First published in DNA
One of my favourite Salil Chowdhury songs opens with the idea of submitting oneself to the call of the road. “Straight paths have riddled me long enough,” it says, as the singer pledges to embark on a journey only so he can lose his way. This isn’t a drifter’s falling off course or a wanderer’s aimless straying; this is a conscious commitment – to be led by the road, pregnant as it is with possibilities, stories and intuitive wisdom. Often, the outcome of such journeys is transformative, and the evolution of the itinerant as continuous as the curves on the road.
One person’s journey is always his own – it can never be transposed to another’s experience or interpretation even if the path travelled on is the same. What is the point of recording such trips then? In reading The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara and On the Road by Jack Kerouac – two quintessential road trip books – I found the answer to that question to be more quizzical than evident. These are two very different journeys taken across different geographical locations in America, with different motives and sensibilities. As a reader, while I vicariously ventured on the trips outlined by the protagonists of these books, the real affection happened not with the travels themselves but with what they revealed. These were not acts of heroism (as Guevara would make clear at the very outset of his account) but almost the opposite – of allowing oneself to be vulnerable even when logic dictated otherwise.
In The Motorcycle Diaries, two friends in their early twenties take up an ambitious voyage across South America, an endeavour that would take them nine months to complete. Guevara, 23 years old at the start of the journey, wasn’t yet the firebrand revolutionary he would later become. He was, rather, an asthmatic medical student, who along with his friend, Alberto Granado, set out to explore the Latin American universe aboard a rickety Norton 500 motorcycle. It would be a difficult journey for the body and the soul; one that would test the narrator’s ability to maintain his poise when the going became treacherous.
In nine months of a man’s life he can think a lot of things, from the loftiest meditations on philosophy to the most desperate longing for a bowl of soup — in total accord with the state of his stomach. And if, at the same time, he’s somewhat of an adventurer, he might live through episodes. [The Motorcycle Diaries, Ernesto Che Guevara]
Sal Paradise, the protagonist of On the Road is also on a coast-to-coast road trip – across the United States of America. At different points during this epic journey he is joined by varying sets of people – friends and strangers and strangers who turn into friends, even if ephemerally. As I read through the pages of Paradise’s peregrine undertakings, based on Kerouac’s own adventures with Neal Cassady, a prominent Beat figure, I was struck by restlessness of spirit that the prose remarkably renders. True, Sal Paradise is on the road a lot of the time. Yet his journey begins not on the road; nor would it end once he had “arrived.” It starts and continues inside him.
If anything, both these testaments of passage are a rebellion against arriving. The exploration is as much within oneself as it is external. The idea is to find oneself by becoming one of the “many.” In The Motorcycle Diaries, as Guevara and Granado travel farther and deeper, they have a close brush with the lives of the poor and exploited. This becomes possible because of the tramp-like nature of their journey as their bike breathes its last in Chile. As they hitchhike their way through the Latin American landscape, a lot of times aboard trucks laden with indigenous people, Guevara realises the tremendous humiliation meted out to poor people across the continent—whether it be the persecution of a mining couple in Chile for the man’s “communist” leanings, or the abject conditions to which Peru’s native mountain tribes are subjected, or the sordid state of leprosy patients they visit at the San Pablo leper colony in Peru.
And because these are not sanitised, package-deal, calendar-carved travels, they record details with an impressionistic astuteness a tourist will most likely miss or decide to forget.
The floors of bus stations are the same all over the country, always covered with butts and spit and they give a feeling of sadness that only bus stations have. [On the Road, Jack Kerouac]
Even as I write this essay, I see the evening deepening, drawing dusk closer to its bosom. The summer, which came after an excruciatingly long winter, seems eager to move on already, making way for the fall. Both Guevara and Paradise are this summer – mercurial and anxious, hungry for tasting life in every possible way. For Sal Paradise, this search extends to testing his limits with drugs, sex, and psychedelic experiences. The goal is to taste and live freedom in its truest sense and the path to that goal is nonconformity and free-flowing.
“Dean and I are embarked on a tremendous season together. We’re trying to communicate with absolute honesty and absolute completeness everything on our minds. We’ve had to take benzedrine. We sit on the bed, crosslegged, facing each other.” [On the Road, Jack Kerouac]
Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries and Paradise in On the Road are deliberate anti-heroes, choosing to be in situations that will force them to share their time and space with other ordinary folks – farmers and hobos, labourers and slum dwellers. The tragicomedy of this is sometimes of Chaplinesque proportions. And like the indefatigable tramp himself, these two road rovers don’t care two hoots about that. Quite remarkably, in fact, they seem to take pride in landing themselves in situations most people would take care to avoid. And it is in these comical scenarios that the ordinary is elevated to extraordinary, the hobo to a hero, the hapless motorcycle rider to a weather-beaten survivor.
Alberto, unmovable, was resisting the morning sun’s attempt to disturb his deep sleep, while I dressed slowly, a task we didn’t find particularly difficult because the difference between our night wear and day wear was made up, generally, of shoes. [The Motorcycle Diaries, Ernesto Che Guevara]
If the life-is-a-search metaphor sparks off Guevara’s and Paradise’s motivation, the road must surely be their pilgrimage and destination rolled into one. In investigating the road’s possibilities and by digging into its stories, they impregnate her with yet more prospects and their own tales. Tales of not being deceived by the straight path.