My best-friend tells me scrunching up his nose, "In Mumbai I am constantly beset with anxieties. Am I buff enough? Will my art-gallery continue to be cutting-edge? Why am I still single? Is my car bigger and better then that of my rival? Are my socks and underwear matching colours?"
Then we go away on holiday together. And the rules that govern our life in the city break down. The first to go is the co-ordinated clothing. Then the rules that dictate our consumption of food. Not only are granola bars not available from the road-side stall, but the road also seems to call for an experimentation with certain greasy, un-treated delights.
As we sit in a road side cafe blissfully drinking chai from an oily cup, I recall what Ceaser Pavre once famously wrote of travel. “It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things — air, sleep, dreams, the sky, the sea –— all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”
On each beach we stay at there’s enough sand and surf to go around, so we don’t feel the need to plant a flag. We have shifted into a gear where size ceases to matter. In a haze of beach-surf, rock-music and white wine, we gobble up deep-fried squid and French fries, our pre-planned diets forgotten. Just as the idea of samples, discounts, and significant-others seem to fade into complete unimportance.
The best-friend forgets to say, “Guess who I saw brunching at Blue Frog today?” Since everyone he needs to impress is back in Mumbai, he wanders onto the beach wearing white shorts peppered with pink ponies. Freedom from stress brings out his natural charm and I hear him chatting up a local, “Radha you were absolutely meant to be dark-haired, God got it right with you.”
The further we travel, the more we are convinced about nothing at all. Compelled increasingly to agree with this text by A A Gill that we devour en route. Gill writes “Nothing alters your perception of who you are and where you belong to as fundamentally, radically and permanently as being somewhere else.” I too, quite like Mr Gill, find myself astonished by both, “the power and unfading brilliance of the people and places I’ve met. They live with me like schizophrenic voices in my head.”
An exercise in re-cognition
For Gill it may have been the Masai herdsman offering him a gourd of warm cow’s blood and then asking if he’d read any James Hadley Chase. For me it was visiting a Pawra tribal village in Madhya Pradesh and finding herbal remedies that provide me with infinite more relief for my cold, than any sophisticated tablets I’ve ever had.
For Gill it may have been the Cuban boy, hawking cassettes of salsa music in a hotel lobby, who kept a secret love of American rock and knew every state capital by heart. For me it was meeting a man tucked away in the hills in Nainital, who had never travelled anywhere, but seemed to be more reflexive about cultural difference than many globe-trotting tourists I’ve encountered.
For Gill it may have been the French nurse with an angelically foul temper, trying single-handedly to save the lives of 10,000 Dinka babies in a place the size of Belgium that had no roads. For me it was the black woman who rescued me from a knife attack by a white schizophrenic man in the middle of a bustling Oxford Street in London.
I still escape the city every now and again to refresh, rejuvenate and re-group. But the best-friend, he sold his art gallery, bought a farm house and worked hard to get it flourishing. He tells me he’s happier growing his own organic vegetables then he was as ornament on life’s cream damask sofa. And on those rare occasions that he does visit the city, he no longer spends the vast majority of his time in quest of granola bars.
When she isn’t lecturing at St Xavier’s College, Sonia can be found brandishing pen and camera as she travels around India and the world.