My sister once asked me what is your passion? I fumbled around for an answer with several ‘umms’ and ‘hmmms’. And then it dawned on me. Travel. Since the time that I stepped out of my home at the age of 19, I have been hooked. I day-dream about maps, resolutely scour through travel pictures of my friends on Facebook, transport myself with them, and imagine journeys taken and untaken. Not for the sake of going to a new place, but the act of purchasing my tickets, packing my bags, proceeding to catch my bus/train/plane, the time spent in the mode of transport, and then reaching the destination. To me, that is what I enjoy about traveling. After reaching my destination, it is less of a travel and more of an exploration of a new wonder.
When I picked up Traveling In, Traveling Out: A Book of Unexpected Journeys edited by Namita Gokhale, this feeling came back to hit me. It was so powerful that I could barely go past the text on the cover page, “We travel all the time, from place to place, thought to thought.” It was the first time that I came across ‘thinking’ as a form of journey and it took me back to the numerous ways our mind travels across time, emotions, feelings, memories, and incidences, both contrived and real. This form of journey does not require any sort of displacement. Being a student in academia, we are also taught the value of thought experiments, and what are these thought experiments if not journeys of prolonged intellectual deliberation to produce theories as Einstein did for the Theory of Relativity.
Coming back to the book, it is a remarkable anthology of 25 short stories that tug on your heartstrings. The reason that I loved the stories in the book was because they were not mere descriptions about unknown places, but spoke to the essence of how I conceptualize travel. Explorations of the self in an unknown place took precedence over the place itself.
My favorite story was the moving, unresolved tale of Jehangir Tata’s house in Shanghai and his attempts to find out what happened to the house after the emergence of the communist party. Mishi Saran in A House for Mr Tata, An Old Shanghai Tale, brings forth a narrative of booming optimism, the building of a new life in Shanghai, the fall of the business after the madness of the Cultural Revolution, the sudden fleeing from Shanghai to avoid prison, and consequently leaving behind a carefully accumulated life and a home. A home that jingled with merry laughter and good times has now been seized by the government and all Jehangir Tata, past his 95 years (who now lives in San Francisco) want a piece of paper that tells him what happened to his home as closure. It was such a magnificent story, and unfortunately its magnificence was drawn from such deep sadness.
Ali Sethi’s A Foreigner’s Situation an account about Pakistani immigrants in Copenhagen was another affecting tale. The layers of complexities involved in navigating colour, religion, traditions, family, and local customs all clashed headlong in this story where the author follows a Pakistani who runs a travel agency. In a foreign land, what must a foreigner do? Should the foreigner assimilate into the new society and cut off ties, or must a foreigner retain traditions and not assimilate into the new life? And then the third option is to retain both, but yet never feel completely at home in either culture – be neither here nor there. This is the emotion that I have felt in the past five years of my graduate life in the US. A mixture of wanting to soak in everything that the country offers, and yet not wanting to let go of the place that I come from. Indeed, I have come close to shunning my roots several times. But then, what is it that ties me to my homeland in a foreign country? Is it my thoughts, my conversations with family and friends back home, cinema, is it books, is it music and art, is it theatre, is it people who share a connection to a country far away, or is it the flag hoisting every Independence day?
Stories of hill stations have a special place in my heart for the special brand of romance that they evoke. Growing up in the plains of Pune, hill stations always kindled feelings of mists, light rains, boarding schools, hidden glances, ambling walks on rain fed paths fresh from the fragrance of the first rain, and small towns – possibly all sorts of romantic hogwash. But, Mayank Austen Soofi’s story, In search of Lost Time, was another tale that reinforced my images of life in a hill station. I always yearned for a glimpse into the towns of Nainital, Mussorie, Dehradun, Ooty and have been rewarded in sporadic trips that only lasted for a day. I have imagined the hill station way of life to have a slow melody that is now lost, leaving behind a heady influx of tourists. I have only been to Nainital and Ooty and both the times, I felt saddened by the sight of these towns. The famed Nainital Lake reeked of sewage and the hills of Ooty was ugly with shacks. I hunted all over the towns for the image that I had conjured up in my mind, but I could not find them. Similarly, Soofi also laments the loss of places and a previous way of life in Nainital. He writes, “Old, pristine Nainital is preserved largely in people’s memories; only the residues of that fabled past is there to see and feel.” Much like the lyrics of Manmarziyaan from Lootera- the song of seasons and the song of desires.
I recently had an argument with my sister about the meaning of travel. She argued that travel is a journey undertaken for a long span of time to an unknown place, much like the dictionary definition. I disagreed and argued that travel can mean any kind of journey, be it for a long span or a short span, or to a place known or unknown. I believe that the dictionary definition is too narrow and restrictive and does not provide space to the experiences that I may encounter even on a commute that has been undertaken for the past 50 years. I think travel does not need to be defined by the constrictions of time and location, and cannot be divorced from the experiences that make up a journey. And it for this reason that I loved the book. It is one of the best book’s that I have read in a long time. This book is to treasure. It imparts to the mundane and to the routine an inexplicable magic of journeys and jaunts.
P.S. Also, one of the best book covers. There is something about bicycles 🙂