Marrying the Road

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.

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The Rendezvous by Bhaswati Ghosh (flash fiction)

You never approved of it as a meeting point; I always found it interesting.

After all, the whole city’s lovers would converge in Victoria Memorial, Nicco Park, or even the not-one-bit romance inspiring Moidan. I found my intensive coaching for the IIT entrance test to be a boon. Stealing those few minutes by the graying walls meant we weren’t thrown amid that snuggling, juvenile mass of couples in public places. For me, this secret (or was it, with the housewives peeking out of their first and second floor windows?) meeting with you every alternate evening worked perfectly. Until Baba appeared on the scene, that is. Not in my wildest dreams would I have imagined him passing by this stretch, catching a glimpse of me tapping on books, waiting for you.

“What were you doing in that neighborhood?” He asked me at dinner that night.

“Umm, where, Baba?” I looked as startled as I felt.

“In that lowly North Calcutta area. What took you there?”

“A friend lives there,” I muttered.

His caustic glare didn’t escape my eyes. The son of a sugar magnate, I wasn’t supposed to step into a North Calcutta ghetto. His look scared me he would find out. He did. For three months, we didn’t talk.

One evening, while trotting toward the gray walls, I saw Baba talking to some people. He had met your parents afterwards. A month later, he blessed us. At our wedding.

I still love those leaking pipes lining our gray, you know.

First published in The Clarity of Night “Silent Grey” short fiction contest.

Satirical Films Have a Lot to Say About India’s ‘Baba’ Culture

First published in The Wire

Stills from <em>Mahapurush</em> and <em>Ab Ayega Mazaa</em>.

Miracles, magic, superhuman powers, grand events – the works. Divine grace hides in samosas, the answer to fatal diseases in pranayama routines and relief from brutal office stress in pricey retreats and workshops. Science is debunked, its “helpless” limits made to capitulate before extraordinary and divine-blessed powers. The stories of many a spiritual guru in India would make for cracking comedy if it weren’t for the tragedy of real masses of converts being swindled in broad daylight, mostly of their own volition. As the court case involving Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh unravelled recently, I returned to Mahapurush (Satyajit Ray) and Ab Ayega Mazaa – two films that satirise ‘babadom’ at its hilarious best.

Based on Birinchi Baba, a story by Rajshekhar Basu, one of the greatest Bengali satirists, Ray’s Mahapurush shows how babas appear in many stripes to take care of every kind of gripe. In a discussion among three men – two chess players and their friend who is in search of a baba who would rescue him from his broke status – there’s mention of Mirchi Baba, a godman who gives his followers hot chilli peppers for curing all their distress and Radio Baba, who taps into electricity from the sky and turns it into sparks to combust any problems his disciples face. Not too long ago a real baba, who used to prescribe remedies involving the distribution of hot samosas and muffins among folks, went bust. The darbars of Nirmaljeet Singh Narula, Nirmal Baba to his followers, were a lesson in the incredible human capacity for suspending disbelief in front of a guru who sits on a gaudy throne and dishes out barkat (Urdu for abundance or blessings) via samosas, gol gappe and wearing ties, as if the sky were dispensing showers in the monsoon. Babas in India disseminate their abundance in different ways. Ramdev does it via kapalbhati and Patanjali, the efficacy of both of which have been questioned; Singh in the form of drugs and liquor rehabilitation, and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Jaggi Vasudev by elevating the appeal of that elusive elixir called a “heightened state of consciousness” into something of a corporatised business model.

Read the rest in The Wire

Immigrant’s Postcard: White is White (even when it isn’t)

Read other Immigrant’s Postcards here.

My husband has a visit scheduled for his vision test. The optometry is close to his workplace. A couple of days before his appointment, the doctor leaves him a voicemail to confirm the time, date and location. The message is an elaborate one; short of reciting the exact map, the doctor makes sure his patient has all the necessary information to show up for the test. At the appointed time, my husband finds the doctor to be an octogenarian, as he had imagined him to be by the tone of his voice and his laboured speech in the voicemail. The oculist smiles widely on seeing my husband. “So you are a Sikh.” My husband acknowledges with a soft smile as the doctor goes on to tell him of his English lineage. On hearing B’s date of birth, he says, “Oh, so you were six months old when I moved to Canada.” “Have you been to Goa?” He asks my husband. “Yes.” The affirmative response encourages the elderly specialist to share the story of his friendship with a man from Goa. “He had a Portuguese heritage. For some reason, he was dark skinned even when everyone else in his immediate family had a light, Caucasian skin tone.” In between applying eye drops and asking my husband to stick his eyes into machines the ophthalmologist has to use but doesn’t have much faith in, he regales him with how his Goanese friend, a fellow ophthalmologist, travelled around the world in a ship. “I can’t tell you all his stories, but I can tell you one today.” This is the story goes on to narrate.

DSC_2190-001

The Goanese oculist once visited South Africa to attend a conference on ophthalmology. Those were the apartheid years. After the conference, the group of ophthalmologists he was travelling with went to dine at a restaurant. Everyone but the oculist from Goa was allowed inside the “Whites only” restaurant. The man accepted the verdict and made as if to leave the spot. He had barely stepped out of the restaurant’s precincts when a woman, a member of the restaurant staff, came running to him. “Sir, please wait a minute,” she said. The man turned around, half surprised. “Sir, please come in,” the lady huffed. “We have been able to confirm that you are white.” The dark-skinned Goanese man of Portuguese descent walked in to join his colleagues, as sanguine as he was moments ago when he was denied entry into the restaurant.

On Durga’s Migrant Trails

durga puja

Note: This personal essay appears in the December issue of The Four Quarters Magazine, which I had the honour of guest editing. 

A group of children–between six to eight years in age–sat on a dusty rug on the ground with drawing sheets on boards before them. After drawing out scenes depicting one of the three theme choices provided to them, they furiously pushed crayons over the penciled sketches. My brother was one of the contestants of this on-the-spot- painting competition, interestingly called “boshey anko protijogita” in Bengali, literally meaning sit-and-draw contest. He drew a Christmas scene, having chosen the theme, “Your favourite festival.” A couple of hours later, when the results were out, he had real reason to celebrate– he had won the first prize.

There was nothing unusual about this except his choice of festival; the contest was part of a Durga puja celebration. Given that most of the festival entries depicted the ten-armed goddess and her rejoicing devotees and a few portrayed Diwali, which would approach in less than a month, the judges must have been either too brave or too liberal to adjudge a Christmas image as the best entry.

Was this because the venue of the puja and therefore the contest was outside mainland Bengal, in Delhi? I can’t really tell, for I was born and raised in what bonafide Bengalis call probaash–a sentiment-laced word for foreign land.

Photo source: Hinduism.about.com

Immigrant’s Postcard: The Child is the Grandmother of the Woman

A series on my experiences as an immigrant in Canada

It’s the first day of swimming lessons for my husband and me. After the class, the instructor suggests we practice in a different lane. Apart from the two of us, a young Canadian girl and a gentleman from Pakistan join the practice. I am still practicing floating when a girl, snow white in complexion and no more than five years old, walks across the deck to stand near me.

“Is the water warm or cold?” she asks me.

“It’s not too cold,” I say.

She jumps in and squeals in delight, “It’s warm!” then jumps right out.

As we float, holding on to the deck wall for our dear lives, she asks me,

“Are you and him, Mom and Dad?” She points with her eyes to the Pakistani gentleman, floating in a corner away from the three of us.

“Me and who?” I ask her.

She points again to the Pakistani swimmer, saying, “This one.”

“No,” I say and draw her attention to my husband, floating right next to me, “Me and him are together.”

“Ah, so you are parents,” she says knowingly.

“No,” I simply say.

“So you are grownups.”

“Yes.”

“You are going to have a baby?”

“No.”

“You have a baby,” she says, rolling her eyes.

“No, I don’t.”

“I know you do.”

“No…”

“The baby got out. I know it did.”

With that, she walks away, casting one last all-knowing glance my way.

I beseech, “No!”

But to no avail. By now the little lady has already moved on.

READ ALL IMMIGRANT’S POSTCARDS HERE

Photo courtesy: http://vdleek.blogspot.ca/