In early modern England, where my mind tends to travel very often, scholars just out of university were expected to travel abroad for recreation and practical exposure. I have just completed a project that has taken me almost as long as all my previous courses of higher studies taken together. I am expected to travel now. I am expected to crave for a travelling treat. If I were a child, I could rattle off half a dozen names of exotic holiday destinations. Let me try and remember my old favourites: Africa, Greece, Egypt, Peru, Istanbul, Austria … These days my son picks up some of those names from his little globe and pleads with me to take him around those faraway places. When you are a child, names are like magic wands. They make you want to visit. They are like new empty wallets, drawers, shelves, even rooms, inviting you to stuff them with dream objects. As an adult, you tend to demand a great deal more from magic too. Names are now like old emptied wallets, drawers, shelves, even rooms, emptied of signification and charm. The trouble with me is that I cannot think of a single actual place that I have not already travelled to, vicariously, that is, via picturesquely illustrated, factually detailed travel essays in weekend newspaper supplements, Travel and Living shows on regional, national or multi-national satellite television channels, and, of course, on Google Earth. From inner city road-side eateries to heritage buildings, I have seen it all. I am monarch of all I survey. What I have not seen on television or Google Earth or some friend’s latest Facebook album, I can envision with such disconcerting ease that it no longer affords the necessary intellectual thrill. Even the residual fantasy of watching the earth in motion from space has been satisfied by a recent NASA video clip available on the internet. Neither Mars nor the moon seems all that fetching anymore. Probably, the only real novelty that remains is time travel, despite the uninspiring cinematic adaptations of The Time Machine.
As I read about Mrs. Oliver, the elderly detective novelist in Agatha Christie’s Elephants Can Remember, shying away from people, I am reminded of my own ennui about places. In my desperation, I only look to travel to places that my son would enjoy visiting. I’ll probably end up visiting the Nandan Kanan Zoo in Bhubaneshwar and, maybe, Singapore Zoo, just to see the sparkle in my son’s eyes and relive the magic of travel through his responses.
I am not the backpacker around the world, trying to make the most of a hard-earned gap year. I am not the affluent family tourist who checks into luxury resorts or heritage buildings turned into hotels. I am not the new-age adventure tourist who, going by a recent feature story in The Telegraph Sunday Magazine, is no less spoilt for choice. I am simply the middle-class traveller who craves for that impossible combination: a new place that somehow offers the comforts of home and a pageant of interesting new people to talk to over a lazy cup of coffee and home-made dinner. I suppose that makes me something of an old-fashioned cultural traveller who cannot be enthused by a place unless it is mediated by a host of readerly and viewerly associations. But the point I am making is not really a snobbish one. I think the only way to discover a place is by staying in it for a decent length of time. In that admittedly paradoxical sense, travel is its opposite. It is like saying motion is rest. I could go on with this exercise in a way that would help put my disaffection with travel in perspective. I could say like Teirisias that those who see too much with their eyes forget to see with their mind’s eye. Twenty-first-century men and women live amidst shifting collages, where the exotic has been domesticated and the everyday has been canonised. The trouble, of course, is the limitless plurality of experiences available to us today.
I seem to have unwittingly drawn a line in my mind between two kinds of wanderlust. The one is simply a yearning for glimpses of unspoilt scenic beauty. But, of course, I yearn for such glimpses precisely because I know, say like Keats in his Ode on A Grecian Urn, that I shall not be able to hold the moment till eternity with my eyes. I yearn for a glimpse just about long enough to freeze it in time with my mind’s eye, internalise it and re-live over and over again when I am away from it. I know I sound like Wordsworth in The Daffodils when I say that. I am actually thinking of two very different poems, one by Nirendranath Chakraborty I had read at school about the suddenness with which the sea at Puri came into view as he turned a bend, and another a poem I teach in class these days, Postcard from Kashmir by Aga Shahid Ali. Both essentially talk about the impossibility of prolonging that moment of beauty in real time, the impossibility of any actual visual encounter matching the image that endures in the mind, either fashioned out of a flitting but momentous glimpse or borrowed from someone else’s narrated or painted experience. Any attempt to re-visit and re-view an actual site of beauty is marred by memories. Here, I am reminded of yet another literary work, E. M. Forster’s ironically titled short story The Eternal Moment. When Miss Raby went back to Italy, both her favourite hotel and her heartthrob, the dashing porter who had fallen in love with her all those years ago, had decayed. I was deeply disappointed with the real Darjeeling, having experienced its charms through Ray’s Kanchenjungha before going there in person. When I went to Puri, I kept looking out, in vain, for the deserted beaches where much of Tapan Sinha’s Nirjan Saikate was set. When I went to Benaras, my eyes sought the steep steps of the ghats up which Harihar Ray tottered in Ray’s Aparajito.In the few picturesque places in India I have been to as an adult, the beaches of Puri, the hills of Shimla, I have always found a picturesqueness spoiled by the squalor and plastic waste produced by unplanned development. That is not to say I am an ecotourism enthusiast. Quite the contrary. Ecotourism is anyhow difficult to sustain in a populous developing country like ours. I cannot help feel tourism, unfortunately deemed necessary for the economic growth of beautiful places, inevitably destroys those places. The human hand does not always mar, it also nurtures and succours. Tourists, however, are consumers on a fast track. Adam and Eve looked after Paradise, certainly made it more beautiful everyday by tending to God’s bounty. But Adam and Eve lived in Paradise. They did not come as tourists. It has taken me to almost ten years to begin to discover this at once green and red, rugged and lush district called Birbhum and the neighbouring state of Jharkhand. As we went round Surichuwa, near Rampurhat, just after the rains this year, I found myself transported back to green, green England, its undulating hills, its mellow sun, its grazing piebald cows. This is what I mean when I say travelling is staying. I only needed to step out about a hundred kilometres from my home to relive a place literally thousands of kilometres, several time-zones and climatic belts away. In my eyes, that day, Birbhum turned into England, and I couldn’t help shake my head in disagreement with that fascinatingly cynical grand old man of letters, Nirad C. Chaudhuri. I could see why the English came and settled in Bengal. I saw Bengal through their eyes.
The other kind of travel is about meeting people. If the sensory engagement in the previous mode is primarily ocular, in this kind of travel, it is as much aural as ocular. In such travel, too, a short one-off visit is unlikely to be too productive in imaginative terms. It could, but only through obstinate refusal to commit oneself to any pre-conceived itinerary or plan, through a resolution to follow one’s instincts, to give oneself over to impulse. But I find it impossible to muster such an adventurous spirit on first visit. I have to grow roots in a place and discover it quietly, quite by accident, through unexpected offers of hospitality. Others at Oxford would go punting on the Thames and Cherwell rivers every summer day. I went punting only once and that too when a fellow student offered to take me along. But I remember that day better than I would if I went punting every day two summers in a row. Conversations, too, have to happen unexpectedly. I seem to remember my conversations with every stranger I met in course of my travels in England and Europe vividly.
However, this laid-back, somewhat passive approach to travel and its treasures demands staying, meetings and partings, over and over again. A visit is too purposeful a project, particularly short-term ones. Only a long stay allows one to loosen the bonds of convention and custom. Though I began this essay with a reference to early modern travel, I cannot say I look upon travel with the same kind of educative zeal as, say, Sir Francis Bacon does in his essay Of Travel.
As I write this piece, I am set to revisit New Delhi. This will be my seventeenth visit to a city that never managed to charm me on any of those previous visits. I know I shall see very little of the city this time. I am unlikely to take Delhi’s much-acclaimed new tube network, the one thing that has helped Delhi come of age as a city. I am unlikely to walk its wide, imposing, flyover-shaded roads. I am unlikely to come up with a book about my travels in Delhi, like, say, Sam Miller’s refreshingly candid Delhi: Adventures in A Megacity. I am going back with a greater likelihood of meeting a lot of people in the comforts of the home I shall stay at. At the very thought of it, though, all my ennui about travel is gone.