Travelling the hard way

Updated on Sep 30, 2004 11:45 PM IST

London, Philadelphia, Bombay, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and more - Yavar Abbas recaps six weeks of travel by air and road.

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PTI | ByYavar Abbas, London

That's how it has been with me in the last six weeks. I started commuting between the continents on February 26, and have been on the go, non-stop, until early last week. My itinerary reads: London-Philadelphia-New York-Philadelphia-Edison, New Jersey-Philadelphia-London-Bombay-Delhi-Khajuraho-Charkhari, Bundelkhand-Khajuraho-Delhi-Lahore-Karachi-Delhi-London-Edison, New Jersey-London.

I have never before inflicted such cruelty to my system, and to do this now at the age of 82 has to go beyond recklessness, to border on madness. Yet, strangely enough I do not feel any the worse for wear, in spite of a severe bout of cold and flu in between.

I have been travelling the hard way: economy by air, and the rest of the time by road. I ascribe this to an almost daily practice of Yoga, specially Surya Namaskar, a habit I picked up in 1968 when I was making a series of films on Yoga and living the life at the Sivananda Ashram of The Divine Life Society of India at Rishikesh. For those who may be interested, there is a gem of a booklet on Surya Namaskar written by my late lamented friend Apa B Pant, which he gave me when he was India's High Commissioner in London in the early 1970s. It's one of the friendliest things anyone ever did to me.

I was talking about travelling the hard way, especially by road which in America is routine but in India is still an adventure. Some of the roads in Madhya Pradesh, for example, defy that description. A 50 mile journey by car from Khajuraho to Charkhari (my home town) gives you the thrill of riding a gentle roller coaster, and when you come off the roller coaster you get the feeling of taking a succession of speed breakers at speed. Curiously though, the roads in and around Khajuraho have improved noticeably. Khajuraho is a world famous monument and a popular tourist attraction with its profusion of mind boggling (is that the right adjective?) erotica carved on its temples.

When I visited it last time some 10 years ago, (to show yet another Western friend round!), it was all of that. The roads then were in keeping with the prevalent parampara  of road building in India. The difference since then has been, I discovered, that Khajuraho has been Uma Bharati's constituency who is now the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh in which state the temples are situated. Any kind of catalyst for road building in India is to be welcomed, but it is going to take an enormous number of motivated MPs and chief ministers to go round the number of roads that need to be built and maintained in India.

To get back to America, my second trip there in less than five weeks was just for the weekend. I was invited to participate in, and conduct, Imam Husain Day - in memory of the martyr of Karbala who died more than 1,400 years ago, fighting to uphold the truth against seemingly impossible odds. It was salutary and appropriate to be reminded of that in this season of ill will and injustice when brute force and brazen lies seem to be the order of the day, and the meaning of occupation and liberation, of aggression and self defence, of the oppressor and the oppressed, of the right of conquest and the rule of law have all been distorted to such an extent that you no longer know whether you are using the same lexicon as the lead actors strutting about on the world stage.

My fellow traveller for my American weekend was the learned Urdu scholar Dr David Matthews of the London School of Oriental and African Studies. He has translated, among other Urdu classics, one of the masterpiece marsiyas (epic elegies) of the great Anees, in elegant English verse. We were there at the invitation of the indefatigable and utterly dedicated Ehtesham Haider Naqvi, the founder of Imam Husain Day in Edison. This was the Silver Jubilee year of the event and Mr Naqvi had pulled out all the stops, holding it in the grand Conference Center of the impressive Ramada Plaza Hotel. It was, understandably, a Shia oriented occasion but the quality of contributions from some of the non-Shia speakers was an eye opener.

I have rarely heard such excellent English spoken in a similar gathering, and the content matched the language. David Matthews had written his speech in chaste Urdu, but at the last minute he was told that he had to speak in English as that was the language of the seminar. He had the audience in the palm of his hand when he started his speech in fluent Urdu and then switched to English, apologising for his mock inadequacy in his own mother tongue. Little did the audience know that David could, if called upon, do the same trick in Russian, German, Greek, Latin, French or, come to that, in Nepali. He is an amazing talent and a delightful companion to have on a long journey. He had me in stitches with tales of his adventures in Urdu and with Urduwallahs. It can be disorienting to hear him talk nineteen to the dozen in Urdu, and it took me some time to acclimatise. "I am living in sin" David recalled to me, quoting a fellow student in his Cambridge days, who also wanted to know how many homosexuals did David think there were in Cambridge. He followed it up by inviting David to his rooms. It all turned out to be quite harmless, though. The Pakistani student was only trying to tell David in English that he was a resident of Sind ("I am living in sin") and was wondering whether the just published Wolfenden Committee Report of 1959 on the subject of homosexuality had perhaps anything to do with the incidence of homosexuals in Cambridge.

The other enduring impression of my American weekend is the kindness and hospitality of Ehtesham Haider Naqvi and his lovely family (who were my charming hosts during my earlier stay as well, in Edison).

It made me quite homesick for India and Pakistan where I had just been with my young and talented co-writer Ian Waymark, to familiarise him with the people and the locations of my next projected film. Ian Waymark was too much of a mouthful for my Bundelkhandi  folk, so he became known there as 'YavarSahab ka Gora', and the name stuck.

But more about that later.

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