A relative who is in his early 80s and had never stepped outside India had nursed a dream—to go to Hiroshima. He had read about the horrors that the dropping of the atom bomb had unleashed and it had touched him. He wasn’t much of a traveller and now not at an age when exploration beckons. But one fine day, we learnt that he had quietly booked a tour to Japan and, his wife later told us, that he was sobbing at the memorial to the bomb victims in Hiroshima. They also went on the Bullet Train, relished a lot of Japanese food without really knowing what they were eating, and bought sake back to gift to friends and family. There is no autumn to life when one is willing to venture into new experiences but without that obsession with Hiroshima, his experience would have been much poorer. Many tourists go there but to also feel something genuine is a gift. It is the difference between seeing a dish and tasting it. Awareness adds something unquantifiable to a journey. Otherwise, all monuments become just bricks and stones. It is a gift that one must deliberately cultivate.
What exactly should that awareness be? It doesn’t matter. That is the choice you have. It could be as broad or narrow as one wants. In Maharashtra, the Sahyadri mountain range becomes breathtakingly green and beautiful during the monsoon. Tens of thousands hike to the peaks where there are remains of fortresses. And so there would be a water source and something that might still provide a modicum of shelter. I remember doing one such trek two decades ago to a peak called Kulang. It wasn’t too long, maybe about four-odd hours. We crossed waterfalls and scree on slopes that pulled us down. Then there was a narrow flight of steps cut into the cliff face from which the sheer drop looked terrifying and when the ordeal got over, a flat windy plateau with a cave where we spent two nights enjoying the wet mountain air. There was a tank or well in which water was available and we slept in the cave amidst some fragments of the memory of a fort. The arduous nature of the climb remains a faint memory but it was only after I recently read a few biographies of the Maratha king Shivaji, especially by the historian Jadunath Sarkar, that the ecosystem of these forts opened to me. Who built Kulang is unknown but it is part of the history of that relentless warfare between the Marathas, the Mughals and the Deccan Sultanates that defined Indian history just before the British conquest. Shivaji’s survival and strength were in making or conquering fortresses like these on mountains. They weren’t just for defence and offence, but also bargaining chips to give and take depending on the state of his power. If I had gone to Kulang understanding all this, how much more life would a mountain breathe!
If curiosity is accompanied with understanding, you can travel to a destination and see it in as many ways as you want. You can be in a temple town and hear the sounds that led to the creation of music; or look into its walls and find what defined the art of an era and how that translates into the present; or feel the material it was constructed with and the geometry of its space for architecture. There is travel that also rides on the shoulders of others. In Dublin, every June 16, they celebrate Bloomsday in remembrance of the immortal James Joyce novel Ulysses and its hero Leopold Bloom. Joyce inverted the great adventure of Homer’s mythical Greek hero to make it the wandering of an ordinary man in one day. The novel became one of the great works of modern literature and large numbers of tourists come to Dublin on Bloomsday. But it doesn’t have to be June 16. One could go on any day of the year with a copy of the novel and relive its moments. It doesn’t have to be Dublin either. Any city with its story of literature, art or history is amenable to the same discoveries. Such an enterprise is not just retracing the past either. The traveller is bringing himself and the present into this journey and becomes the protagonist of the story that he is now chasing.
Till a year ago, the world was not yet inviting for recreational travel. A year before that even the country itself was closed for its own people because a virus mutated. The lockdown was not just of geography but also of the mind. We are no longer hostage and a consequence of the end of the pandemic has been an explosion in travel. Air traffic is breaking new records every passing week. Hotel occupancies are peaking. Crowds throng tourist spots and with every long weekend, the roads outside cities become jammed by those taking a break. Human beings, by whatever quirk of gene and environment, were designed to be explorers and discoverers. To travel is an expression of this condition; to know more, to be better, to yearn for what is beyond us. It is why the first humans moved out of Africa, developed tools, created agriculture, built pyramids and skyscrapers; took little bits of histories and weaved them into elaborate myths that united them; made impossible voyages and then crafted nations. It is what changed a brain into a mind, deciphered patterns in nature and imagination and created art, mathematics and science, captured environment itself, overcoming its laws. Travel allows us to relive all of it again; to rediscover the tragedy and triumph of humanity.