Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Travails of Travel

A journey is not a simple process of travel from point A to point B, a sojourn, brief or extended, and a return to the point from which one commenced the travel. To travel is to also open oneself up to the possibility that the person who left may not return back to the point of origin. Happily, in our times this failure to return is not the result of the death of the traveller, but because of more existential reasons. The person who travels opens oneself up to the unknown, breaking away from the humdrum of regular activity, throwing oneself to a variety of unknowns. The result of this is not always pleasant. We could come back enriched, but we could also come back changed, for better or for worse. To travel, then, is to also at the same time gamble.

Take, for instance, the experience of the traveller we will focus on in this epistle; traveling to Patna in the early part of this century, he knew that he was going to be challenged with difference. Indeed, he bragged that he was going to Patna to see a different part of India. Growing up within the genteel confines of Goa, and exposed to the rush of post-colonial Bangalore, Patna promised a taste of the wild, wild, west of India. The rumoured badlands that some claimed was the one location where Marx’s postulations did in fact come true, for after systematic and repeated assaults over the years the state in Bihar had truly withered away.

Our traveller was unable to determine if the state had truly withered away for the presence of the state in Bihar was ubiquitous. Its power was felt through the presence of district bureaucrats who could impound vehicles for government service, or through the batons of the police who could flag down an auto rickshaw and rest assured that they would not have to pay for their ride. The state had definitely not withered away, though it did seem to be failing to deliver on the single most important reason for its establishment: upholding the rule of law. What our traveller can testify to, therefore, is the fact that things were different in Patna, and he witnessed the change in his attitude to the world as a result of his extended presence in that city.

Early in the course of his stay in the city our traveller found himself bundled up with a number of colleagues in a van destined for a location outside the city. Somewhere along the way our merry travellers came upon a traffic jam that kept them stationary for a while. On inquiring they were told that a wrongly parked vehicle was causing the inconvenience to all the others using the road; at this point a colleague let fly; “Arrey thod do saley ki sisey ko!” (Break the fellow’s windscreen!). Even though this response was only met with giggles all around and noises in agreement, and not with an actual march to mete out ‘justice’ to the offending vehicle, the contrast of these responses with our traveller’s absolute horror at the suggestion speaks volumes about how when the state fails to deliver justice, citizens learn to take the law into their own hands.

Contrast this response, with our traveller’s response a year later when he was similarly caught in a traffic jam. It was winter, the Home Guards who were demonstrating in the city had blocked a number of roads and their roars of protest unnerved our gentle traveller. Our traveller, however, was not as gentle as when he was new to the city, for faced with a traffic jam caused by another wrongly parked vehicle and already exasperated with the situation he shouted out “Arrey thod daliye na saley ki sisey ko!” The wheel of adharma had turned full circle, our traveller was now a certain kind of Patnaiya.

 To travel, therefore, is to also at the same time gamble, to open oneself the possibility that one will change.
(A version of this post was first published on The Goan on 25 Jan 2014)

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