Life | The Journey Within

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The Journey Within
Text by Madhu Jain
Published: Volume 19, Issue 4, April, 2011

Travelling isn’t always about recharging batteries and soaking up the sights, it can well be a journey to connect with your inner self, says Madhu Jain

It is that indeterminate, bewitching hour when the sun is about to nod off and an impatient moon waits in the wings for its entrance cue. We are in a double-decker boat, moving slowly down the Ganga. Seated on the upper deck are the now late producer-director Ismail Merchant and Tina Turner, the American pop diva possessed of a voice that comes from somewhere very deep. Playing an evening raag for us is a group of musicians.

The normally gregarious Turner turns quiet as we glide past the busy ghats of Varanasi. After the boat turns around and we face the other side of the river, on the banks of which young boys are playing cricket on a dusty bit of ground, she suddenly snaps out of her reverie with a remark that floors us all. “This is like a period film, the way we were. People are living their lives the way we did, but back in time.”

And then after another longish spell lost in thought, she murmurs: “I can understand all this…I grew up poor in the South, on rock dirt roads. A bit like what I see here. In Tennessee where I grew up there were animals, farms, wagons, mules. My parents worked the ground. There was so much dust. It was tough for my mother. We had no facilities. We had to use a wash pan...I don’t want to dwell on my past....” her voice trails off.

But travelling to India did just that – threw up memories, unbidden and long buried, for the singer whose song What’s love got to do with It? still resonates in my mind. Travel took her to another place, another time, and significantly, into herself and her memory-bank. A true journey involves so much more than simply going from one place to another, dipping along the way into other cultures, cuisines, landscapes, night life, art, music. More even than soaking in the zeitgeist of the destination and bringing some of it back in diaries, photographs and films.

Moving conversations
More meaningful is the journey that ends up as a passage to the self, an enhanced boomerang as it were. Caught up in the vortex of daily life, with its pressures and demands, most of us forget to listen to our own voices. That little knock at our consciousness grows feebler with busy-ness and time. Alan de Botton writes in his jewel of a book, The Art of Travel: ‘Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train.’

Wise men and women down the centuries have always maintained that the destination is not as important as the journey itself. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism, once memorably said: ‘A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.’ Or, much later, as the ever-incisive poet-dramatist T.S. Eliot wrote: ‘The journey not the arrival matters.’ Loiter on then, with intent.

It is when you are in those in-between places – the past where you started out from and before you get to where you were headed – that reverie sneaks up on you. Long train journeys can induce a state of dreaminess in which pressing concerns or minor irritants gradually get deflected and shovelled into the subconscious, allowing submerged thoughts and memories to surface – and free-float by leaving ajar the doors of perception.

Travelling on boats and planes also allows us time-out from the ‘habits of mind’. Perhaps, it has to do with the movement of your transporter, especially trains – and that too, not the super-fast kind. The rhythmic movement of a train with the regular clickety-clack of the wheels on the tracks can lull you into a semi-somnolent state as you chug by metamorphosing landscapes that fill your windows, like a movie does the silver screen. Readying you like nothing else for a conversation with the self.

vOf course, there’s always armchair travel: you can get ‘transported’ without moving. Flights of the imagination need no booking. You also avoid airport hassles, inclement weather, traffic snarls, ghastly food and boring fellow passengers. Nor do you need to fasten your seat belts before you take off. My favourite stationary voyages have been into books and paintings. It takes a while to get back from Orhan Pamuk’s riveting Istanbul: the sights, the smells, the buzz and confluence of all kinds of disparities, the sense of having been at the point, Europe-meets-Asia, continues to haunt you.

Stationary voyages
A painting can hold you hostage. Henri Matisse’s flatly-coloured, richly-patterned inhabited interiors silently speak of intimate secrets of the bourgeoisie. Pierre Bonnard’s nudes in bathtubs or bathrooms appear to be alluding to something else going on that may be just out of the frame, somebody or something else is in the picture invisible to us. Rabindranath Tagore’s mysterious women or hybrid creatures, seemingly half-emergent from the unconscious, tantalise the viewer. Have they escaped from his dreams? Is one of them the woman he loved but could not marry?

Once, when I was on the Rajdhani from Delhi to Mumbai (those were days before low cost aircraft carriers inundated the skies over India) two sisters and their mother were fellow passengers. All through the journey one of the sisters consumed Mills & Boon novels non-stop, with the passionate addiction of a chain smoker. She was oblivious to the existence of the rest of us in that small space.

No doubt she must have entered the world of the heroines, who in earlier, more innocent avatars of M&B books, were secretly swooning over steely-jawed, taciturn wealthy men of good standing. Surprisingly, the elder sibling was totally immersed in a fat tome on spirituality and self-realisation: she rarely lifted her eyes from it all through the journey.

Writers often travel for inspiration, or to find themselves. Or even to change themselves by load-shedding previous inhibitions and ways of being. Expat writers have sometimes used other societies as mirrors to the ones they have left behind. Here, the destination gives them a new pair of eyes and ears to look at the world, and perhaps themselves, differently.

American novelist Henry Miller, who needed Paris to give his imagination free reign, puts it cogently: ‘One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

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