A few months ago, I turned 31, and very contemplative.
There are some people in our lives, who may be disastrous for our souls or for the subconscious, but are perfectly right for our mind in its most conscious and incisive state. They make you keep going back to the basics — why you made certain choices, who you are and who you are about to become; at times they question your entire belief system.
Now as harrowing as it gets, this act of to and fro and the reality checks at times can be quite helpful in perfecting and carving out a better version of yourself. So two years ago, when that person in my life gave me a reality check about my travel plans and expectations (comparing it to one girl I met on the internet and who’s Costa-Rican hippy life I fancied, who had completed a double-digit list on countries visited and whom my reality checker sincerely disapproved of), it got me wondering.
The problem with me is that of internalization. I am nothing without my past, my history. I need a visceral connection. Land forms and landscapes, too, are linked with this process of internalization.
France would just be another country on the map had I not read Baudelaire on many July afternoons in Calcutta with teasing mists of rain from the jammed window while SCD in her broken French gave me Baudelaire and his flaneur. Or if my 18-yr old self hadn’t been awed by Amelie and her little joys of life that includes prodding at the crust of creme brulee to unravel the mushy secrets inside or dipping her hand in a sack of rice, or just counting the number of orgasms experienced by couples at that very same moment one horny night! Or if I hadn’t watched Midnight in Paris and time travelled with Gil Pender or learnt about Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Company bookshop. Or if I didn’t wonder about Anaiis Nin’s adventures in the city of her birth and her house-boat on Seine. I wouldn’t really say “Parie je t’aime” had I not internalized all of these.
Rumi, who wrote a pair of my favourite lines “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there”, is buried in a small town in Turkey called Konya. As beautiful as the name is, I shall visit Konya one day just to lay a kiss on Rumi’s grave. And while I am there, I might as well find out what all that hype is about Pamukkale!
And on my 70th birthday (still deciding on which decade it should be), I will go to the Everest base camp. Or at least, be on that flight that leaves from Kathmandu and flies over all of Himalayas. And makes you sign a no-objection death certificate which I will without a hint of doubt. Because, I will have lived before I go down flying over those old fold mountains. And I am 70 anyway!
Living in Sydney has made water so accessible to me that I find the charms of the seas on me diminishing. But I do want to float in the benevolent dead sea. My history with this water body was through my Geography class on the Dead Sea that also aligned with my most-feared swimming lessons. Now if you could just float your way across oceans and seas, give me a kid who would still opt for skills for navigating through chlorine water burning your eyes and jumping at right angles to get the same out of your cochlea! Yes the dead sea for sure, for it keeps me alive.
The birds of the Galapagos (and while I’m at it, pet the largest living tortoise on the planet). In fact, see all the birds of the world once. And you know what, that alone is a seven-lifetime task unless you’re just plain lucky. Why birds? Because in my opinion, evolution headed the wrong way. Land is one-fourth; water three-fourths. Rest is all atmosphere. It just doesn’t add up in my bird-brain (:>!
Geographical expectation is the key
I have often wondered if I should concentrate on the geography, the various landforms because that is the one and only definitive point that defines the history and the politics of a place. Its resources, its people, its habits. Every bit of it. I do intend to cover as many earth-forms and assume that it is a very pragmatic way of ticking off things on the travel wish-list!
In my mid-20s, I did make an exhausting list of various topographies from Wikipedia.
Staring at unmoving blocks of dolorite at the Cataract Gorge in Launceston, Tasmania, recently reaffirmed my awe for the Earth’s, slow-but-severe, geological feelings. This same igneous rock links the land of my birth to a land that I felt a natural connection with before Gondwanaland broke up. Tasmania – the only thing I hate, really really hate is naming lands that have been there for millions of years to be named after the egotistical race of humans, with all due respect to Abel Tasman. If at all, Tasmania should answer to the name of Huonia after the 2000-year old pine trees that still stand witness to its growth and demise.
Visible and Invisible cities
But of course. Cities… Aah cities. Those inhabit a different world of their own, little planets on to themselves.
I connect with a city very instinctively, even if I am there for a day. At times it interacts directly with my soul, at times I interact with it through someone I love or live for.
Bombay is one such city. Although I have seen Suketu Mehta’s Bombay, his maximum city as well as Kiran Nagarkar’s Mumbai, my Bombay is that of unkept promises and unkempt love, of the marine drive, local trains and stolen kisses, of exquisitely carpeted hotel lobbies and gold chandeliers, of purging rains, and the surging sea that still recalls my name. The city of my butterflies.
There are others that are close to my heart – Panjim and its winding Mandovi, and tree-lined avenues and little Portuguese villas at Fontainhas, Pune for harbouring and safekeeping of a very young and timid girl’s heart for a brief while and Jaipur for its chaos and finery, and alleys with names out of fairy tales – Maniharon ka rasta (the alley of the gemstone makers), Khazanonwale ka rasta (the alley of the treasure-holders) =)
Calcutta, where I was born is where I would like to breathe my last.
(After-thought: I can be very dramatic, so don’t read too much into that.)
I am yet to see many cities. The cities of my griots, of my thinkers, of women and men who add/have added to my constitution – my Dadu’s Rangoon, my Thakurda’s Dhaka…
Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, Anaiis Nin & Woody Allen’s Paris, Marco Polo & Italo Calvino’s Venice, Anaiis Nin & Andy Warhol’s New York, Fan Ho’s Beijing, Fernando Pessoa’s Lisboa, Hayao Miyazaki and Sofia Coppola’s Tokyo, Jep Gambardella’s Rome and all those other invisible cities that will reveal themselves to me when I begin to seek them.
This list is not definitive and it most definitely lacks order. I am even prepared to be disappointed by some of these places when I visit them as I know they will not meet my elevated impressions of them. Places, after all, like people are flawed.
I may even grow out of some of these as I grow. (Perhaps, I would like to reconsider my 70th birthday plans if I had a room full of luminous grandchildren.)
However, while seeking the invisible cities and unknown places, I like to remember the fragility of it all from the opening quote (by Louis-Ferdinand Celine) from the film The Great Beauty – “To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.”
Sometimes, with the right company, I have travelled like the light, cutting through time and gliding across space.