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 fabled crop of winter

First published in DNA

For the past two years, from the time of my intercontinental drift to North America, winter hadn’t coiled me in its viper-like grasp. I had thus brushed off warnings of “bitter, brutal Canadian winters” as hoax spun by hyperbolic weaklings. Then, the winter of 2013-14 happened. Like a nightly creature that keeps its movements hushed, it pounced on me — surreptitiously and with a bloodthirsty vengeance.

Curiously enough, while I found myself abjectly underprepared to deal with the onslaught of the season’s icy blows, my imagination experienced an odd and even mystifying boost. A spruce tree coated with the first dust of snow became a young-at-heart old man for me. A pine tree, resolute in its evergreen dignity, seen from the window next to my seat at work, became a trusted companion when all the other trees surrounding it bared their branches. Snow-covered cupped hedges appeared as giant ice-cream cones ready to be licked clean by overgrown kids like me. As my mostly unimaginative mind ran wild with wintry metaphors, I began digging into winter in fiction.

To my delight, I discovered that this bone-numbing, grinding stone of a season has moved many a storyteller’s creative muscles. In The Snow Man, O Henry sets the winter scene up in the countryside amidst a menacing snowstorm. Arguably not in league with his finest short narratives, the story nevertheless resonated with me — because the narrator’s disdain for snow equalled mine.

Of all the curious knickknacks, mysteries, puzzles, Indian gifts, rat-traps, and well-disguised blessings that the gods chuck down to us from the Olympian peaks, the most disquieting and evil-bringing is the snow… [The Snow Man, O Henry]

Interestingly, the story opens with this sentence, “Housed and windowpaned from it, the greatest wonder to little children is the snow.” Going by the number of times schools in our area shut down this winter owing to snow-related danger on the roads, I suspect I know why children love the white stuff as much as they do.

At the same time, the prospect of snow days can prove to be a jolting annoyance in the routine lives of stay-at-home parents. Winters were frustratingly mild in North Carolina, but the year I was in the fifth grade we got lucky. Snow fell, and, for the first time in years, it accumulated. School was cancelled, and two days later we got lucky again. There were eight inches on the ground, and, rather than melting, it froze. [Let it Snow, David Sedaris]

By late November, snow had enveloped every house, building, tree and park in the laidback Ontario town where I live. My city was a white-hooded mischief maker; even street signs hid behind pillows of snow, conning rush-hour traffic. Amnesiac fields of snow quizzed me, “What is the colour of green?” In the eyes of Dominican-American author, Julia Álvarez’s young protagonist, snow resembles something much more sinister. At the Catholic school she goes to after immigrating to the United States, her teacher draws a picture of mushroom cloud on the blackboard to explain the consequences of a nuclear war in the prevailing Cold War environment.

Then comes the girl’s first snowfall. The months grew cold, November, December. It was dark when I got up in the morning, frosty when I followed my breath to school. One morning as I sat at my desk daydreaming out the window, I saw dots in the air like the ones Sister Zoe had drawn random at first, then lots and lots. I shrieked, “Bomb! Bomb!” Sister Zoe jerked around, her full black skirt ballooning as she hurried to my side. But then Sister Zoe’s shocked look faded. “Why, Yolanda dear, that’s snow!” She laughed. “Snow”. [How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Julia Álvarez]

Between December and February, the winter of 2013-14 unleashed its redoubtable fierceness. A massive ice storm hit parts of Ontario, knocking out electricity and bringing entire cities to a standstill.

Arctic gales blew mercilessly as did blizzards and snow squalls. It was no longer just a matter of battling nature’s forces. Despite being wrapped under layers of clothing, the promise of central heating and the luxury of a fireplace, I recoiled as the cold pulled me into its vortex.

This was a chakravyuh no limping flame, no pale sun could touch. In a visually arresting winter story by Tobias Wolff, three hunting friends brace not just frigid shrapnel but also the frosty chill of mind games and human bitterness.

The wind was blowing into their faces. The snow was a moving white wall in front of their lights; it swirled into the cab through the hole in the windshield and settled on them. Tub clapped his hands and shifted around to stay warm, but it didn’t work. [Hunters in the Snow, Tobias Wolff]

Wolff’s story is a rough territory where the dense vegetation of a forest and the cutting arrows of winter contend against the complex equation between the three hunters. It’s hard to tell what stings the skin more — the slap of blowing snow or the barbed comment of a comrade.

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This feeling of being left cold at a deeper, psychological level is portrayed superbly by James Baldwin in Sonny’s Blues, the gut-wrenching story of a young musician struggling with addiction, and the “icy dread” his older brother, the narrator, feels at various points during their interactions.

“It’s terrible sometimes, inside,” he said, “that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out — that storm inside…” [Sonny’s Blues, James Baldwin]

As winter continues to exert its inexorable grip where I live, usurping spring, threatening to blot out even summer, I wonder what is it that ticks a writer’s fancy in the wintertime.

Is it the result of forced solitude — months spent cooped-up inside? Or is imagination the only escape, the only coping mechanism, when the daily reality is that of zero-visibility on the roads, a mountain of snow to shovel before work, and watching one’s step all the time to avoid slipping into ice?When hope, optimism and anticipation all fade before the determination of this year’s winter, I take refuge in Oscar Wilde’s words in The Selfish Giant, a story he wrote for children.

One winter morning he looked out of his window as he was dressing. He did not hate the Winter now, for he knew that it was merely the Spring asleep, and that the flowers were resting. [The Selfish Giant, Oscar Wilde]

Cutting Through Mountains to Build a Statue

An excerpt from Somendranath Bandyopadhyay’s My Days with Ramkinkar Baij where the sculptor and painter shares with the author his experience of sculpting the Yaksha-Yakshi statues that stand outside the central bank in New Delhi.

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

Kinkarda’s innocence amuses me. He is oblivious to the gigantic cost of cutting through a mountain. I know that once he had to pay the price for this inexperience. Recalling the incident I say, ‘You did do a major work by cutting stones later, though. In front of New Delhi’s Reserve Bank.’

‘Yes. The Reserve Bank governor had provided me with a lot of conveniences. Their only request was “Do something”.

‘I made Yaksha-Yakshi. Many people call it ‘Kuber’. Arre, why should it be Kuber? It’s not Kuber. It is Yaksha. They aren’t even husband and wife, but brother and sister. Yakshi. Had it been the wife, she would have been called Yakshini.

‘In Bharatpur and Sanchi, I had seen ancient Yaksha-Yakshi statues. Their limbs were broken. I also studied a few of those at the Patna Museum.

Yakshi holds the territory of land and agriculture. And Yaksha reigns over wealth. Kuber is above them. You must have read Coomaraswamy’s book; that contains everything.

‘You might have noticed that I’ve placed a discus in my sculpture’s hand. That was my idea. Addition. It’s a modern-day machine and is symbolic of industry. I got the idea for the flower and paddy cluster in Yakshi’s hand from the old statues. You know what Yaksha held in the ancient statues? A mallet. And a bag in the left hand. I have placed that too. Money bag. My Yaksha is completely modern – with a machine and a money bag. And is it possible to have the money bag and not have a fat belly? Yakshas do have protruding bellies, my dear. You must have seen ancient Yaksha statues. My Yaksha has it too.’

Read the rest in The Wire.

 

Who is Abani, at whose house, and why is he even there?

[In the words of Brajendranath Mandal]
Samir Sengupta
Translated from the Bangla by
Bhaswati Ghosh
Originally published in Parabaas

Half-dissolved, I slide into sleep
Amid the heart’s distant pain.
Suddenly, the night rattles my door,
“Abani, are you home?”

[‘Abani, are you home’ by Shakti Chattopadhyay]

I never got to know Shakti Chattopadhyay in person. Until the other day, I didn’t even know who he was. I’m a villager and make my living by growing potatoes and gourds. This year I planted tomatoes and chili peppers — the tomatoes did really well, I got about two and a half quintals per katha (720 square feet). Honestly, I didn’t expect such a good yield. Although it didn’t get me a good price in the end, I still recovered the cost and even made a bit of profit.

Kolkata is far from our village. You have to first walk nearly four kilometers through the fields. Despite many efforts, no roads have come to the village. Newly-wed brides have to enter the village on foot; the sick have to be carried to the hospital on cots like the dead to a crematorium. Even though our village is in the Hooghly district, it’s on its northern edge, bordering Bardhaman. As I was saying—see, this losing track of what I was talking about is a sign of my getting old—after walking the four kilometers, you’d better sit down at a teashop to catch your breath.

Next, you need to get onto a bus that’s usually so packed that even the roof is crammed with people and luggage. If you can somehow stay inside the bus by hanging onto an overhead rod for an hour and a half, you’ll reach Gudup station, and from there to Kolkata in another two hours.

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But tell me, where do I find the time to visit Kolkata? A farmer’s life is a busy one. My day starts early. People like you who only eat chilies probably have no idea what it takes to cultivate them. Imagine harvesting all the peppers from the plants. This is a young man’s job. But if you hire someone like that, you need to pay him well. The price one gets for the chilies doesn’t cover the cost of labour. So we have to get young boys for the job. These days one hears a lot of hullabaloo against child labour; apparently, it amounts to exploiting children. But if I didn’t hire them, the boys would starve that day. On top of the wage, I also give them a basket of muri and lunch. Is that worse than them going a day without work and food? Can one get education on an empty stomach? I don’t know. The politicians in our village say a lot of big words like “literacy” and such.

I didn’t study much — didn’t get the opportunity. You see, I had to accompany my father to the fields since I was five years old. I know my soil well. By placing a mere fleck of soil on my tongue I can tell you what would grow on it. I’m familiar with hundreds of weeds and can tell at least 70 types of insects. Back in the day, when it would start raining at the end of Magh, I would go to the field in the middle of the night to get drenched. I can’t do that any longer — the womenfolk don’t allow me to. But I’m a farmer’s son. My father used to say that if the farmer doesn’t bathe in the season’s first rain, the field doesn’t absorb enough moisture to hold the plow. One doesn’t use the plow that much these days; power tillers rented by the hour do the job. Still it makes me sad to miss bathing in the season’s first showers.

Read the rest in Parabaas.

 

Book review: How I Became a Tree

First published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday

Title: How I Became a Tree
Author: Sumana Roy
Publisher: Aleph Book Co.

PrintI was in primary school when I first heard trees talk. On my way to school every day as I sat by the window of our school bus, leaf-laden branches of trees sashayed as the bus zipped past them. I was convinced this was the trees’ way of sending me off to school with a bunch of good wishes. On still, humid days, when my green friends didn’t seem as enthusiastic, I feared about the mood of the day facing me. Though brief, this moment of intimacy with the trees lining the one-way separators on South Delhi roads, was crucial for the emotional subsistence of a lonely child like me. For Sumana Roy, the necessity of this bonding – with plant life, with trees, swaying or still – is so acute that she wishes to morph into one. And sort of does. How I Became a Tree is the story of that astonishing transformation.

But why this overwhelming desire to become a tree? Roy’s discontent with her human form is not so much biological as it is psychogenic. The two corollaries of modern life that disturb her most – excessive noise and speed – are the very things trees counterpoise with defiant ease. Early on in her intuitive journey, the author discovers tree time – a moment distilled in past- and future-less clarity. Trees teach her to let go of her slavish relationship with conceptual (man-made) time and relax in the moment. She notices the impartial kindness of the tree – equal in its dissemination of oxygen, shade, flower, and fruits to the gardener as well as the woodcutter.

The need for association with nature isn’t new. For long, it has been the favoured route for those on a spiritual quest. There are extensive records of sages and philosophers renouncing the material trip to go inside forests and sit by lakes, in search of answers only solitude can retrieve. What makes Roy’s quest deliciously different is her part-lover, part-parent, and part-playmate relationship with trees. She even becomes a tree sleuth – recording their “vocalizations” – “I had, in frustration with industrial noise and human verbosity, mistaken trees as silent creatures. My experiments with the sound recorder had brought about a new realization – that trees shared a natural sound with people.” She engages with trees in other interesting ways – by getting X-rays of tree trunks and by turning dead trees into sculptures. All these experiments grow deeper the roots of Roy’s conviction about the interchangeability of trees and human figures. She begins listening to human voices in relation to their tonal proximity to the sound of leaves in the wind. Her own skin becomes the bark of a tree and she imagines her bones getting rearranged for her to acquire a tree form.

In loving trees, Roy doesn’t forget the shadow world. In fact, by her own admission, her relationship with trees is shaped largely by their shadows. In a chapter curiously titled A Brief History of Shadows, she rues how shadows are unceremoniously left out of history books and archives and, through personal reminiscences and her reading of Roy Sorensen’s Seeing Dark Things: The Philosophy of Shadows, she eloquently makes the case for studying shadows for the things they can reveal. For me, though, her observation of what tree shadows withhold, or rather, erase, is of even more stunning import. “…The shadows of trees obliterate specificity, the colour of bark and leaves and flower and fruit. Just like the shadows of humans do not reflect race, class, or religion.”

As her disenchantment with modern industrial routine grows, the author is compelled to examine the stitches of mythology and scriptures, literature, philosophy, and art – to find threads of the human-tree convertibility phenomenon. Greek and Roman mythology tell her how women turned into trees to escape violence, human violence. Reading these episodes chillingly remind one, as they do Roy, of young Dalit women being raped and then hung from trees in present-day India. But she also finds “sahrydayas” (Sanskrit for soulmate or sharer of the soul) – humans who have shared her own kinship with trees. One of them is the artist Nandalal Bose who, while articulating his thoughts on drawing trees, remarkably compared their features and even personalities to those of humans.

Then there is Rabindranath Tagore – with both his extensive work with trees in Santiniketan and his personal anaclisis to plants. Like most plant lovers, he misses his plant relatives when he’s away on a trip and writes letters to human caretakers to look after them. It is only natural then for the universe of his writing to be populated by plant metaphors. Roy sees in his works illustrations of trees becoming doubles of humans and gardens turning into both accomplices in aiding stolen love and partners in avenging lost love. The chapter, “Studying Nature”, brings to the reader Tagore’s organic vision for spreading the joy of nature among the students of his school-cum-university, Visva-Bharati. The focus of the nature study module isn’t so much on the science of ecology, as Roy discovers, but on fostering an easy kinship with nature from which the industrial machinery threatens to pull the children away. “What his students inherited through his course was a sense of trees as participant, friend, and neighbour, in the ongoing drama of life…,” concludes Roy with endearing empathy.

For a tree lover in the pursuance of her treehood, the journey cannot be complete without entering a forest. Part VII of How I Became a Tree, titled “Lost in the Forest” was a personal delight for me. I have experienced several lost-in-the-forest moments myself, richer in the losing every time. Roy’s own love affair with the forest bears this out with succulent relish. She argues how the very act of walking inside the forest has to be an act of total surrender – one must intentionally lose oneself when surrounded by the “paralyzing restfulness” of a forest. She returns to Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s forest-centred novel Aranyak to unearth the mystery of man’s tense relationship with the forest. It is at once a place for finding repose as it is a resource to be exploited. Staying inside a forest all by herself enables Roy to experience the commune of trees, their shunning of individual prominence. In this, she recognizes her own treeness, given her indifference to fame and its exhibitionism.

Roy finds more soul sharers – as a plant parent in the polymath scientist, Jagadish Chandra Bose – who conducted numerous experiments to prove plants can feel and communicate; in the Buddha whose persona is essentially inseparable from the Bodhi tree under which he’s believed to have found enlightenment; and in poets, philosophers, and photographers who saw embedded in the barks and branches of trees reflections of their own self. And that is how Roy eventually turns into a tree. She imagines herself to be the Ashoka tree – A-shoka, sorrowless, as she segments the tree name.

On a personal note, Roy has taught me to love plant life in a deeper, more joyous way. Shortly before I wrote this, my partner took out a leafy indoor plant to the patio to feed it sunlight (as Roy would put it). The delicate plant died from the sudden shock. I have mourned the loss of plants before, but this was post How I Became a Tree, and I bawled my lungs out. Then, once the tears let up, I remembered I had once snipped a part of the plant and placed it in a jar of water, where it grew roots. I brought that part out of the jar and planted it in the pot that now carried the dead roots. It was almost as if someone had nudged me to do this – to bring the plant back to life.

That’s when I realized Sumana Roy isn’t merely a tree; she’s a plant whisperer.

How I Became a Tree is available on Amazon India.

 

In search of home and homeland: Seeking Palestine

Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home
Penny Johnson, Raja Shehadeh, editors
Olive Branch Press

Your mother’s face once sustained you. Now you have to strain your memory to trace its outline. The place you were born in you can’t return to, even if it were so you could die there. Y130225-seeking-palestineou can only be a nomad, an exile, or a refugee–never at home. Seeking Palestine, an anthology of nonfiction narratives gathers all these voices as it tries to make sense of the largely map-less Palestinian identity.

Susan Abulhawa chases this elusive piece in “Memories in an Un-Palestinian Story, in a Can of Tuna”. In her personal essay, the author best known for her novel, ‘Mornings in Jenin’ captures the breadth of a Palestinian’s nomadic condemnation. Her words–funny and shocking and tragic–tell how she was ping-ponged across geographies as a young girl. Thus, despite growing up in the US for most of her life, she says, “…I have come to understand that it (my life) represents the most basic truth about what it means to be Palestinian–dispossessed, disinherited and exiled.”

“Exile” is the permanent address many have been left with since the Israel-Palestine conflict began with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. And so as poet and translator Sharif L. Elmusa etches in an essay combining his poetry and prose with river-like flow, not only their presence but even the absences of Palestinians are portable. To lug this presence/absence around, a Palestinian pays steep baggage fees. “I can only go inside myself / into the maze of the hippocampus / which is like going inside a pyramid / and finding the robbers had carted away / the belongings.// What will I shed this round / to complete my portable absence?”

Read the rest of the review at Armed with Amor.