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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Of the Sickness of Love

Last night, I decided to close the book I had been reading for months now, with a determination as unyielding as the pace with which I advanced with this book. Gabriel García Márquez “Love in the Time of Cholera” is a chronicle of love–wherein, possibly the most powerful of human emotions is in a constant tussle against a range of obstacles.

Narrating a tale that is set for a considerable part around ships, the book starts by taking the reader on an interesting voyage–with the introduction of the key characters, their strange life stories and stranger personal quirks. It is the story of the romance between two people, as dissimilar to each other as can be.  A promising story of young love, unbridled passion and an almost illogical fable of romance, marked by long letters and little more.
Fermina Daza, the female protagonist, continues this amorous association despite her father’s ruthless opposition to the same. And just as the passionate affair reaches an exciting bend, the author brings in a clever twist in the story. All of a sudden, without any provocation or apparent logic, Fermina spurns the advances of her lover, Florentino Ariza. The stage is set for an interesting drama to unfold, and I was ready for the voyage.

Except that I had boarded a ship that seemed to be without a compass. This isn’t because the author bypassed the convention of a linear narrative; it’s more than that. My problem with the novel’s middle was that it seemed direction-less and loaded with extraneous information. For page after page, equaling nearly half a century in terms of the story’s timeline, the reader is subjected to the endless affairs Florentino Ariza has with about as many different women. Yet, he doesn’t really love them, but only “uses” them to bide his time, until he can return to the love of his life. In this time, Fermina Daza has  married a wealthy doctor and is a leading lady of the elite society. We learn about the ebbs and flows of her married life, complete with certain insights on what marriage entails, which seemed to me, to be the author’s own suppositions on the institution of marriage. Basically, the story doesn’t move in this phase. One learns a lot about human quirks and their implications in varied dimensions of life–marriage, family, society, professional career, but there is so little action that bears any significance to the main plot that one wonders the purpose of it all. I struggled to remain motivated to read the book through end; the  enervated narrative  fell short of providing enough encouragement. This could have been the author’s way of reinforcing the long, almost hopeless wait that Florentino Ariza endures to reclaim his love.

I am glad my persistence paid off as the story neared its end. In the twilight of their lives, the two lovers whose paths had crossed in youth only to diverge, meet again. They are brought together by the strange dynamics of fate, as Fermina’s husband dies of a most bizarre accident. Here on, the ship that had seemed aimless for so long, suddenly cruises with a frenetic speed, along with our lovers–old in their bodies, but not in their passion. As they defy social conventions, physical constraints and even the doubts of their own minds, we celebrate their journey through the river–breezy, uncertain, excitable–not too different than their romance itself.

Cholera has been used as a motif in various places throughout the story, and in the end it becomes a device to checkmate possible hazards that come in the way of love. I tend to think cholera is also symptomatic of the fact that love is a kind of sickness. The kind in which the disease is its own cure.

Latin America: A Journey Inside Out

The Duo Hits the Road

Two friends, bitten by the itinerant bug and armed with little more than a Norton 500 motorcycle and the carefree craze of youth, embark on a journey across a continent. Nothing exceedingly extraordinary about that. The human spirit of adventure has seen a lot of heroic trips being undertaken by daredevil travellers. Yet, what is it about the journey of these two Latin American friends that pulls curious onlookers like me to follow their trail to this day?

What is it about The Motorcycle Diaries that makes such a lasting impression on me and so many others? The fact that it isn’t just a travelogue, nor is it just another memoir of youthful impulsiveness; but that it’s a man’s inner journey happening hand in hand with the outer sojourn. It’s also your own journey—as a reader and as a person. A bit surreal to describe in words.

This is not a story of incredible heroism, or merely the narrative of a cynic; at least I do not mean it be. It is a glimpse of two lives that ran parallel for a time, with similar hopes and convergent dreams.

[From The Motorcycle Diaries, by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara]

Indeed, Ernesto Guevara hits the nail on the head there, at the beginning of the book. When I first read The Motorcycle Diaries some three years ago, I knew little about Guevara. He was this t-shirt and poster figure, the epitome of “revolution.” I only knew him as a left-inclined man who stood and fought for the rights of the oppressed. In hindsight, it’s a good thing that The Motorcycle Diaries, and not one of his political pieces, was the first Guevara writing I came across. The book surprised me. For, here I saw a 23-year-old young man, going on 24, just like any other of his age—bursting with restless energy and the spirit of quest. I saw this young man poking fun at himself, his older pal, and their often unfriendly motorcycle. I found little or none of the political rhetoric that Ernesto Guevara came to be associated with, just a few years since making this defining road trip. And layer by layer, chapter by chapter, I saw the young man changing, until the end of the nine-month journey, when he seemed to have come of age and matured way beyond he could have imagined at the outset.

On Celluloid

And then last month, just like he had done three years ago with the book, my brother gave me the DVD of The Motorcycle Diaries. I had pestered him a lot to bring home the movie. Yet, when it finally arrived, I didn’t show any urgency to watch it. I let it lie until my brother rang an alarm bell saying the DVD was a friend’s and had to be returned. That’s when I finally watched it.

Why this lack of interest? Did I think the film would be boring? No. I just felt sceptical about the movie because I wasn’t so sure the book could be adapted for celluloid without a measure of documentary-like info-dumping. And even though the book is written chronologically, it still has this scattered and fragmented persona, which I thought would make a film made from it less cohesive.

And this is why they say, don’t think about it based on what you read. Go, watch the film.

The silver screen version of The Motorcycle Diaries moved me just as much as Guevara’s own words had. In fact, there couldn’t be a better rendition of the book in film format than the one we now have from Director Walter Salles. It stands out for all the elements that define fine filmmaking. Besides being technically slick, it impacts the viewer at a very human level. That is where it’s real victory lies. It entertains you wholeheartedly yet leaves you uneasy by posing difficult but nagging questions through young Ernesto’s observations.

 

http://www.motorcyclediariesmovie.com/home.html

The breathtaking scenery first. Guevara himself does a fantastic job of describing the spots he and Alberto Granado pass by and visit during their epic journey through five South American countries—Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela. The manner in which he shows a human intimacy with the immediate landscape can put a lot of fiction writers to shame. He talks of the sea as his confidant and friend that can absorb all secrets and offers the best advice, if only you carefully listen to its various noises.

 

http://www.motorcyclediariesmovie.com/home.html

That the filmmakers chose to shoot the film at the exact locations where the journey took place doesn’t just enhance its credibility, but also makes for exhilarating visual treat. Cinematographer Eric Gautier superbly captures the scenic charm of the places on his camera, often giving the viewer the feeling of being there with Ernesto and Alberto. And the landscapes covered are magnificently diverse—from the green of Argentina, to the Atacama Desert in Chile, to Peru’s mountain tracks. I seriously want to see Latin America based on what the film portrays.

The Light Side

The Motorcycle Diaries is a testimony of Guevara’s brilliant sense of humour, something he is said to have possessed until the very end, even when he turned into a hard-boiled guerrilla fighter and a mass leader.

Alberto, unmovable, was resisting the morning sun’s attempt to disturb his deep sleep, while I dress 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.

[From The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara]

Toward the end of the book, Ernesto lays out a neatly chalked-out “anniversary” routine he and his friend had devised to manage some food off unsuspecting people. The five-step program started with the two friends talking loudly with some local twang thrown in to pique the curiosity of those around them. A conversation would ensue, and our peripatetic friends would subtly enumerate their hardships on the road and then one of them would ask what date it was. As soon as someone told them the date, the other friend would let out a massive sigh, saying softly it had been a year since they started their journey, and they couldn’t even celebrate, they were so broke. Their “victim” would then offer some money, which the duo would refuse, before finally accepting it with reluctance. Their host then treats them to drinks. After the first drink, Ernesto refuses another one. The host persists, asking why he wouldn’t have another one, and after much requesting, Ernesto confesses that according to a custom in Argentina, he can’t drink without eating alongside.

In the film, actors Gael García Bernal (Ernesto) and Rodrigo de la Serna (Alberto) portray the “anniversary” act hilariously before a couple of Chilean girls, about their age. I was in splits watching the duo performing their antic, mischievous innocence and the desperation to fulfil their stomach’s cries leading them to stand-up comedy brilliance.

The Humanist Emerges

However, what set both the book and the film completely apart are the pertinent and often not-so-easy questions about the human condition. 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 for the greater part of the trip, since their bike breathes its last at a location in Chile. As they hitchhike their way through the Latin American landscape, a lot of times aboard trucks laden with indigenous people, Ernesto realises the tremendous humiliation meted out to poor people across the continent—whether it be a mining couple they meet in Chile who are persecuted for the man’s “communist” leanings, or the abject conditions to which Peru’s native mountain tribes are relegated, or the hapless state of leprosy patients they visit at the San Pablo leper colony in Peru. Every instance of coming across such injustice pains young Guevara and his anger and frustration is reflected throughout the book. Director Salles brings out this sense of pain very well in the film.

It isn’t unnatural for a human to feel moved or sad at the plight of a fellow human. Most of us would feel the same emotions that Ernesto does. However, there are a few human beings, for whom the pain becomes so intense they can’t remain silent about it. Even though the book is primarily a record of Guevara’s and Granado’s journey, you can see Ernesto belongs to that rare breed of empathising human beings.

The book carries tell-tale signs of the man he was to become later. The man who would galvanise poor peasants across Latin America to take up armed struggle for the life of dignity to which they had a birth right yet which was denied to them for lifetime after lifetime. And underlying the most violent of approaches he undertook as a guerrilla commandant was his deep love for human lives that had been rendered powerless through centuries of unjust subjugation. The Motorcycle Diaries—the book and the film–reveal this loving, soft-hearted man time and again. We see Ernesto’s vision of a United Latin America, when at a party thrown by the staff and patients of the San Pablo leper colony to celebrate his twenty-fourth birthday, he delivers a speech saying “the division of Latin America into unstable and illusory nations is completely fictional.”

Yet, the maturity doesn’t happen overnight. The self discovery happens layer by layer, and here, the filmmakers pull it off with great sensitivity, without the slightest trace of sensational exaggeration.

The symbolic nine-month journey is also a tale of immense physical grit. The two friends brave harsh blows of nature—from walking through a completely uninhabited stretch at pitch dark, to trekking their way through forests and the Atacama Desert, even as Ernesto falls prey to a series of asthma attacks (he was chronic asthmatic).

The Motorcycle Diaries includes a few letters Guevara wrote to his parents. These lend a fresh dimension to the book, reflecting his close bonding with family members with whom he freely shares his disenchantment with the appalling conditions of the poor across Latin America.

Chillingly Prophetic…

Although it’s difficult and unfair to pick sections of the book as favourite, the parts I found the most chilling were those in which Guevara envisions a future for himself exactly as it unfolds years later. Early in the book he says his destiny is to travel. Indeed, in the succeeding years, right up to his death, he travels and travels—across the world—from Russia to Asia and Africa. Only now he is shorn of youthful indulgence and is a champion for the voice of the proletariat.

And again at the end of the book, in the very last chapter, “A Note in the Margin,” Guevara gave me goose bumps, when he predicted his death.

“…I knew when the great guiding spirit cleaves humanity into two antagonistic halves, I would be with the people…I see myself, immolated in the genuine revolution, the great equalizer of individual will, proclaiming the ultimate mea culpa.”

[From The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara]

As insensitive as it may sound, perhaps it was only fitting that Guevara died young. He remains a youth icon through generations, although it’s sadly ironical that the ideals he stood for are now mere footnotes in history for the very people who use merchandise bearing his image.

Ernesto Guevara would be 78 today (June 14). In my opinion, people like him don’t die. Only their bodies perish. Happy birthday, Che.

And a useless bit of trivia: Ernesto Guevara shares his birthday with yours truly. How old am I? Let’s hope like Che, forever young.

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