Despite what TS Eliot wrote in Little Gidding, no one really comes back to the place where they started at the end of their exploration and then knows it for the first time. Either they don’t come back at all because home was never very good or they already get a pretty good idea of what it was they left behind. Any journey is a going away from home. But why go at all? Because humans began as nomads and civilisation is only laminate to the immutable wood below? Because they need meaning and also have the notion, often erroneous, that it is found just beyond the horizon? A pragmatic purpose of travel could be to entwine voluntarily with chance; serendipities would then be bonuses and if nothing happened, well, then that is just how it was. It requires courage.
And then there are those like VS Naipaul, one of the greatest cultural traveller and commentator India has seen, who seek homes of distant disconnected pasts and end up holding a mirror to both themselves and the place. The descriptors in the titles of his books itself laying bare the extent of the betrayal— An Area of Darkness, A Wounded Civilization, A Million Mutinies Now. That is the no-man’s-land the journey of a man without an address begins and ends. He goes in search of the essence of home—the culture wrenched away by the forces of history—only to recoil at what is before him. The cord that led him back is still something that he cannot sever.
I am from the village of Parli in the district of Palakkad, Kerala and that is where I keep making annual pilgrimages into a house that became increasingly empty as time marched on my ancestors. I am neither tourist nor resident or half of both. Once, I was walking on the old bridge over one of the two rivers that run through Parli when a stone block below a handrail was pointed out to me. In it was etched the name of the engineer—Parulli—almost 250 years ago during the course of a British campaign against Tipu Sultan. Was Parulli really Italian as I remember it being said? How many adventures did he have so far away from home, travelling the world in the army of another country in another country? Does he have a connection to a Parli that is also there in Maharashtra? In the olden days, even before STDs, when phone calls had to be booked by Trunk, the operator at the other end would ask which Parli was the call for. What did Parulli see when he stopped before the river and what did he feel when he walked across what he had constructed? Did he know the import of his deed would be felt for centuries in a corner of what would become Kerala in a time beyond colonies and wars? What was the name that this place had before Parulli and Parli? And, I cannot help think that if the British were to come now, there would be no need for a bridge at all because the river is bare in all seasons except the monsoon. And this would be the same once-mighty river that the brahmin Namboothiris forded as they ventured into and co-opted Kerala into the rigid folds of a stratified Hinduism in the many great migrations that Indian history so easily glosses over. And one of the progenies of this caste, the great Carnatic singer Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, would have his residence just a few kilometres from Parli and who once, on hearing a request to sing something that would make rain, did exactly that and it rained and he said, ‘I warned you’. And it was to Chembai that Yesudas would come to study as a penurious disciple and go on to shape Malayalam music as no one has ever done in the language with a voice gifted by the gods. All these secrets of the land came to me at a snail’s pace with every trip. For a detached traveller who came there it would have been two days of conversation or a Google search. The culture that he sees and remains with him is removed from mine. The explorer doesn’t come back to where he started with new eyes. He sees anew every destination on the way as only explorers do and migrants don’t.
The meaning of a destination rests on who is looking at it. In Varanasi both belief and cotton have been found for thousands of years—what did you go for? You might even return from Varanasi with nothing at all. A couple of months ago, while in Delhi for a month, I took a weekend off to Chandigarh. I had no particular interest in it. There was a free hotel voucher to use before expiry and Chandigarh seemed to be the nearest place where rooms were available. I took a train and as soon as I got out of the station, it was clear that this was unlike any other city in the country. I had a similar experience when I visited the Taj Mahal for the first time. The imagination had been so corrupted by the little miniatures I had seen, the exquisite scale of the mausoleum caught me by the throat. And it had been drummed into me so often that Chandigarh is a planned city that what planning means in the hands of a great architect had become a pedestrian vision.
It is the only city, town or village in India I have seen that has symmetry; where the idea of the straight line has relevance. And where it is not taken for granted that buildings marching to the skies is a virtue. And I saw how difficult it is in this country to create such urban stateliness when I went to the Le Corbusier museum and saw on one of the displays a letter from Jawaharlal Nehru to the then Chief Minister of Punjab, Partap Singh. Corbusier has complained that a cantonment is going to be built on the other side of the lake in Chandigarh. Nehru has already spoken to Partap Singh once and, presumably, it was ignored. Le Corbusier has persisted in complaining. ‘He has written to me again on this subject and sent me a sketch. I am enclosing these papers. I do hope you will not overrule Corbusier. His opinion is of value. Yours Sincerely. Jawaharlal Nehru’.
And then as a matter of course, because all who go to Chandigarh do it, I found myself in the Rock Garden, an open winding cave of sorts strewn with a large number of curious sculptures that told no story. It seemed an exercise in self-indulgence and a little boring once you spent more than 15 minutes in there. It was only later that I read about Nek Chand, a government employee, who encroached on this land and secretly chipped away at waste and rocks to build this over a span of decades. The state found out eventually what he was up to and, after an initial attempt at punishment, patted him on his subversive amateur artistic back and started selling tickets. A description of the Rock Garden I read was that it was a small oasis of disorder in the order of Chandigarh. But it occurred to me that Chandigarh itself is an oasis of order sandwiched between Nek Chand and the disorder that is India.
Before the luxuries and leisure of the modern world, people travelled with intent. You didn’t cross continents to look at beauty, something worthwhile had to be at the end of it. A traveller wasn’t an observer of culture but an appropriator of where he went. In Nalanda, there is a museum to Hiuen Tsang replete with maps that show the ambition of his journey. He came without permission from his emperor in China, traversed deserts, mountain ranges and violent market towns for a year to reach India and then remained for 14 years. Because he did so, not only could he fulfil his desire to take back Buddhist texts to his land, a millennia later Indians would understand India though his accounts. In that museum I saw a woman prostrate before his idol sobbing with abandon.
And in that same museum after the end of a Vipassana meditation retreat hosted in a land belonging to Nalanda University, I saw an Israeli woman, born a Jew, walk with an incense pot muttering Buddhist chants. A Vipassana retreat is to lay people essentially a taste of the isolation of monk life. Instead of sitting for the retreat, I had been a volunteer server, which made it into a vacation of sorts. I sat next to the meditation instructor pushing cushions as students came, sat and told their experiences. And I had seen this Israeli woman say during one such exchange that it felt as if long insects were walking up her feet and then she got up, stumbled and almost fell.
After the 10 days got over, I went to see nearby the ruins of the ancient Nalanda University. Hieun Tsang wrote at length about it when he was here in the 7th century CE: ‘The rules of this convent are severe, and all the priests are bound to observe them. The countries of India respect them and follow them. The day is not sufficient for asking and answering profound questions. From morning till night they engage in discussion; the old and the young mutually help one another. Those who cannot discuss questions out of the Tripitaka are little esteemed, and are obliged to hide themselves for shame. Learned men from different cities, on this account, who desire to acquire quickly a renown in discussion, come here in multitudes to settle their doubts, and then the streams [of their wisdom] spread far and wide. For this reason some persons usurp the name [of Nalanda students], and in going to and fro receive honour in consequence.’
He describes in detail the lay of the land: ‘On the western side of the sangharama, at no great distance, is a vihara…To the south 100 paces or so is a small stupa…On this southern side is a standing figure of Kwantsz’-tsai [AvalokitesVara] Bodhisattva… To the south of this statue is a stupa, in which are remains of Buddha’s hair and nails cut during three months. Those persons afflicted with children’s complaints coming here and turning round religiously, are mostly healed…To the west of this, outside the wall, and by the side of a tank, is a study…’ And so on. But all that remains of that today are bricks, deformed stunted mounds of once imposing temples and monasteries neatly arranged on either side of a path as if to emphasise the distinction between education and ritual. How many would have journeyed here from the ends of the known world in its peak? And how many still do, like all the foreigners I saw in the retreat, even though what they get is only remembrance?
My fellow servers were an American and his Mongolian partner. They were mediators who went from course to course in different countries, advancing in their practice and also, simultaneously, relishing the travel. Coincidentally, we were all headed to the valley of Rajgir, about 15 kilometres away, after the retreat. We would meet up every morning and walk 10 to 20 kilometres. It was my second time in Rajgir and I went because it interested me that this verdant empty valley surrounded by cyclopean mountain had been the bud from where Indian civilisation bloomed. It used to be the capital of Magadha, the first empire of the subcontinent, before they shifted to Pataliputra. Religious philosophers of the 6th century, like Buddha and Mahavira, stayed here with disciples in caves on mountain faces. Below them there must have been the chaos of a kingdom furiously expanding as iron from the mines in the plains behind became the weapon for conquest and urbanisation. One morning, we walked 15 kilometres on an empty path, the road that the Buddha is said to have taken when he entered Rajgir in triumph after his enlightenment. The ceaseless thrum of life and commerce would have greeted him; the very efflorescence of society that necessitated his turn away from it. And now, as we walked, travellers from three separate nations, there was nothing except trees and rocks and we were going in the other direction that he took.