Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
ADDICTIONS: February 25,2001
Timeri N. Murari
Wandering, I believe, is a genetic human condition. It is coded into our DNA and buried deep in our subconscious. It has to be. Look back.
In the very beginning, our ancestor crawled out of the steaming seas onto land, an adventurous and stunningly brave move for that organism. It was safe and secure in that warm soup that had created and nurtured it, yet it grew restless. It looked out beyond the water and saw land; a strange tangled hump of mud, rock and vegetation where the waters lapped at and ended. It came to a decision. It left safety, tested the shore and then moved further inland, away from our womb, the sea. The rest, as they say, is history. Yet, we must wonder what motivated the creature to flop onto land and wander its way towards the distant horizon, not looking back. Maybe it had companions on this journey, maybe it moved alone.
R. Prasanna Venkatesh/Wilderfile
Even as I fly over those same seas millions of years later, looking down at the womb, I wonder why it grew restless in its secure and safe environment. Well, safe is not the right word, the seas as the land, were no doubt equally dangerous. The earth, then as now, was filled with predators. I have no doubt, the urge to wander away was driven by curiosity. I do believe it was the urge to move on, to wonder at the mysteries before it and explore. Imagine! If it had not wandered, we would not be here. We would be still stewing in that primeval soup.
In that context, I cannot say I have evolved too far from my very distant ancestor. My editor in London when she could not find me one time, and when she finally did catch up, exploded in exasperation: "My god, you're so peripatetic." Thankfully, as a writer, the urge to wander is a prerequisite of my profession.
I thought peripatetic a most evocative word to describe my addiction to travel. We Indians are, as a race, the most peripatetic people. We'll hop on to a plane, a train, a bus, a bullock cart or a bicycle when the spirit takes us and vanish. We might visit children in America, attend a wedding in the next village, or take a pilgrimage to distant temples. Or else we leave our homeland forever and settle in distant countries. I doubt there is any place on earth you won't find an Indian. Or a Chinese. They are the two eternal wanderers.
We are not merely descendants of that organism but as we evolved to walk upright we are descendants too of the nomads of Asia. We drove our herds in search of new pastures and conquered new lands. Some settled to build villages which grew into cities, they became rooted and gave up their nomadic instinct. They wandered intellectually though, to give us the culture to which we now belong. Others kept wandering on.
The urge to move, to peer over the next horizon, drove them south into India, west into Europe too, until the cold Atlantic stopped their wandering instincts. It is ironic that according to a recent report, a handful of Asian nomads are responsible for the present day population of Europe and England. Their descendants then made the final leap across the Atlantic to settle in America.
I believe man's wanderlust arose from his sense of optimism. He believed that over the next horizon would be excitement and adventure, that he would renew himself when he moved on. He never believed that danger or disaster lay over the horizon.
The addiction, like any other, is too deeply embedded to be cured. The addiction manifests itself in a feeling of restlessness, a sense of panic at being rooted forever in one place until death. It is as if the horizon is closing in and tightening its noose around the wanderer and there is no escape. It is another kind of claustrophobia. For those who stay rooted in one place all their lives, it is hard to explain, like any addiction.
Most societies revile the gypsies, only because they are the eternal wanderers and that unsettles those who have settled. We see a small tribe of men, women and children, colourful and distinctive, in their roadside tents. They appear suddenly in the cities, and then one day they are gone again. In the west, they are more sophisticated, they travel with caravans and are more openly in conflict with urban society there. They worry us with their lack of permanence, and angered Adolf Hitler enough to send many into his gas chambers.
They remind one, me anyway, that you can survive wandering and still look happy. The settled ones believe there is permanence on earth, but it is only a dream. Nothing can remain permanent. The Emperor Akbar's revenue minister complained bitterly that in one year he would gather tax from a village, the next year the villagers had gone. They had wandered on, looking for greener pastures.
Even a month in one place and the wanderer needs to travel, somewhere, not so much as to sightsee but to experience something new. It is not the annual holiday or even a bi-annual one, a holiday implies the leisure of lying on a beach or relaxing somewhere else. We wander to meet someone, see something magical, or return with a bad experience. It is a fix that keeps me home bound for a while before the urge seeps back into me. From where I live I can distinctly hear the train's evocative wail of warning as it fades away into the night, going to somewhere familiar or strange, whichever, but it tugs at my feet. I still look up at planes and, if they are low enough, note their markings and wonder where they have come from or where they are going to.
It is the human condition to wander. We have circled the earth and partly plumbed the seas from which we came. Now we look up at the stars, even as that creature first looked out at the land. The stars have mesmerised us from the moment we could look up to the sky and they always made us wonder what it must be like to wander among those pinpricks of silver light. We dream what it must be like to leap away from the earth and traverse solar systems and galaxies. We have made that first step to the moon, but that is not enough. We want to go further and further, away from the security and warmth of the earth into the cold nether regions of our universe.
I would like to be one of those who could leave earth. It will not happen in my lifetime or the next. No doubt, at all, it will and, like the old nomads, will find a new place, a distant star, to settle down on. But that is only a stepping stone as those humans look around and wonder what is beyond the next galaxy.
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