Vacations once meant the inevitable trip to what is sometimes still called ‘the native place’. This usually meant dusty train journeys sometimes followed by bus journeys to places like Mettur, Kancheepuram, Kumbakonam or plain old Chennai. Once in a rare while, it meant exotic places such as
Kashmir or Rajasthan.
Maybe it’s because these exotic vacations were always attended by disasters such as flat tyres, missed flights and bookings that we found cancelled just as we gratefully collapsed in the hotel lobby, that I am now a very jittery and reluctant traveller. I don’t travel if I can help it and I am puzzled by this passion Indians suddenly have to see every place on this planet before it is either submerged by the sea, or destroyed by war, natural disaster, disease or plain old economic development.
It hardly needs to be said that travel of a certain touristy kind is partially responsible for the disappearance of whatever it is the traveller has come to see: those swirling mists now carry not the scent of pines or eucalyptus but of garbage; that ancient temple will always tell you that Ravi loves Sujata (whatever the current state of their relationship may be) and the ads promise you that everywhere you go will be just like where you left.
The seasoned traveller takes these paradoxes in her stride but I am not one of them. Of late, I find more things to offend me and make me indignant about the consumption of places and people. In the documentary film, Jashn-e-Azadi by Sanjay Kak, one sequence shows a bunch of people posing with army jawans, sometimes with guns slung awkwardly over their shoulders, sometimes with borrowed army caps, but always with big, happy grins on their faces. Are they really unmindful of what it means to pose for those kinds of photographs in present-day
I can’t decide if vacationers are especially good at wilful blindness or if it’s just me who is morbidly sensitive. I suppose it depends on why one travels. If travel is one way of enlarging one’s experience then surely the traveller must engage with the place at also the human level? Places aren’t just mountains and sea or food and handicrafts.
When I think of the chattering busloads standing on the suicide points scattered across the hill stations of this country or bargaining hard over a mekhla-chador or bastar toy, or even making a mini-pradakshana around the swimsuit-clad woman lying on a beach in Goa, I can’t help remembering Pablo Neruda’s sprawling, incantatory poem, ‘Spain in our Hearts’. The last section of the poem, ‘I Explain A Few Things’, sets up a series of questions the speaker of the poem is supposedly asked: “You will ask: and where are the lilacs?/ And the metaphysical blanket of poppies?/ And the rain that often struck/ your words filling them/ with holes and birds”. The answer, after a several detours, is stirring and unforgettable:
Come and see the blood in the streets,
Come and see
The blood in the streets,
Come and see the blood
In the streets!
The inevitable question, if one does see the blood in the streets is, it possible to be unaffected and continue to look for beauty or peace or the gods or the past or whatever it is one is looking for, as if nothing were happening now? Where can one safely travel without being crass or insensitive?
Since I don’t particularly want to wring my hands in public, let me also confess that I don’t have answers to these questions.
What is clear to me is that I won’t be going anywhere this summer. Instead, I will travel with a remote and a bowl of murmura. If there’s no electricity, there’s always a stack of books to hand.