And why it can be as liberating as a Masque
By Anoothi Vishal
I dread the interrogation each time I come trudging back from one of those meandering trips. These are questions that I look upon with such obvious disdain that it is a wonder that the askers do not just shrivel up and shut up. They never do.
The great Indian middle-class is relentless in its quest for acquisition—and for comparing whether it is better off than the neighbour. So when I say “no, no, no…”, it just becomes the perfect launchpad to stories about how, where, when did X, Y, Z acquire that perfect bottle of whisky, coat or LBD, or even the biggest, most flaunt-worthy piece of “art”.
Travel is somewhat new to the argumentative Indian. Despite our prodigal Railway network and enterprising communities that have set up bread stores, taxi empires and restaurants in the remotest corners of the world, middle India is still taking baby steps as global travelers. It is natural to want to show-off; tell your neighbours, family, Facebook friends that you checked out the Eiffel or Masai Mara and, yes, bought six months’ wardrobe from Harrods on sale. (Though, of course, stick to monogrammed bags to keep up society image!)
I don’t really mind the Facebook pictures so much. They help you keep in touch with other people’s lives, even if it’s only the airbrushed versions. Heck, I am guilty of the same self indulgence. And on days that I am awfully bored, stuck with a story in my head that won’t just write or with a long list of must-dos, I go back to these and escape into memories of more exciting moments … perhaps people who bring back souveniers and fridge magnets from each of their trips do it for the same reason: It is a validation of their lives. Our lives; that all has not been lost in the unutterable mundaneness of being. That we Did. That we Lived.
My fear though is that most of us today don’t think so much. Perhaps we don’t even feel too much. Travel, like shopping, is merely a badge of acquisition. We have, so we must possess, and tell others about it too. Because, what’s the point of travelling or buying if you do not have a group of people you could narrate it to?
I am not sure whether the same logic applies to all those people who make firm itineraries and tick off every must-do monument/museum/activity on it. This type of frenetic travel may only be a function of the desire to experience all that you have read or heard about. To maximize life’s little moments…
India’s post-liberalisation travelers though may have other reasons to seek out newer lands and experiences. Partying in Ibiza or doing Turkey with friends from the university come invested with undeniable charm, as do road (or backpacking) trips of self discovery, common now with students, arty types or restless execs questioning the rat race.
Two of Bollywood’s most successful films capturing a young, urban lifestyle use this as a trope: The path-breaking Dil Chahta Hai and its sibling Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara both focus on life-altering road trips and indeed the idea that travel, even if it’s just one trip, can alter the course of your life. This is a hugely seductive idea. We find it increasingly in pop literature, in those chick-lit Metro reads, where young women fleeing from bad bosses or/and bad boyfriends/husbands take to the road to find destiny waiting round the corner. In any case, it isn’t quite a bad idea to check out that corner—at the very least, you may just find summer romance!
Travel, of course, does change you. Perhaps not in the drastic ways of fiction but subtly, gently. It does something to your own perception of your being when you find yourself in an alien country, where no one quite comprehends what you ask, managing to find your way back to the hotel despite an inability to read maps. It empowers you in strange ways when you, the small-town girl, perches on a high bar stool downing your nth drink, talking to a stranger. You can almost feel that skin of fear and insecurity that encapsulates you as the disadvantaged sex in a still-feudal world order peel off.
Travel is liberating too. You let go of your prejudices; you discover that the bum on the street can actually write poetry—“…limousine eyelashes and milkshakes…” as it goes in the film—and offer that up in return for a coin.
You discover that people are inherently the same and that it’s possible to have an instant connect with someone separated not just by miles but by thousands of years of culture as well. You discover that there is something to national stereotypes – Frenchmen will talk about wine and foie gras and wear pointy shoes, the Spanish will be routinely charming, Indians will be noisy, with badly behaved children and will always want to jump queues… But that quite frequently there will be those who will flummox you like an always-hugging Finn! And that women mostly all agonise like Bridget Jones….
When I was much younger, Enid Blytons were still very popular in my school run by the good Irish sisters. But I never could appreciate the antics of Amelia Jane, the naughtiest girl in school. I did not thought much about the politics of golliwogs either. What I did love was the Magic Faraway Tree—where a new land came on top of an ancient, magic tree in a wood in rural England. It was the most marvelous idea as three children and an assortment of pre-Potter magical beings traversed through various lands—of surprises and soups, giants, spells, upside down things and so on. I wanted to live that life. Now, when I physically travel, I do exactly that.
The thing about travel– at least if you are travelling solo– is that it is like a masque. It allows you to be who you want to be. It is as good as landing a role in a film of your choice. You may have the most boring desk job on the planet but when you are footloose, you are literally fancy free to reinvent yourself in whatever image you like. A backpacking White man in India can try his hand at anything from vipasana to playing Bollywood extra… A responsible Indian journalist can become a totally ridiculous, creature, betting with a burly stranger that she could lift him if he paid for her drinks. (The friend in question, who had run out of money on this particular trip, won the bet incidentally.)
You can pretend to be literary in Paris, a foodie in Italy, a musician in Vienna, forget the drudgery of buying bread or paying the dhobi as you walk the sea in Maldives and escape your life as you take a break, walking barefeet in a mournful, shadowy city. It’s a really an alternate life that you’ve been presented. A chance to exist simultaneously in many realties.