet out of an air base and made it to the starting point, with a minute to go for the gun shot! The kind lady pinned up the bib, as I put on the timing chip and the nice folks by the starting line shouted back by saying they’ll wait for me.

I do not know what was happening, any longer. It was a time warp – it continued from the time I sat by the plane window looking at Norwegian coastline that we were flying past the previous evening until now. There was a sense of disjunction – the body got into the act of running. Mind was trying to come to grips with the immediate environment, people and what was happening. I switched on the GPS and got running. It was dark at 8 am, drizzling and windy. I followed the footsteps ahead of me. A light chatter in the air. I kept going until the deep blue of early morning melted and light up the landscape. By that time I saw the runners ahead taking a turn towards what looked like a waterfront. The cold got the skin this time, with the wind pushing it in. I ran without music. By the time I was along the waterfront the day light broke in and as though I was out of the cave-like time warp which held me since last evening. It was now that I registered where I was running and what was happening around me. We were about 12 kilometers into the circuit. The wind grew stronger. I figured that we’d be doing two loops of this and that made me think about the next loop when I’d be running against this windy waterfront with a depleted energy stock. I had my first swig of gatorade at 12th kilometer aid station. Along the water front section I saw a tall guy running at almost the same clip as mine. As I neared, I ran along for a while, but he felt a bit slower than my pace at that time, which made me move ahead. Over the next 2-3 kilometers we kept at each others heel. Soon enough we ran shoulder to shoulder until the next aid station. We got out together again. This was an unsaid chemistry. We were running together, each saying “I need to run along to keep the pace”. We didn’t speak at all, until somewhere in 30th kilometer, the man went on to say “I can’t run fast, I’d like to keep the slow pace. Please go on my friend.” I realized he was a man in his 50s. He was a strong runner and it was me who was finding it a push to keep the pace. I wanted to tell him that. I hadn’t looked at the watch until then. The half guys were soon on the trail. We both realized that we were doing a decent pace.

The were more people on the trail by now. The solemn, cathedral like early morning mood was gone. It was a chatty, race scene now with runners, onlookers and people passing by. The people here didn’t cheer with words. They preferred ringing bells vigorously. The runners didn’t talk much to each other too. Neither they would return a gesture if someone made any. It was a bit unlike the festive mood at most Indian marathons. I was missing the groundnut-jaggery chikkis on the aid station. It was only gatorade and liquids. Many preferred a few swigs of coke instead. Strange I thought. The Hungarian partner I was running with preferred coke too. He said his wife was running the half. When they crossed, he gave a big bear hug and wished each other luck. I was observing the people around.

It felt like a very fast race. I saw no one walk any part of the trail. I was surprised that I had not taken a break even at the aid stations. The Hungarian guy and I were to run together till the finish line. We broke little, spoke little and fought the cold all through. The rain had picked up again. It barely registered on my numb skin that the tights I wore were soaked. I couldn’t feel the cold. The last four kilometers increasingly felt tough. After the daylight broke, the morning fell into a state of constancy. There was a gushing stream near by, autumn colours through the treeline and dampness of a rainy morning. Cold had slowed down the ache in the legs. It felt as though I have been running from the previous evening.

With the 42nd kilometer, we both gained pace and maintained it till the finish line. The man’s face turned into a relief as he neared. I was searching for the only face I knew on the other side of the finish line. Everything else was a sea. We stepped on the finish line and I looked up at the timer on the line. I couldn’t believe that I was finishing in less than 4 hours. I was least expecting this. And even if I were to target sub-4 hr finish, Iceland’s trail would sure not be the one where I would hope to. The morning temperature was between 3 or 4 degrees C. My friend reached out to me. Someone took off the timing chip and to escape the wind we went into the tents put up by the organizers. It was an amazing feeling. I couldn’t feel my lower body and felt that I had no control on my legs.

I sat for a while and wanted to eat. The last mistake was to show up here – there was nothing vegetarian to eat. The sandwiches had meat and eggs. Except for coke and bananas, I figured I could eat nothing else. In desperation, I pulled the salami slices and eggs out of the sandwich and ate it with lettuce and cucumber. I should have carried some food with me. But, that is how it was supposed to be! And now the cold kicked in as the body cooled down from the run. I was shivering from the cold. We made to the car and switched on the heating. It took a while before I could begin to drive and get back to the guesthouse.

This is how I finished the Iceland run – in a bluff, making mistakes all the way! And hit a personal best run time with it.

Reykjavik Autumn Marathon, 2016, full marathon finisher medal

Reykjavik Autumn Marathon, 2016, full marathon finisher medal

Northern Lights

The next three days we soaked up Iceland like tourists. Shopped for supplies, cooked in the hostel, packed lunches for long drives and long walks after returning. The hostel air was abuzz with talks of northern lights and there were midnight tours to spot action in the sky. The harbour front had companies offering attractive prices for midnight tours. We were on a budget. The Icelandic Meteorological Forecast indicated strong chances all through the week. Meanwhile, I read Scandinavian folktales on aurora borealis – one spoke of how fortunate the child conceived under such lights in the sky, is. Another of how, these lights are the dead virgin women dancing in the skies teasing men who couldn’t make love to them.

And then the roof of the hostel went riotous early evening on the day before we were to leave. Everyone around would want us to “check it out” – the lights in the sky. I looked up for the best places in town to watch northern lights. A little before midnight my friend and I made way to the lighthouse. The whole town appeared to have fallen down to this little strip of land, possessed by the pull of the flickering green lights in the sky, the dead virgins.

There, ahead in the horizon, we spotted the dancing lights. The phenomenon is absolutely spell bounding to say the least. There is nothing comparable to this marvelous show of lights in the sky on a cold, dark night high in the latitudes of earth. There was a feeling of being fortunate that we could stand there and witness this. Far from anything else, it was just too fascinating. The fact that there are so many of these extraordinary geographical, climatic and meteorological occurrences unfolding in the world that are far removed from the daily lives that we live. The world in that moment felt an extraordinary place with us being alive and being able to stand witness these. I shall never forget the swirls of green in the sky, which I watched transfixed from the windscreen of the car, as I sat inside trying to take the moment in. There is a sequence in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty where Mitty meets the Life Magazine photographer whom he has been chasing through the film. It is played by Sean O’Connell. The photographer is shown high up in Himalayas, perched at a post, trying to photograph the reclusive snow leopard. When the leopard does appear in the viewfinder they both look at it transfixed. After taking a good look, Mitty asks if he took the shot, to which the photographer replies –  “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.”

Paris, in full faith

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Paris, November 2016

Paris was up next when Berlin’s time was up on this tour of the European capitals. Then,  the bus turned to Leipzig and onward to Amsterdam through the night until the morning broke over the Dutch landscapes and the autobahn cooling it off as it  entered the Netherlands. The night was frantic on the  German side with its super large trailers bellowing  through on the road network in many directions. Paris would rise on the horizon after a day long bus ride over the Flanders and across Belgium, the country known as the Battleground of Europe.

Paris of November, 2016 – the very real would keep  punching the Paris of literary imagination in its face over the next week. Literary Paris, which those outside France have read about and imagined. The ‘lost generation’ and its many writers were cradled by the streets and spaces and pubs of this beautiful city. Shakespeare and Co, the  legendary bookstore wasn’t any better than the good old Bangalore bookshop which has supplied its readers with serendipitous finds buried in the several book racks over three floors. The only difference was that Shakespeare and Co had a legend behind it and travelers like me walking through its doors everyday trying to catch hold of at least an iota of that legendary space that the writers of yore from Paris have written about. One imagines if there would be any significant difference between the cemetery close by at Montparnasse and this bookstore besides the books and a live person sitting by the counter.

By the way of confession, I must write that I was digging this bookstore’s pics and the many bits of references about Paris in writings for long before I walked this city’s streets. The full faith lived as long as the first twenty four hours. After that it was a pack of butter carried across on a tropical journey.

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Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, Paris

This isn’t about my disappointment with the city. Neither am I undergoing the proverbial Syndrome de Paris or Pari shōkōgun as the Japanese call it. It is by any measure a very fine city and capital. No complaints with its people either. The acts of restraint and a weak sense of willingness to help visitors is not just Parisian. It is a malice of the metropolis and likely to be seen in any large city of the world. Try stopping anyone in Mumbai hurrying past during the rush hour.

It is about the misplaced emphasis. It is also about trying to find life and requisite words to describe them in dead places and empty structures. The Paris of today is coming to life in its many levels of metro trains and RERS underground. It is unfolding in the trams snaking through the familiar boulevards into the suburbs which are coloured red, green and yellows signboards of Doner Kebabs, Vietnamese food and the Bombay restaurants.

The Afro sporting heads are far too many in the sea of heads that emerge from the Gare Du Nord and dissolve away on the several streets that branch out. The small framed Asians hustle through in the Parisian rain having made peace with the European weather. Then there are those milling in the crowd practicing the right pronunciation of Champs Elysees.

An evening of Open Mic at Spoken Word revealed somewhat different face of the city. An intereting picture of the city was seen in that basement at Au Chat Noir where the poems were being read. The ones who signed up to read their works or of others, were as much immigrant in their origins as the ones that the city is seeking to resist at its borders.

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Open Mic at Spoken Word, Au Chat Noir, Paris

Proust’s, Baudelaire’s or Gertrude Stein’s Paris appears changed way beyond its character of those decades. The borders are more visible and the paranoia of terror more felt than ever. Amidst this, what writing can do is to try recognizing the appearance of the city as it stands today. Only the gaze of the Gargoyle that sits on Notre Dame Cathedral remains the same. In its form and content the writing of today needs to see Paris as it is today, if it ever intends to help Paris syndrome from affecting travelers. The syndrome afflicting Parisians might also get worked upon when contemporary writing holds up the mirror to them.

Even as the immigrant camp in Paris was being erased and the migrants forced to move on, it failed to realize that it were the very same immigrants that made Paris in its cultural and knowledge production. If it were not for them perhaps twentieth century in France would have been a blank page.

James Thurber saw Paris as a post-graduate course in everything. He wrote, “The whole of Paris is a vast university of Art, Literature and Music… it is worth anyone’s while to dally here for years. Paris is a seminar, a post-graduate course in everything.”. And this to me stands as the most appropriate quote about Paris from the pile of mush that writers have said of it.

Without a doubt Paris is a beautiful city with original tastes and adorable, idiosyncratic ways. However, to soak in this alone would be delusional. Much violence happens underneath it which the blinds of literature, culture and fashion doesn’t make visible.

Amal Kiran & poetry

Amal Kiran's book "Inspiration and Effort"

Amal Kiran’s book “Inspiration and Effort”

Amal Kiran ! This guy is one of those tiny flowers with an intense colour, tucked way off the meadow on a mountain trail where not many venture and so not many would know of. Moreover, such flowers grow a little closer to the precipice for folks to know of their existence. How do I know? Had the good fortune of a helpful hand pointing in that direction as I stood look at the vista with her. All through those couple of days that I spent with this man’s daughter, I had no clue of the fine writing that awaited me in a Pondicherry bookshop. We spoke very little of Amal Kiran except a few references to his days in Aurobindo ashram. It was when I begin exploring further that I came across his book which opened up a whole new trail into poetry which I didn’t know existed. I say this because I have only been a consumer of poems. I do not and can’t seem to write poems.

This is about how Amal Kiran’s book Inspiration and Effort: Studies in Literary Attitude and Expression (Published: 1995, The Integral Life Foundation, USA) offers an easy to identify explanation of where might be the source of inspiration lie, in those splendid imaginations turned into words by Shelly, Shakespeare, Wordsworth or Byron.  It is well worth to re-produce this section from the first page of his book, wherein he dives straight into the intent of the entire exposition. He begins –

You hold that genuine poetry is written always by inspiration – effortlessly – as if in a state of semi-trance. A correct view, this, as regards fundamentals. But you may take my breath away by adding that, because in my letter I used words like “tried”, “attempted”, “sought” when I spoke of producing poetry of a mystic and spiritual order new in many respects to the English language, you drew the conclusion that I wrote my poems with a manufacturing mentality which thought out with intellectual labour all of the phrases, lined up the different parts like a mechanic rivetting joints and constructed artifically an unfamiliar out-of-the-way model!

Inspiration is a fact and it does come from a region that is beyond the muscular brain and the tense sinews of thought: it comes from a hidden fountain of force which is more spontaneous, swift, suggestive, vision-bright and harmonious: its outflow brings in a condition of mind cleansed of a too external and intellectual and deliberately constructive activity – hence, the semi-trance, as it were, of poetic creation.

The part I am most interested in is where he speaks of ‘spontaneity’ as the point that is ‘never properly seized by those who do not write poetry’ and goes on to explain how the process might work for those who are recognized for their poetry. Recently, reading an English translation of Kutti Revathi’s poem Rain River written in Tamil,  I marveled at the way her words could create that intense moment of desire and longing. I wondered if the entire thing came in one gush to the poet. It stayed with me for a long time. Amal Kiran’s thinking on this process appears clear and sort of helps in having a perspective on what might the process involve. It may not necessarily be the same for every poet, but it is worth a look. He writes –

The ordinary notion is that spontaneity is the first flow of words when one starts writing or the flood that overwhelms one all of a sudden. It is frequently these things but it is not confined to them. The spontaneous word is that which comes from a certain source – the deep fountain of inspiration beyond the logical and ingenuous brain: no more, no less. There is not the slightest implication that the initial flow of words is the most inspired: it may be so or it may not – everything depends on whether you are a clear medium or a partly clogged one. If you are not quite clear in the passage running between the creative source and the receptive self, the lines that come to you all of a sudden or at the first turning towards poetic composition are likely to be a mixed beauty and even a facile imitation of the beautiful. Consequently, you have to take a good deal of corrective pains or resort to a total rejection. It is of no moment how much you re-write; all that is important is whether at the first blush or at the “umpteenth” trial you catch unsullied the shining spontaneity of the secret realms where inspiration has its throne. Shakespeare never “blotted” a word; Keats “blotted” a thousand, and yet Keats is looked upon as the most Shakespearean of modern poets in “natural magic”. Even Shelly, to all appearance the most spontaneous of singers, was scrupulous in his revisions. What still kept him spontaneous was that each time it was not intellectual hacking and hewing, but a re-vision, a re-opening of the inner sight on the hidden realms in order to behold as accurately as possible the lines and tones, the shapes and designs of those dream-worlds weaving their simple or complex dances.

To end this section, Amal Kiran mentions Humbert Wolfe’s lines which ‘brings another mode of sight, speech and rhythm equally flawless:

Thus it began. On a cool and whispering eve

When there was quiet in my heart she came,

and there was the end of quiet. I believe

that a star trembled when she breathed my name.

(Humbert Wolfe)

Amal Kiran’s book – Inspiration and Effort, is a rare one from Indian authors on poetry and the process of it. He was an admirer of Aurbindo’s Savitri and a long time resident of Aurobindo ashram in Pondicherry. In over ten years that I have been visiting Pondicherry, I have not been quite attracted to read Aurobindo’s poems or his works. But Amal Kiran now makes me want to do that.

Meanwhile, from a completely direction, I read yesterday on Flavorwire – Why Queer Poetry Still Matters, which mentions yet another terrific gang of poets – Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Langston Huges and more recent ones.

I am not sure if I will ever manage to write poems, but the fact that poetry holds immense power in it to make one see the world and himself in newer and insightful ways, I am convinced of!

 

Torment of words

teastall_krishnagiri

Last evening at a book launch in the city, I was thinking about the drive that makes people write, and write profuse lengths at that! There was Ram Guha who has himself written with a flourish for most of his life since his doctoral days, interviewing Linda Hess whose book Bodies of Hope was being released. I imagine that it probably needs a burning desire to get experiences transformed into words. For Hess it did appear a bit of that when she spoke of her experiences understanding, translating and journeying through places where Kabir’s couplets are remembered and performed. That seemed reasonable. But how often is it that such a burning desires takes over and the written form begins taking shape as fast as a moth turns butterfly? I can hardly count such instances in my life!

The impetus that I find a bit more identifiable is Gorky’s description from a classic essay he writes on How I Learnt to Write.  He describes in the essay the moments when he writes to “get things off my chest”. That is an identifiable state and real in terms of possibility of the situation. He writes,

There were moments of torment from the tension within me, moments when a lump stood in my throat and I wanted to cry out that my friend Anatoly, a glass-blower, was a lad of talent but would perish if no help were forthcoming; that the street-walker Theresa was a fine person and it was unjust that she was a prostitute, which was something the students who visited her did not see, just as they did not see that the old woman Matista, who begged for a living, had far more brains than the young and well-read accoucheuse Yakovleva.

The burdened state of mind to let it out and write about the experiences, the upsetting asymmetries and ironies of life does have a profound effect on those who think the written word would be a partial relief from having lived such experiences. I do recollect bursts of lines that begin foaming up in my mind often as I coast through days in everyday life.

This is where the next part kicks in – the lack of skill and the torment there of. The words begin feeling inadequate. The feel of the writing too fluffy and posturing at worse. That is when the keyboard crackle stops. Escape from this rut? I haven’t found a way yet. But the raw material keeps flowing in from daily experiences. However, the writer can try to be cognizant of this dynamic and keep on with his work as Gorky did.

Until one has perfects the discipline to get down to a desk and plod through the task of writing, the realm of desire, drive or urge to write seems a reasonable way out. The bursts of writing or such binges appears to be a rather reasonable path to such discipline. As I write this, I have a largish report from an earlier field-work to be written. Also sitting still are the diary entries from the road-trips taken in the past two months. None of them have gotten anywhere for the want of the drive to get them down in words. It isn’t always the proverbial procrastination. Several of those times when I do not write it is about the want of a entry into that diffuse spread of observations and corresponding thoughts that streamed through. To this I recall, Joan Didion’s remarkable ability to write Year of Magical Thinking soon after losing her family. That is a tremendous ability, to write as one is grieving.

My travel notebooks sit piled up while I wade through scattered thoughts and read works by these authors. I guess that “urge” to write is an unfaithful thing. More often one needs to just sit down and start typing the mental chatter out. This is what I am doing this morning.