Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
TIME OUT : May 2, 1999
Journeys East and West
One of my most memorable journeys happened a long time ago. So long ago in fact that it has become inextricably entwined with a story that I was reading at that time called, "The wonderful adventures of Nils." It is a great story of travel through different lands, as Nils, a little Swedish boy, is carried on the back of two great wild birds whom he befriends.
What made it so exciting is that I read the book in the very place that the author Selma Lagerlof had been born, in Varmland, in the heart of Sweden. Selma Lagerlof was a gifted schoolteacher, who became the first woman novelist to win a Nobel Prize for literature in the early part of this century. Though she wrote many books about Sweden's heroic medieval age, it was the simple story of Nils and his love for travel that made her a household name in Sweden. When she was young, Selma Lagerlof suffered from a lame foot and maybe that was what inspired her to dream up an adventure story of a little boy flying free on the back of a company of great white birds in search of the Sun.
We were the guests of one of Selma Lagerlof's nephews, a University professor, who had invited us, my two younger sisters and my parents, to spend a week with them in their farmhouse. Like many Swedes at that time, when they left their big city life, they returned to an older way of living in total simplicity. We not only ate the food that the farm provided, freshly baked bread, brown eggs laid by the chickens and the creamy milk from the cows that were still being milked by hand, but we also had to adapt ourselves to running around completely bare, as our Nature worshipping hosts showed us the facilities for bathing. There were none. If we needed to bathe we would have to run down to the lake and jump in. Being Indians we never missed a bath. Each morning, or late afternoon, when it became warmer, we would step into the dark waters of that lake in Varmland and allow ourselves to be completely immersed in another age. There was not a person for miles. It was easy to imagine that there were trolls lurking in the pine trees that surrounded us. The woods were as dark and mysterious as the forests of the Brothers Grimm and on the mountains we could even see the outlines of a big antlered moose, or an elk, whenever the shy creatures came out to graze. When you flipped over in the water and lay on your back, looking at the sky, you could hear the honking of the flocks of birds flying southwards, shouting, "Nils, Nils, come with us, we're flying towards the warm countries of the Sun."
The longing for the Sun is perhaps what makes the traveller from the West, so different from the more sedate seeker from the East. The Western traveller in myth and legend, if not in reality, is depicted as a restless searcher. Or a greedy adventurer, or an opportunist, who is looking for new lands, new mountains to climb, new rivers to tame, fresh vistas and virgins to sample, food to hunt and roast and eat on a bonfire, made in the open with the excitement of unknown dangers lurking in the undergrowth. The more industrialised the country, the more the desire to return to a simpler, romanticised image of life as it used to be lived in the past. The French call it nostalgie de la boue, an infantile desire to wallow in the mud of childlike dreams of innocence. When Westerners flit across the Indian landscape, wearing simple cotton clothes, learning to eat with their fingers, trying to understand the deep sonorous rhythms of Indian culture, or religion, they are allowing their inner child to frolic for a season of goodwill until their credulity or their credit cards dry up.
"You know what I've learnt after coming to India?" asked one young man from California, dropping his pants and squatting within the garden walls of a famous old Cathedral that I had just been showing him, "When I want to go, I just go! Isn't that great. Thirty years of toilet training that I learnt at home, I have been able to un-learn during my visit by watching you Indians. It's so much more natural. When an Indian wants to pee, man, he just pees!" I was so speechless, I could not tell him that even we Indians would not "go" at the front entrance of a Cathedral. "I think you need to see a doctor, you've got diarrhoea!" I blurted out, much more prosaically.
Easterners on the other hand have no use for this search for a lost paradise. They are more than happy for the tangible joys of a dollar paradise. As the Air India ads used to say, imitating the excited whine of an old fashioned fairground film projectionist, grinding his machine by hand, flashing pictures of "Abroad," crying, "Dekho, Dekho, London Dekho, Paris Dekho... Rome, New York, Brussels Dekho..." to the Indian traveller just being there is what makes for the excitement.
Arriving at Heathrow airport in London or at Frankfurt, or even at Singapore's Changi airport, is like being re-incarnated to another level of existence. The vast coiling metallic tubes of corridors feeding passengers into the even larger collection areas where electronic signs rattle and flash continually with information in airline code; the silent electric trains that whiz people from one section of the airport to another; the sudden changes of pace as you step onto strips of moving walkways or stand on escalators that bare their steel flanked steps as they grudgingly transport you from one level to another and finally the cold hard scrutiny, by bored officials as they flip through your documents and prepare to eject you with a sudden grunt, "Go! You may go now!" are just some of the ways in which a Third Worlder stepping into a capitalist Eden is processed.
You emerge from such an experience totally purged. You actually experience a sense of light headedness, even liberation. The air feels different, cleaner, colder, more insistent, as it rushes into your lungs and fills the waiting red corpuscles with its foreignness. The sky seems pale and distant as though painted into place by one of those impressionist artists. The people walk past and don't appear to pay the slightest notice. You realise that for some strange reason you have become invisible. This sense of not being able to connect is often the single most distressing factor for a typical Indian who travels to the West.
Perhaps it afflicts most Easterners who travel to the West. For, I have noticed that even the Japanese, as proud and resilient as they are, always visit countries outside their knowledge in tight groups. The strangest sight of the Japanese as tourists that I saw, was at a hotel where a group of them, maybe about 60, were having breakfast. Each one of them was dressed in the latest Spring fashions, the women with smart hats, glossy hair, enamelled faces, rows of pearls, lapel pins on their jackets, long Gucci handbags and elegant footwear, the men equally fastidious in sportswear and multiple cameras, all of them eating the full English breakfast of porridge, bacon and eggs. What made the scene extraordinary was the complete absence of sound. They had blended in with the atmosphere so completely that they looked Western. But among themselves, they were all talking animatedly in soft Japanese whispers.
Indians also tend to travel abroad in groups, if not as families, at least as units of like-minded people. Tour operators advertise specific food requirements, vegetarian, Jain, with a travelling "Maharaj" or Indian cook for instance, or promise regional cuisines for different groups. The women carry bundles of dry foods. They learn to shop almost at once at supermarkets and pass on tips on where to buy milk, bread, yogurt, rice, fruit and nuts. Some even carry small spirit stoves and a whole range of Indian masalas so that cooking a meal becomes a challenge as the bathroom space gets converted into a kitchen. Not only are there dire warnings in the posher hotels forbidding such activity, quite often the sizzle of a curry sets off the fire extinguishers in an enclosed hotel room.
As the journey progresses, the Indian abroad begins to find more and more ways of reverting to his or her roots. Visits to temples, gurdwaras and mosques become a matter of pride. Any person from the sub-continent is hunted down for a "good meal from home." They complain about the lack of news about India in the foreign press. They scan the faces of fellow Indians as they wait in buses and hurl greetings in Punjabi, Gujarati, or Tamil and complain about how dirty Westerners are. As we all know they never wash. It all boils down to toilet training once more. Our ways are so much more superior to theirs.
A day comes when the Indian abroad can take it no more. He revolts. In the case of a South Indian family at Singapore's immaculately clean Changi airport, the whole lot had decided to revolt. They were sitting in the middle of the immense carpeted expanse of the waiting room spreading out their Japanese style plastic tiffin carriers and eating themselves into a state of bliss. They were like a herd of elephants at the Queen's Birthday Party, completely oblivious to the stares of all the other passengers. They were Indians who had decided that even in paradise, there's no joy like the promise of going home.
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