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The end is a journey

For a sense of empathy and an open mind, young Indians must be encouraged to travel in their own land, write Shashi Tharoor and Keerthik Sasidharan.

india Updated: Oct 25, 2011 23:02 IST

To travel is to wilfully leap into the unknown - to give up the assured security of home for the exigencies of the world. This is true whether one journeys from home to a nearby town to see a mela, or to another continent in search of work. Over time, the world and its mores seep, imperceptibly, into our lives and into our minds. We inch closer, howsoever marginally, to becoming - as the Greek philosopher Diogenes first called himself - a "citizen of the world".

Predictably, travel arouses a swathe of responses: the world can repel or inspire reflections. For some, like Mahatma Gandhi or Charles Darwin, travel provided intellectual and moral reasons to empathise with others; for some others, like Sayyid Qutb or Pol Pot, the world inspired justifications to murder in the name of religious purity and class consciousness. For most of us who fall somewhere between these polarities, travel forces our minds to adapt, to rethink, to reevaluate our prejudices and to recalibrate our passions in ways far removed from conventional education. Travel, in other words, is learning by other means.

Remarkably, in the education curricula of our country, travel rarely figures. An odd picnic during the school year is the most that one might experience. Beyond that, for large sections of India's poor and middle class, the world is reduced to one's city, one's family and nowadays whatever the television channels proffer. The wide world and its wonders mean little.

Predictably, the idea of India - whether as a geographical or cultural space - is increasingly lopsided in the minds of many. The less privileged know little beyond their own areas, or what they see in Bollywood movies. The children of the elite of India's major cities know more about Manhattan or London than they do about, say, Bhubaneswar or Thiruvananthapuram. Many parts of India are virtually foreign countries to their young minds, through no real fault of theirs. Who wants to think about Dantewada when there is a jet plane taking off to Dubai? Our collective consciousness slowly fragments along familiar lines of global capital flows and worldly aesthetics.

Should this matter?

In a heterogeneous democracy like ours, where resources and geographies are different, where peoples and cultures change with every district - it is paramount that we are able to see past our immediate environs. The overbearing tyranny of small disaffections dictates our public discourse. The acrimony in our Parliament and media is emblematic of our inability to listen to, far less agree with, each other. Technology has amplified marginal dissonances. We may know more facts about others, but our discourse suffers from Asperger's syndrome: the remarkable inability to empathise. Unlike those individuals who suffer from Asperger's, we have a choice.

Our collective challenge is then how we do offer, to the generations of Indian who follow, opportunities to recognise our collective destiny? Lester Pearson, the late Canadian Prime Minister, said in his Nobel Peace Prize Lecture: "How can there be peace without people understanding each other, and how can this be if they don't know each other?" To him, and to others, knowledge of the other was critical to demystify, to get past clichés & to learn to treat each individual according to the "content of their character". The best way to do this is to travel.

Why not explicitly encourage such personal explorations as a matter of public policy? World travel may be limited by the high level of resources required and the difficulty of obtaining visas. But why not promote travel within India?

We could create a pan-Indian quasi-governmental agency along the lines of AISEC (Association Internationale des Étudiants en Sciences Économiques et Commerciales) to act as a hub for students who seek to travel. This agency could provide logistical support to students - guidance about possible destinations, a database of student hostels, basic medical assistance & volunteer opportunities in each Indian city. It could also accredit and screen related enterprises like youth hostels, tour providers and social service organisations needing volunteers. In essence, by involving itself in such an enterprise, the State can protect the young travellers, and implicitly make India more accessible.

Another possibility is a centrally facilitated nationwide school children's exchange program. Let children from Srinagar come and spend two weeks in a year in Thiruvananthapuram and vice versa. Let the Kashmiri children learn about the vast oceans, while Malayali children learn about the snow-clad mountains. Let them interact and play, fight and make friends. This could create friendships that might last a lifetime. But it would need organisational support and subsidies, which the State can provide.

Or take our young writers in Indian languages, who are rarely able to venture beyond the prisms, and the prisons, of their vernaculars. They have just as keen and sensitive perspectives on life as our English language writers, but their horizons are necessarily more limited, and a national perspective often eludes them. They are doubly discriminated against - for being young and being outside the scope of the English language press. Creating a national programme that funds young writers to travel the country and write about it in their local languages is a useful step towards our collective cosmopolitanism.

The resources for all this do not all have to come from the State. But the Government could establish a National Endowment for the Discovery of India that is open to private tax-deductible contributions and that can be used to finance the ideas outlined above. If we are to grow into a country that is open-minded, we must learn to not just leave the windows of our homes open to the world, as the Mahatma advised us, but also step out and engage with the world. The best place to start is in India itself - large, multiple, diverse, and in many ways unknown to its own citizens. To encourage young Indians to travel through their own land would reify the idea of India for the next generation. It would be a journey well worth undertaking by all of us.

(Shashi Tharoor is a Lok Sabha MP and Keerthik Sasidharan is a New York-based investment banker. The views expressed by the authors are personal.)

First Published: Oct 25, 2011 22:57 IST