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

 

 

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.”

You must go to Berlin

 

 

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Living by the Rosa-Luxemburg Platz U-bahn, Berlin in November.

“You must go to Berlin” is a refrain we heard from Oslo to Budapest. Travelers and vagabonds swore by it. The itinerant European indicated a promise of a unique experience. The returning Israeli soldier insisted on how Berlin suited his travel (how its spirit suited him) in Europe hitting back after every leap out into the creases and frontiers of Europe. This time he was returning from Iceland, where we had met him a few weeks back. Another one insisted on joining her as she traveled to Berlin for a porn film festival. I didn’t know what to make of these until the evening I coursed through its multi-level underground metro and bahn system and surfaced above, on the massive Potsdamer Platz square. Larger still and standing in contrast is the Alexander Platz square which appears as though the city planners didn’t know what to do with the twenty acre plot. It is a gift of planning from the former East Germany. The strange looking  placement of Park Inn Hotel, the world clock and the shopping complex with confused looking trams and vehicles stopping across the the roads for signal.

Berlin is a restless city. Restless, not in an Asian-city sense and certainly not in its pace. It is restless in its production, its opinion, its taste and in its character. I say this from having spent time mostly in the East Berlin. For a visitor it is hard to characterize Berlin. It is a relief that such a place exists which has slipped out from the many attempts to stereotype it. Berlin’s hard to stereotype character is sensed when travelers – frequent or first timers like me, take a pause after the first “It is an interesting city” remark. Nothing follows by the way of explanation after that. The difficulty is then covered by the traveler recollecting her experiences or personal life stories that unfolded in the city but nothing that could explain why one found it ‘interesting’. Berlin renders clichés like ‘enigmatic’ and ‘rich’ hollow in their meaning. To a traveler who has been a reader of its history and spectator of its present the city is a stream of cultural, intellectual and political rapids with currents of every grade that occurred along the course of its history still whirling by. The traveler can begin rafting at any level and get washed away in the ensuing course.

As I arrived and got on to its dense network of U-bahn and tried in vain to make sense of the profusion of graffiti that covered every visible surface from foot level to the top of multistory buildings. The little buttons on the traffic signals too were in service of the graffiti messages. They displayed messages from chiding the reader of his bourgeois life to assertions of an independent taste and opinion on matters from artistic taste to sexuality. And unlike Oslo, the graffiti here dared with their placement and by their reach from the wagons of metro trains, sides of buildings and of course on the still remaining stretches of the Berlin wall. The city bursts with opinion on every issue – fringe or mainstream, big or small. I think every Berliner in his life must have had some paint on her and made a graffiti at least once in her life. That should perhaps be a more suitable definition of a Berliner than the beaten one that a Berliner crosses the road only when it is flashes green for the pedestrian.

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Sections of the Berlin Wall as seen at Potsdamer Platz. These were the L-shaped concrete blocks which were used to replace the conventional wall after a German soldier from East Berlin used an armoured vehicle to ram into the wall, break it and escape. 

On the political front, the city continues to nurture Marxist intellectualism and attracts scholars from the frontiers of communist thought and political action into spending some time exploring the tomes in its many archives and libraries. A mere walk around its main thoroughfares itself is an education in communist history – from Karl Marx allee to Rosa Lumxembourg Platz. Elsewhere, Lepizig renamed its Ho Chi Minh Strasse and back home Kolkata stayed with its Ho chi Minh Sarani. Berlin tried renaming in dozens, yet a fair deal remains. When it came to renaming Clara-Setkin Strasse which runs along the Reichstag, a leading Berlin feminist Marianne Kriszio is reported to have asked “Have we nothing better to do than to slander the memory of such women?” Evidently, renaming is a touchy subject. This is pretty much similar back home in India, from Delhi to Bengaluru. Renaming of streets can evoke public sentiments as fast as a monsoon roll over of dark clouds.

I am reminded of Walter Benjamin’s quote as I recollect losing our way finding the Berlin Philharmonic and later, the way to Rosa Luxembourg Platz on a late evening – “Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.”  It was November rain quite literally as I walked down from the skyscraper lined Bahnof Potsdamer Platz towards Brandenburg Gate and looked at remains of the wall all along. This arc of history on a single avenue is quite rare in metropolitans of our times, a sure sight to revel in. I imagined that a walk down this avenue on an afternoon can do the work of two weeks of world history classes for the students I teach here in school.

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The approach to Brandenburg Gate from the Victory Pillar

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The approach to Reichstag from Brandenburg Gate

Berlin’s socialism, its workers’ unions and their almost militant activism to safeguard wages and its intellectualism in art, music, lifestyle, philosophy and political thought is unmatched. No other city perhaps exhibits such a wide spectrum. If there is the classic socialism, then there is also the new left and both challenged menacingly by the right wing conservatives like AfD.

While a fraction of young Berliners choose to propagate and be a part of the Identitarian Movement, spreading fast across Germany and France, there is the horde of bohemians and hipsters who confuse the identitarians with their disregard for nationalism and to rigid ideologies. The ideological inclinations of the Berlin hipsters appear to be as diverse as their facial hair styles and marked by as many different thoughts as their body piercings. That is the beauty of Berlin. It all comes together as a very busy, forever changing collage, where each piece is a history as well as a commentary on the contemporary at the same time. Berlin seems to vow to not let any new wall ever get erected!

To a traveler, I’d respond in the same eager tone – You must go to Berlin! This European capital is a river with rapids to be rafted by the visitor. Jack Lang’s words stringing the two cities in a single sentence sure seem apt, “Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin!”

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.

Who is a hippie?

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A lakeside cafe in Pokhara

Enthusiasm for the unseen, unfamiliar and unheard ties the hippies of the 1960s and hippies of the new millennium. Not hashish. The urge to travel, and travel irrespective of the how much is in the pocket is the spirit that bridges the two eras of this group of insufferable travelers. This bunch, moreover, travels overland compulsively.

I began reading accounts of this variety of globetrotters from the period 1960-1990 on idle days in Pokhara. I spent over three weeks last month in Nepal beginning with Kathmandu, then in the Himalayan trekking mecca of Annapurna region (a trek to Annapurna Base Camp) and the rest lounging in the legendary lakeside town of Pokhara. This was a trip done overland and slow. A ‘dirt-bag trip’as I call it – enough money for food, accommodation, transport and tea. The rest ceasing to matter.

As I read accounts from the 1960-1990 period and thought about the ‘hippies’ I felt that the pre-1990 travelers who would be labelled hippies weren’t very different from the post-2000 travelers – the millennials. I was wondering if the hippie spirit is dead and if, all we have now is what is derisively known as pseudo-hippies. I wouldn’t want to use that label though. This makes it sound like there exists a definite hippie way and that only a select few know it. This is absurd. There neither was one nor will be one stock definition and pageantry to go along with it. Being a hippie is not just a peculiar way of dressing or conduct. It is a state of mind sometimes and preference to do things in one’s own peculiar way which might be ill-fitting with the known and the established norms. Long hair, pyjamas and a bandana with a loosely hanging ukulele doesn’t make one hippie nor they are essential. It is more than just the attire. It is perhaps a manner of conduct and thought than just the appearance. There are people dropping out of the established systems of education, careers, lifestyles etc and trying to exist outside of it. Those are hippies for me. This combined with an urge to get out of the familiar and the known society into distant lands where every single day is filled with discovering language, words, ways and whats on the table to eat… life gets a jump start. For instance, the horde of Israelis in India, many making way here after finishing their service in the army.  The chatter on the streets from Bangkok and Chiang Mai to Pokhara still maintains itself decade after decade. The urge to drop out and live differently keeps surfacing in every generation. It stays the same! As Richard Gregory puts it, ‘hedonism was the primary aim’ for many.

The change though has been in the direction of travel and what was sought. While it was from Europe to Asia earlier, it is in the reverse direction as well. Asians are thronging the capitals of Europe to attain their own salvation on the streets of Paris, Milan and San Francisco. In terms of what was sought, the proverbial ‘mystic East’ has been replaced by a mysticism borne out of a capitalist order – one fueled by significantly high incomes at young age, the promise of faster travel and possibility of ‘fitting in’ overseas trips over a long weekend.

Back to Pokhara and its hippies, this is where the broke traveler came to rest, luxuriating in its cheap lodges and satiating pent up hunger in the many ‘maancha ghars’ and ‘khaja ghars’ which offer heaps of food for little money, if you can take it, that is. A statistic I read on tourism in Nepal is that the country saw a little over 6,000 tourists in 1960.

The travel accounts from 1960s and 70s describe the overland crossings and relatively free (though perilous) border crossings which could let one travel from London to India and beyond, if one had the energy to rough it out. Iran those days had secular Shahs ruling it and Afghanistan welcomed travelers like no other country. In these times, the geopolitics of the new world has literally made it impossible to cross borders without great risk to life. Many borders are literal dead-ends. Try India – Pakistan border crossing for instance or Pakistan-Afghanistan across the Durand line or Khyber pass.

Among the lot which took the overland journey (in part or whole) were the political scientists – Rudolph couple, many anthropologists, writes (Paul Theorux, Vikram Seth ) and students who’d later get back to academia as researchers and professors. These weren’t ‘freaks’ or ‘hippies’ in the conventional sense (used for those in search of cheap destinations to live and smoke marijuana) but people who nevertheless shared the same enthusiasm for east and for travel. They made better of these experiences in their later lives as I figure.

Living amidst the average travelers in the cheap backpacker hostels and traveling with them on those typical shared taxis in the many Asian cities I find that in many respects the hippies, the vagrants, the vagabonds and the freaks of the world haven’t been any different from what I read about a similar traveling lot from earlier centuries. For instance, John Lang in India. Or Freya Stark in Middle East. Or even this writer in Hindi literature I read often – Agyey. These are the same men and women from different generations. Each facilitated by the communications and transportation progress of their times. One rode a bus from Delhi for days together to reach Pokhara, while another in these times takes the cheap Yeti Air flight to Pokhara and walks through the mountains as though in a garden back home, with a porter managing the bags.

I thought of deliberating on the idea of a hippie when in Nepal because I didn’t quite appreciate the snobbery of some who labeled the place as full of ‘pseudo-hippies’. This would have meant that there probably exists this elite bunch who believes that their definition of a hippie holds and they decide if others are or not. It would be so much cool if these travelers with peculiar ways and style are left alone as long as they don’t trespass and harm the local people and their values by their choices. These cities of the world where some can live cheap and do whatever on earth they want to do with their lives, is a useful safety valve for societies across the world. This is not romanticizing the traveler, but suggesting that if not useful, this sort of traveler isn’t harmful either – pseudo or real or whatever else you want to call her!

 

 

 

Luang Prabang: 25 years since Benedict Anderson’s visit

Luang Prabang: A view from Mt. Phousi

Luang Prabang: A view from Mt. Phousi

Tucked deep along the popular and wildly promising backpacker routes of South East Asia lies Luang Prabang. This tiny capital of a former princely state which merged with two other little kingdoms to form Laos opens itself unconditionally to the backpacker, the tourist and the fantasy seeker, all alike. No questions asked, beyond the necessary ones at the immigration. The thrill for the backpacker and the rich tourist perhaps lies in being able to walk over and taking for granted this little nation’s sovereignty, its own voice. The traveler with his stash of dollars can get away with anything – ride motorbikes without driving license, move about brazenly in utter disregard for people’s customs, practices or legal regulations and any go forth with any imaginable activity that might promise an inexperienced thrill which the tourist wouldn’t have dared to think of in his own country or traveling in the more prosperous and developed countries of the world. But in Luang Prabang, just go ahead and do it. Here, the weight of a dollar is more than people’s words. The tourist’s fantasies of every variety can be realized here for a pittance, until the pleasure seeker drops out satiated or bored.

Historian Benedict Anderson passed away last week. One of his books Imagined communities was a part of reading in grad school. Curiosity made me look up his other writings and I realized that he wrote of his trip to Luang Prabang during the Songkhran Festival in 1998. ( The excerpts in this post are from the essay published in LRB here.) Reading that I realized that it was twenty five years since his trip that I crossed the Mekong river and into its border town of Huay Xai. Three hundred kilometers up, through the lush mountains of this former Lan Xang kingdom, on the bend of the Mekong lay the endearing Luang Prabang town, home to Prabang Buddha and to some of the most affable people of the subcontinent.

Back to Anderson’s account, it appears that he was a keen eyed traveler more than a historian. His travel accounts tend to be mischievous, sarcastic and incisive in parts. In 1994 Luang Prabang was given UNESCO World Heritage status. In the four years since then, Anderson notes the changes.

In its heart is the hundred-metre-high hill of Phou Si, crowned with a restored Buddhist stupa (nicely floodlit at night) and an abandoned Russian antiaircraft gun. Below is a town that one can stroll across in 25 minutes but which has about forty elegant, modest Buddhist temple complexes, almost all warm browns, blues and whites, backed by huge bo trees, and opal-fired with the saffron robes of monks and novices. Here and there, one picks out former residences and office buildings of French colonials, which have by now acquired the charm of gentle provincial decay. Not a Hilton or Hyatt in sight: no Burger King, McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts. One BMW.

This absence of a Hilton, Hyatt, Burger King, McDonald’s etc is remarkable. The town’s remote location is evident in the fact that even twenty five years since Anderson’s visit, there still are none of these monuments of globalized existence and faux-modernity. The absence of west-styled fast food restaurants and five-start hotels is the exact reason why my friend and I felt a helpless attraction to this town and its homely feel. As Asian travelers with our own countries run over by the global food and hospitality chains, which are constantly road-rolling the peculiar and characteristic identity of the places, we felt Luang Prabang was indeed one of the last remaining places yet to be conquered by this homogenizing force.

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Luang Prabang comes off as an easy paced town with not much to see but to lounge and soak up the pace of this town by the Mekong river

Sisavanvong Road: The main thoroughfare in the town

Sisavanvong Road: The main thoroughfare in the town

Back to Anderson’s piece, he examines the ‘preservation’ effort of Luang Prabang’s culture and lifestyle with the World Heritage status. The following lines make for a remarkable critique which in retrospect do seem apt –

‘Best-preserved’ indeed. But by whom or by what? First of all by French imperialism at the end of the 19th century, which, anxious about the brutal British conquest of neighbouring Burma, seized the left bank of the Mekong from the Thai monarchs in Bangkok, who had the bad habit of razing Lao townships that did not behave themselves as loyal vassals. This démarche created a new border far away from Luang Prabang, leaving most Lao-speakers, on the right bank, to become the industrious and despised ‘Irish’ of a Siam that was on the way to becoming Thailand. It made possible the absurd singular English noun ‘Laos’, stupidly taken from the French plural ‘les royaumes Laos’ (the three Lao petty principalities of Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak). It led to the construction of a colonial headquarters in the Thai-razed, but ‘central’ locale of Vientiane rather than the remote and northern Luang Prabang. Ultimately the creation of ‘Indochine’ as a vast administrative unit run from Hanoi left Laos as the place where, in the Thirties, six hundred Frenchmen could peaceably indulge themselves, off location, in opium, girls, boys and drink. So to speak, the lotus-eating end of the colonial world.

Through the course of history, Laos seems to be a country pushed and shoved by its neighbours as well as powerful nations. Now, the baton seems to have passed on to the backpackers and tourists to do the same. However, the place still manages to stand apart as a very different experience – culturally and geographically. The mighty Mekong is an overbearing presence. The Buddhist monks still on their early morning walk to receive alms from the townsfolk. The barges ferrying people and vehicles across the river. High school kids volunteering at the National Museum to inform visitors about the artifacts, folktales and the Ramayana stories in English. They are absolutely adorable.

Luang Prabang’s riverfront is one of the prettiest to spend a leisure evening tucked in a small corner of the world. With its setting, it does seem to drive this literal feeling of being far out in the world. Especially, with the time it takes to reach this place. With the absence of factories, heavy machinery, high-rise buildings, large automobiles, mass transport systems and especially high human density, the place manages to immediately make an impression of being in a place which is out of the usual, fast paced cities that the global traveler has routed himself through, to reach here.

The long boats with a powerful outboard engine on the Mekong are an adventurous way to arrive into Luang Prabang.

The long boats with a powerful outboard engine on the Mekong are an adventurous way to arrive into Luang Prabang.

Barges and small boats continue to be the medium of reaching upper banks of Mekong in Luang Prabang

Barges and small boats continue to be the medium of reaching upper banks of Mekong in Luang Prabang

The fate of the royalty of Luang Prabang seems like typical of the colonial era. Either the King becomes a vassal or banished from his land if he tends to be assertive. Rest of the royal family especially the Princes are groomed in the colonizer’s capital abroad, in this case, the royalty being groomed in France. King Sisavangvong gets the nickname of being the ‘playboy King’ perhaps because of his fifty children and fifteen wives. His palace, which was once a French chateau is now the national museum. The night market on the boulevard in front of the palace is a truer picture of the modern day Luang Prabang and not the uninspiring and somewhat oddly cobbled artifacts at the museum.

Laos and Luang Prabang is best seen in its night market in my opinion. It is where the common Laotian surfaces, who lives a life in the countryside perhaps and turns up at the market to make a buck out of the souvenir hunting tourist. Reading Anderson’s account from 1998, his description of the night market reads as a very fine prose and stays remarkably unchanged to my eyes twenty five years since –

The open-air market reminds one of what shopping-malls and supermarkets have cost modern life: the savour and endless variations of homemade cooking and the exuberant inventiveness of a ‘cottage’ artisanate. At the stall of a genial, toothless old Hmong woman, for example, I found an elaborately embroidered baby’s cap from which a circle of 12 silver alloy coins dangled, while the scarlet tassled top was held in place by a larger, heavier coin with a hole bored through its middle. The larger coin was inscribed: ‘1938’, ‘Indochine française’ and ‘5 centimes’. The smaller ones, dated 1980, have passed out of circulation because they are still etched with the hammer-and-sickle, and because inflation has anyway made them valueless. High colonialism and high Communism, once mortal enemies, now cheek by jowl on the endless junkheap of progress, can still light up a baby’s face.

The night market on Sisavangvong Road coming up at dusk with the palace in the background

The night market on Sisavangvong Road coming up at dusk with the palace in the background

High colonialism looms large on several of the former colonies. I see it unfolding every time a tourist treats the country as his ancestral property and brazenly goes about town with a sense of entitlement as though the people are obliged to serve him. It only feels sad that there is little being done to  by the way of the tourist’s own sensitivity as well as from the international multi-lateral organizations which can assist Laos in developing a sharp and sensitive tourism policy similar to the one which helps European countries to keep the visitor subjected to their conditions and not the other way around.

Twenty five years since Anderson’s visit, Luang Prabang does manage to retain the charm that he spoke of. It also appears to have come further down along the road which threatens its unique culture and lifestyle that Anderson pointed to. The value of such travel pieces I realize is immense in creating reference points in the history to at least be cognizant of what we will lose or have lost along the decades.

Meanwhile, I hope Benedict Anderson rests in peace.

Motorcycle, Touring & Things In-Between – 1

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Last evening while reading a book on social theory, I drifted away when a chapter in it opened with a mention of the maverick sociologist C. Wright Mills (dude wrote the legendary essay on Sociological Imagination). What made me remember him is not his ideas or contribution to social theory but the fact that he used to ride a motorcycle. The man on his BMW motorcycle was  ‘the Leftist seer on motorcycle‘ and unapologetic for his controversial ideas.  I think his roadie and rider spirit has something to do with the way his professional life was!

Drifting further, I was reminded of the homegrown rider who chooses to attend the 1950 International Ornithological Congress at Uppsala in Sweden on bike. Salim Ali ships his Sunbeam motorcycle (which I suspect was the legendary  500cc S7 model) to Europe and then bikes around the continent to reach just in time for the conference at Uppsala. I wrote about his memoir The Fall of a Sparrow in an earlier post.

Motorcycle and riders, get my attention immediately! Through these years as a rider now, I do find that there is a characteristic attitude or say a certain outlook to life and situations that is unique to riders. This is impressionistic at best, but essentially experiential.

Back in my extended family, I notice that uncles and fathers who rode bikes stand apart in their ways from those who didn’t. Their children, likewise. In 1980s, an uncle used to ride the popular 150cc Lambretta scooter from Nagpur to Pune which meant 800 km of average double carriageway highway. Later, with proven high mileage of Bajaj’s 100cc Boxer motorcycle, he’d do the same only this time in style with an FM radio installed by the headlight assembly for uninterrupted All India Radio broadcast all along his highway ride. His spirit remains the same. Let him know that you are riding or driving long and he should join, he’d be by the side of the vehicle in 15 minutes with his backpack. THAT spirit! The new age bikers of the pretentious biking clubs that I know of wouldn’t even venture out to the other corner of the city on a 15 minutes decision.

My father in his early days rode a 175 cc Rajdoot motorcycle and which was my first exposure to bikes and the unique exposed feel that it came with. Adding to this were the Royal Enfield riding Dispatch Riders (DRs) in Indian army whom I would spot scores of times all through the day. That was another inspiring form – olive green 350cc bikes with metal case panniers and men in olive green uniforms or camouflage fatigues riding around cantonments and the thump of the bikes echoing through the treeline.

A car came years later and by that time I had come too far along to appreciate the closed, bubbled confines of a car. I preferred to lean-in into the curves than lean away from them as in a car. The sense of being exposed and being out-there became an non-negotiable condition to travel and touring. There was this pleasure in being exposed and giving yourself up to the whims of nature. You’d get baked by the blazing tropical Indian sun or battered by wind or soaked to the balls by the same tropical Indian monsoon for hundreds of kilometers. The thrill is beyond what a hundred years in an automobile can offer.

I have been curious about motorcycles, riders and their place in public imagination. There certainly existed, I thought, more categories beyond the ‘outlaw motorcycle riders’ that have somewhat unjustifiably occupied people’s perception. That is when I did a quick search on JSTOR for published articles. A search for “motorcycle” yielded 400 results! With this post I begin pouring over these articles and will keep posting interesting stuff that I find. This is almost like hitting on a treasure for a motorcycle enthusiast. There are stories on motorcycle to anthropologist writing on motorcycle to women on motorcycle.

An interesting piece I found is – Death & the Motorcycle by Becky Ohlsen (gated link) who races vintage motorcycles. The piece is a reflection on her riding experiences and musing over death, which she ends with Stoic philosopher Seneca’s words.

Nobody rides a motorcycle in spite of the danger; they ride because of the danger. They ride directly into the danger. They may indeed be mad, but it’s a madness rooted in a peculiar rationality.

What is also amusing to read is the opening, which clearly is motorcycle in its European context, because in Asia motorcycles are pretty much used for the said purposes and much more –

Motorcycle is not, in other words, the most practical way to fetch a loaf of bread and a carton of milk. Motorcycles are loud, obnoxious, aggressive by nature. They cannot be ridden tentatively. They are not comfortable or convenient.  They make easy things difficult.

Difficulty, obnoxiousness, aggression – as any nice girl can tell you, these things are seductive.

However, a stunningly romantic and endearing piece on motorcycle appeared in the Transatlantic Review in 1968 – Motorcycle Appassionata by Jeffrey Jones (gated link). This is nothing less than what can be dubbed as an ode to the motorcycle and the rider. This article was meant to be a song, and I can’t help quoting the opening paragraphs from it –

highway highway highway.

Downward down a sweep, upward coming out of the valley, rising a hill, over, away, around the bend, leaning, out and straight, away again.
Presto rides.
He kicks down a gear for another corner, springs the clutch as he leans into it. The motor drags and slows, popping. Whips the accelerator around, shooting up and twisting his heard, listens down like a piano tuner for the right pitch. Hums with it and taps up with boot toe into third. The bike settles on its back shocks and jumps. Tone moans and whirs quickly, higher, washing away on the soft California night.

Road lays out ahead and behind in long coaxing curves and floating stretched grades. Twin lamps, chest high on the lifted vampire bars, lick out in front over new black road. Moon light powders blue and lush summer country around. Subaqua, pine tips sway languid as a current brushes across.

Presto is the rider. More lyrical prose follows until Presto rides into a town and enters a bar. Then this –

He turns his back to them so they can easily read DRIFTERS-S.F. stitched on his jacket back over a large white iron cross. He trades the old lady a quarter for his glass of beer and watches one of the girls walk to the juke box. She stands in front of it with a hip thrust out to the side and sweeps her long red hair back over her shoulder. Reading the selection she lifts a foot and rubs the toes over the back of her other leg. the old lady shouts to her.

“Here’s them hamburgers.”

Girl turns and comes to the bar next to Presto. He reads the look of curiosity around her eyes. When she picks up the plastic baskets with the burgersin them he looks down the top of her summer dress and notices a love bite above her breast. When she turns, he’s smiling and she sniffs before speaking.

“You’re one of those Angels aren’t ya?”
“Huh-uh. Drifter.”
“Same sorta thing ennit?”
“Sorta”
“you from L.A.?”
“No. Frisco.”

This for me speaks of how the motorcycles and bikers found expression in literature of the times. Many of these seem to end on a tragic note with ruined lives, dead bikers etc. However, they are all uniformly high on the spirit of the road, biker attitudes, details on motorcycle and the precarious lives that the riders lived.

As I write this and try to find a finish to this trip into literature on motorcycles, I am reminded of Lawrence of Arabia or T E Lawrence, another of my favorite biker from yore. He rode a 1100cc Brough Superior motorcycle. He died riding this British motorcycle in a crash. The 1937 speed record was made on this motorcycle. Not just this, every motorcycle came with a certificate guaranteeing that it could hit a ton (100 mph) within a quarter mile!

 

Torment of words

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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.

 

 

Insights at the edge

Also known as the Tiger's Nest, Taktsang Monastery is one of the most important Buddhist center in the Himalayas. It is a complex of several monasteries.

Also known as the Tiger’s Nest, Taktsang Monastery is one of the most important Buddhist center in the Himalayas. It is a complex of several monasteries.

A recent trip to Bhutan only affirms how amazingly insular one can be. A world of possibilities exist, unfold and play themselves across the world yet we seem to believe that the world order as we know it is the only one which works. This was the a strand of thought as I spent my first night in the Bhutanese town of Phuentsholing. That the country has a functioning monarchy was on my mind as I crossed the gates into the kingdom of Bhutan. The other was a sense of excitement to experience this country of happiness firsthand. This country was to impress me, surprise me and overwhelm me every single day that I spent here. From a chance encounter with a forest services officer while waiting outside the Taktsang monastery to a dinner table conversation with a family of Tibetan refugees to walking down the streets of Paro on a full moon night, I experienced a world unlike any other  that I am aware of.

Taktsang Monastery's dramatic setting had attracted me to it ever since I saw a photograph online. And a trip to the place happened out of the blue. Yes, just like the deep blues there!

Taktsang Monastery’s dramatic setting had attracted me to it ever since I saw a photograph online. And a trip to the place happened out of the blue. Yes, just like the deep blues there!

A year back, I chanced upon a picture of this great monastery which is also said to be an important center for those of the Buddhist faith. This was the Taktsang Monastery (or the Tiger’s Nest) towards which I was instinctively drawn, located on a cliff in the Paro valley. I didn’t care to ascertain why. The setting was so dramatic that I felt I must see it and trek up its holy steps. I had seen documentaries where people cried like babies as they entered these sacred buddhist complexes. There was the Harvard anthropologist Wade Davis crying inconsolably in one of the monasteries that he visits and then Pico Iyer writing about experiences in the company of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his book The Open Road. I felt an urge to subject myself to such an experience and see some of these monasteries for real. As a Hindu, the belief system and the religious values that I was accustomed to offered no such mild yet profound experience which is not terrifying and which is not transactional in its nature. Deliverance for the Hindu (as I see it) is always a transaction with the higher powers. There is a vow and there is a bargain and there are ways to negotiate in case you find that vow a bit too difficult to keep. Buddhism isn’t so, as I read it in contrast. Not a very elegant way to look at it but works for me. The decision to head in Taktsang’s direction too, was as unconscious. It seemed as if there was an inner program unfolding in which I held the role of only performing the action. The rest was determined on a plane of which I knew little about.

It was the day of vesak, also a national holiday in Bhutan. Many school children and youngsters were on the trail in their traditional dress and carrying packs of potato chips, biscuits and other eatables to be given as offering at the several shrines inside the monastery.

It was the day of vesak, also a national holiday in Bhutan. Many school children and youngsters were on the trail in their traditional dress and carrying packs of potato chips, biscuits and other eatables to be given as offering at the several shrines inside the monastery.

Prayer wheels on the way to Taktsang

Prayer wheels on the way to Taktsang

Much of the path is dotted with these colorful prayer flags which look splendid with the sky and the pines all around.

Much of the path is dotted with these colorful prayer flags which look splendid with the sky and the pines all around.

This monastery is an important center for those of the buddhist faith. It is believed that Guru Padmasambhava who is said to have brought Buddism to Bhutan had meditated in this place. “Takstang” means a tiger’s liar and he had flown to this location on the back of a flying tigress. For a moment this and other versions of the legend consumed me as I started from Kolkata on a bus run by the royal government of Bhutan. It took me to Phuentsholing from where Paro is about six hours drive. The entry into this fascinating kingdom was  a gradual lesson in politeness and a zen like patience. To my incessantly stereotyping mind, every Bhutanese looked like a zen monk to whom I must talk to with a slight bow borne out of admiration. The men and women almost everywhere wore their traditional dress. The men in gho and the women in that gorgeous kira.

I had heard it from a dozen people that morning, about how fortunate I am to be visiting Taktsang on the day of the vesak . It was a full moon night that day, also known as buddha purnima . This day commemorates the birth, enlightenment and the death of Buddha and is one of the most auspicious day around the world for all the people of this faith. It was good to take the steps towards this monastery with this feeling of having being called to this place on such a day. It was a solemn morning. The pine trees made it even more intense. It got surreal as I trekked those eight kilometers to the monastery. It was much like that moment when Frederick, that character in Herman Hesse’s story Within and Without comes across the words “Nothing is without, nothing is within; for what is without is within” in his friend Erwin’s beautiful hand. He doesn’t know it. Yet he is sure that these words would soon torment him to be not able to know why they hold his attention and why should they matter to him. They appear to be casting a magic spell on him. Just as this place and the surroundings that day were playing on me.

The monastery complex. Photography inside is prohibited. And I think it is a good thing!

The monastery complex. Photography inside is prohibited. And I think it is a good thing!

Late in the noon the light spread beautifully in the entire valley.

Late in the noon the light spread beautifully in the entire valley.

There were these huge prayer flag strung across the cliffs. As I look back, the setting was too surreal to be in.

There were these huge prayer flag strung across the cliffs. As I look back, the setting was too surreal to be in.

It is interesting how some of these places where you travel end up altering and shaping a person. And perhaps a traveler is a consequence of several such experiences. I loved the place and its people right from the point of entry into this lovely country and until that third day when I was in Paro, I was much at peace and content with each moment. Not much to worry about, nothing to take care of when I get back and thoughts like these. Every moment felt complete. This probably was heightening what I was experiencing on that trek and then further into the temple complex. I found happy, smiling faces all around. There were Bhutanese men and women, youngsters and children who had come in groups to offer their prayers at Taktsang on this day of vesak which was also a national holiday. Yet they appeared so few that the press of crowd that is typically felt in Indian temples or holy places was absent. What was without, I longed for becoming so within. It is one of the few places where I could hit a consonance between the outer and the inner states. Of being!

Age, Travel, Life & some Steinbeck

Road, Vembar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So there… take the road!