To travel is to seek. To seek, travel. In my case, as with many others
probably, it’s not as straightforward, or maybe it is. I seek travel.
I’ll put it down to not knowing for sure what to seek. I do not recollect ever having sat down to define my purpose or outline my objective for hitting the road. What I did seek, however, was the outdoors, open skies, sunshine, the joy of going somewhere. Anywhere.
Not for me the deep contemplation of life and its meanings. My philosophy is simple: if there is a road going somewhere, I want to be on it.
The people who make travel memorable, letting me into their lives even if briefly, begin to lend meaning to my meanderings. I travel because there are places to be seen, experiences to be had, cultures to immerse in, people to be acquainted with, faith to be restored, and history to be explored.
There is one thing more about travel. If you’re not prepared to wonder enough, you’ll not wander enough. The reverse is also true.
India is a sum total of the legacies of its parts. So in some ways, as an Indian, you do not truly own that legacy without actually making the effort to travel to ‘receive’ it. And the best part is you do not know for sure what you’ll be ‘handed’ on your journeys.
To seek the road for the unknown it promises each traveller seeks promises unknown to him before he sets out.
I’m no different.
When I look back on my infrequent travels over the years, there’s not one I regret taking. But there are many I regret not taking.
Sometimes all I had to do was sit by the window of the train or bus and anticipate the next moment, unmindful of whether it could bring anything of significance to me.
Most times, they don’t. But sometimes, they do.
While I may not get off my train to explore stations along the way, I’m partial to stations that ring bells in my head from my reading of history, from stories I read or heard about when growing up.
Passing these stations along the way helps me fill in historical narratives that define my destinations. After all, I have to mention a destination if I’m to be handed a train ticket. The stations are dots that fill in many of the gaps on such journeys; their names are often significant to the narrative shaping up in the traveller’s imagination.
Travelling with my wife by the Hazarduari Express from Kolkata to Murshidabad on the Sealdah–Lalgola rail line a few years ago, I sought the moments the train passed Plassey and Berhampore as eagerly as I did the moment I alighted at Murshidabad, erstwhile capital of the Nawabs of Bengal. The Murshidabad narrative is incomplete without Plassey, and the Plassey narrative incomplete without Berhampore.
The Battle of Plassey in 1757 is as integral to the narrative of the Nawabs of Bengal as it is to that of the East India Company, the year it dethroned Siraj ud-Daulah from Murshidabad before installing his betrayer, Mir Jaffar, as Nawab, opening India to British rule. Subsequently Berhampore saw action in the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 as sepoys sought to overthrow the British hold so spectacularly gained by subterfuge at the Battle of Plassey.
While I did not get off at Plassey or Berhampore, the stations expanded into imaginary narratives in the landscape outside my window as the train hurtled on its way to Murshidabad. If I had tried a little harder, it would seem possible to turn the clock back to that defining moment in 1757, the landscape outside my window morphing into India over 250 years ago, right to the heat of the Battle of Plassey.
When I stepped through the graves of the Mir Jafar family at Jafarganj Cemetery the next day, I was reminded of where it began, Plassey. The station and the landscape returned to me with renewed vividness among the greying headstones that lay in silent repose across the street from the Jafarganj Deori where Mir Jaffar is said to have lived and where Siraj Ud-Daulah is believed to have been murdered though some say he was killed elsewhere, across the Bhagirathi, and brought to the Deori by boat.
I pressed my face to the gate of Jafarganj Deori and recalled from memory the stories I had read about how the English agent, Watts, tasked with secretly winning over Mir Jafar in return for the throne, had travelled to this residence dressed as a lady of the harem to meet with Mir Jafar. The secret meeting between the two turned out to be the last before the fateful battle at Plassey that changed India’s destiny yet again.
The gate was locked. Behind me, horse-drawn carriages swept past, their steady clippity-clop probably not very different from that eventful day so long ago. A little further away the Bhagirathi flowed in silence, her character little changed from those tumultuous days, flowing as serenely then as now.
I had spent the morning walking along the river, stopping by two men building a boat on her banks.
I wondered what passed through Watts’ mind as he disguised himself and if, given the importance of his mission to the success of the East India Company, he was sweating his nervousness in his all enveloping disguise, likely a burqa.
I lingered at the gate, peering through the opening, willing time to rewind to that fateful day. Nothing moved behind the gate save my imagination.
Travel is part imagination and part reality.
While not all my
journeys have been equally interesting, none were a washout either. It never
came to a point where I returned home disappointed and swearing never to let
any fancy for the road take hold of me so easily. Nor did I ever have to
reflect upon the merits of travel or the purpose of exploring, for there was
always something, often to be found round the very next bend.
I’ve been asked by people about the purpose of my travels, more specifically why I stray off the beaten (read tourist) path. It is not that people question the merits of travel per se, but they do question my choice of destinations.
Years ago, after a rewarding trip with a friend through Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, I was asked on my return, “What on earth made you plough ankle-deep through mud digging for fossils in the heart of a Gond tribal village?” I struggled to answer then as I’m sure I would now. How does one explain the thrill of unearthing fossil after fossil, knowing that for millions of years, the life that lay trapped in sediments saw the light that day? To hold a lifeform kept intact by fossilisation is to peel away layers of time back to the start, and see it the way life shaped it, and be the first one to do so.
To understand where we come from and what or who preceded us will continue to shape our curiosity, occasionally nudging it sufficiently enough to spur travel, on the road and of the mind. Without either, travel will be poorer because in travelling to a destination, it is imagination that often makes for the journey.
When time is measured in millions of years, it adds a touch of the mystic to the mystery, as it did for Jagdish and me when we unearthed an intact fossilised tree trunk that day, possibly spanning geological eras, its every sinew intact as time wore down eras. The moment acquired reverence, turning the experience a shade spiritual.
It was the mystery of the unknown that excited our imagination that day, for it is in the gaps in knowledge or understanding that our imagination can play out. When the possibilities are many, and the traveller can take his pick, the journey acquires the personality of the traveller. I would find history less appealing if its documentation left little latitude for possibilities. A bit of the unknown adds to the magic of travel.
It was the mystery of the unknown that excited our imagination, for it is in the gaps in knowledge or understanding that our imaginations can play out. I would find history less appealing if its documentation left little latitude for possibilities. A bit of the unknown adds to the magic of travel.
Traveling to the Gond village that day, we passed their burial grounds, a series of circles made with loose stones. It was July and clouds had gathered, softening the light to lend a sombre touch to the place, and gravity to the mood in the white car. The stones were of uneven height and appeared to have been stood erect. A few had keeled over. As we swept past them I looked for signs that some circles might be bigger than the others.
A Pied Crested Cuckoo took off as we turned in the direction of the village where we met the headman in his hut. While curious villagers gathered outside the door, we ate from wooden plates he offered us before making our way through slushy fields randomly strewn with colourful beads. I picked some up and wondered how they came to be here. Women working fields? Were they strewn on purpose? How long ago?
I wondered about the stone patterns in the burial grounds. What might the circular patterns signify? Before leaving the headman’s dwelling, Jagdish was shown a sandalwood tree by his father-in-law who had ridden with us to the village. The gathered villagers watched to a man as Jagdish ran his hand along the tree trunk. This was the first time he had seen a sandalwood tree and was understandably curious. The next day we learned that the word that went around the village spoke of “sandalwood smugglers” from the city!
On our way back from the fossil dig, we opened the plastic bags each time a curious tribal motioned us to show him the contents and, having sated their curiosity or maybe allayed their suspicions after seeing what were essentially a few ‘stones’, they would wave us through with a smile.
I was intrigued at finding fossilised remains of shells, and they were aplenty. Did a river once flow where we now squatted? Behind us, trees grew handsome, and tall. Could a river really have run through here once upon a time?
Driving through the plains to get to the Gond village, there was little in the landscape to suggest that a river might have flowed there, or maybe a stream, or even a pond, but there was ample indication to suggest just that as I held the fossilised shells in my hands. Water “obliterates” physical features, unless they whip up the current as rocky outcrops do in fast-flowing rivers descending from the mountains. There is a certain solidity to landscapes. It is partly due to physical features that mark them, unchanging, immune to time. That they must have lain at the bottom of a water body once, likely a river, is hard to imagine, let alone contemplate.
The next day, we headed to Ramtek where the remains of two Buddhist Stupas were discovered when excavating a hillock at the ancient site of Mansar only a few months earlier. As we began our ascent up the partially excavated hillock, I paused every now and then to take in portions of the Stupa, running my eyes over remains of tools and pottery.
Though their voices fell silent centuries ago, scattered whispers sounded again in the shards of pottery. Freed from the embrace of earth, they would speak to a ready ear, but would their tongue make sense now? How might their spoken language sound to the ready ear? Would nuances usually peculiar to diverse tongues likewise characterise their language as well? I could only imagine. Were I to know for sure, they might only make for academic interest. Not knowing made them come alive in my mind.
The remains were traced to the Mauryan and the Wakataka periods, reportedly dating back to 200 BC and 400 AD, respectively. There is little that will ever be known of the people who lived there, and even less of what must have engaged them as they went about their lives by the lake that drew into view to our right as we gained height.
There was not a soul around, and as rows upon rows of exposed brick gave shape to contours that human endeavour once laboured to put up, I could only imagine the setting and the activity that must have accompanied it.
Turning to face the lake, now bereft of life, my thoughts went quiet. Were they like me? What tongue might they speak of if we were to somehow span the centuries that now separate us? It was here that archaeologists stumbled upon tools dating back to the Stone Age, 80,000 to 30,000 years ago.
From the hillock, the countryside, including the lake now cast in reflective light of an overcast sky, lay like an open palm, its lines of destiny having changed with time over the centuries. A few cows grazed in the grass in the distance even as rains threatened overhead, faint sounds of cow bells floating on the breeze to where I stood, looking out. Standing there it is difficult not to be affected by thoughts that meandered askance where excavated debris exposed traces of life centuries gone.
Seeking closure to the unknown even while revelling in the mystery, I wondered if some among them foresaw the end that would befall their memories, leaving behind their stories so that one day they might be discovered, and remembered.
Though their voices fell silent centuries ago, scattered whispers sounded again in the shards of pottery. Freed from the embrace of earth, they would speak to a ready ear, nut would their tongue make sense now?
Much as I seek to learn, understand and assimilate, sometimes I actually draw solace from not knowing.
The road from Nagpur, through Balaghat, for long stretches runs straight. When we slowed down behind a few other vehicles, I put my head out the window as we inched ahead, only to draw my head back in in awe, half shouting, “Are you seeing this?”
Jagadish sat, his eyes riveted to the windshield.
Before us, stretching as far back as my eyes could see, and partly covered in haze at the far end, gypsies were on the move in their hundreds, if not thousands. On carts laden with their worldly possessions and distinct from the others in their attire, the just-born, the young, the middle-aged, and the old inched past in a colourful parade.
A scene much like the pioneers setting off to make a home out of a land where no one had been before, or returned to tell the tale, except that this was in the middle of the highway connecting Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh. Where might they be headed ahead of the monsoon? What might they have left behind where they once lived? What would generations to come make out upon stumbling upon their traces?