THE TRAVEL ISSUE ESSAY: ON THE ROAD

The Romance of the Road

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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How it shapes our consciousness and culture

TWO MEN KEEP taking off across the highways of the United States, ganging up with friends and strangers in its great cities listening to music and getting high—that, in a line, is On the Road, and yet it is a cult novel. Its words seem unfiltered, powering through like a dynamo creating energy from its own motion, impulsive like the journeys themselves, absent of purpose, worshipping the moment; a style that would go under the label of ‘Beat’ whose distinct elements are freedom and abandon. Jack Kerouac took less than a month to write its draft but he had maintained copious notes during the travels themselves which came years before he first put them to paper.

Now think of any Indian equivalent to On the Road. At least in English writing here, there is none and there are reasons for it that go beyond just literary excellence. That book was published in 1957. What would be the state of Indian roads then if a writer wanted to embark on a similar undertaking? Kerouac’s protagonists, Sal and Dean, are regular young Americans who barely manage to hold a job and they have no shortage of cars. How many Indians of that period would have the means to own cars and what would be the age of these people? What was the state of Indian highways then? If the car had a breakdown, how easy would it be to get it repaired and running? A prerequisite for a modern road novel is a highway system and a support infrastructure that allows for it. Even decades after On the Road was published, India would remain a country where long journeys meant train or air travel. Cargo might move on trucks, but those at their wheel are rarely writers.

We do have a culture of road journeys that goes back thousands of years; that is on foot, walking and geared towards trade and the more enduring religious pursuit. There is thus Faxian, the Chinese monk, who came all the way from China to India in the 5th century CE and penned his observations. He is a writer not exactly in the mode of Kerouac. The most racy that he gets in his Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms are a couple of lines describing the crossing of the Himalayas that goes: ‘The travellers went on to the south-west for fifteen days (at the foot of the mountains, and) following the course of their range. The way was difficult and rugged, (running along) a bank exceedingly precipitous, which rose up there, a hill-like wall of rock, 10,000 cubits from the base. When one approaches the edge of it, his eyes become unsteady; and if he wished to go forward in the same direction, there was no place on which he could place his foot; and beneath where the waters of the river called the Indus.’ This is as much adrenaline as will flow from Faxian. Otherwise, for a man making the most magnificent of journeys whose memory has lasted 2,000 years, he is content to keep it a guidebook, diligently mentioning the places and events of Buddhist lore that he wanted to take back. Once in a while, he gives a glimpse of what it meant to be on the road back then, like when he writes on the Buddha’s birthplace: ‘The country of Kapilavastu is a scene of empty desolation. The inhabitants are few and far between. On the roads people have to be on their guard against white elephants and lions, and shouldn’t travel incautiously.’

What about the time that he is seeking to revisit, when the Buddha walked the same roads and so did his contemporaries, like the Nighantu Nataputta or Mahavira, who started Jainism, or the agnostic Sanjaya Belatthiputta or the fatalist Makkhali Gosala who led Ajivika, a cult and teaching that would survive almost up to the 14th century CE? They are all walkers, oscillating all their lives between the few big cities of their times, except for the monsoons when they would settle in a city, always on the road, pitching their theories about existence and meaning. Later when these thoughts were incorporated into what would be called Hinduism, one of its early compilers, Shankaracharya, too started from a remote corner of southern India and moved from one end of the country to another, making a whole out of many disparate strands. The Indian consciousness has its roots in walkers.

The only time I have walked cross-country is 10 days with an organisation that sought to encourage rural creativity and visited mofussil parts of the country twice a year to scout for innovators in villages. The year that I joined them, it was winter in the deep interiors of Bihar. We moved from village to village, along the shores of rivers, through woods and sugarcane and paddy fields, sleeping in the verandahs of schools. By the second day, blisters had started to break out on my soles. We averaged about 15 km a day, I think, and it doesn’t sound much for anyone who does the treadmill daily. But it is not a race either. Being on the road is many universes that you did not know about come calling at you, of the grey remnants of an indigo planter’s bungalow speaking a story or the sudden appearance of an Ashoka pillar scrawled with graffiti, of a fog that covers the path like a white blanket enveloping you until it is sucked away as if by a vacuum and clear rays of sunlight come streaming in, of listening to strangers whose lives seem to be from a time that you do not recognise, of seeing advertisements for Mithun condoms and thinking it must refer to the actor until you realise that ‘mithun’ is also ‘bull’ in Hindi.

ONE OF INDIA’S early road movies is the one that Amitabh Bachchan first got his break in as a solo hero. Bombay to Goa came out in 1972 and the story—about a girl running away from home because she is being forced to marry a stranger—is set (unsurprisingly) in a bus. A year before that, there was a Jeetendra movie called Caravan and in that too a girl is running away and finds sanctuary in his truck. Both the movies have happy cheesy endings. In the last few years, you have had a few road movies—Highway, Piku, NH10, and they are all gritted in dark reality. In Highway, a kidnapped girl finds freedom from her childhood sexual abuse trauma. NH10 has a couple being chased by murderers. Piku sees Amitabh Bachchan once again hit the road with a portable commode in tow and while it is not as noir as the other two, the old man dies at the end of the journey. The distance between Amitabh’s first road movie and his last is also the journey of Bollywood and India—from the unreal to the real, from bus to car.

We do have a culture of road journeys; that is on foot, geared towards trade and the more enduring religious pursuit

A few years after the Bihar walk, I bought a car and did a drive to Kerala from Mumbai along with a friend, but it was not the same thing. We took the Expressway to Pune and from there the highway to Bengaluru. In between we forked off at Hubli towards Mangalore. The road cut through a forest. Google Maps showed us the shortest route. We took a side road and promptly got lost, finding ourselves in the middle of nowhere. On the border near Mangalore between Karnataka and Kerala, the road crumbled and once we crossed over, the national highway turned into single lanes in patches. Mahe, a town in Kerala with a French heritage that I had imagined as quaint and picturesque, turned out as dense and ordinary as anyplace else. It started to rain at night. My fellow passenger and I became irritated with each other and we were glad when it was over. Another time, I went by road from Manali to Ladakh, and I saw the most enthralling landscapes on the face of the earth. We encountered a landslide that blocked the road and what should have been a nice lovely ride turned into a long uncertain wait for the road to open up again. Most journeys never go by the book. Sometimes, if you are in a large group, there is the politics of getting the best seat and the inevitability of someone falling sick, the panic of indecision and uncertainty. What you remember with fondness about such travels is directly proportional to the discomfort you went through. The experience of a journey is also after it gets over.

Recently, a cousin, let’s call him A, who had just bought a Bullet motorcycle, was riding back from Kerala to Mumbai. On the second day after noon, as he reached Belgaum, he stopped at a small roadside restaurant for lunch. Inside, he saw a man, in his early forties dressed casually in cheap trousers and a shirt, speaking to the cook and the waiters. He turned to A, noticed his biking gear and asked him in English where was he coming from. On hearing Kerala, he introduced himself as Mohammed, also from the same state. They got chatting. He turned out to be a watchman for a hotel 20 km away and he had a story to tell.

Mohammed had once been a cook in the Middle East with a five-star hotel and had then returned to Kerala to work. One day he decided that he could not live that life any longer. He gave it up and started travelling on the road without any set purpose. When he felt like it, he would work somewhere and then there would be an inner call and he would quit to go roaming again. He also came across a guru, a Nakshbandi, who taught him something called Ism, which he claimed could sort out the future of people if they fulfilled a few tasks set out for them. He said he would now perform it on A.

Mohammed told A to choose a number from one to 10 and A chose six.

“You have four tasks to do in a year,” he said. The first was marriage, the second a change of job, the third going to his late mother’s cremation place. For the fourth, he gave A a piece of paper in which he had written something in what looked like Arabic.

“Keep this in your wallet always. Do not remove it or read it,” he said. “The only time you shouldn’t be having this piece of paper on your person is when you do something unclean, like going to the toilet or sex.” Mohammed asked that they meet exactly one year later and A suggested a place in Bengaluru.

Mohammed also said that their meeting like this had not been chance. He had walked 20 km from his hotel that morning and stopped exactly at this restaurant because he had to meet A. Later, as they got up to leave, Mohammed asked for a lift back to the hotel where he worked. A was undecided. He didn’t know whether this man was slightly unhinged, or, worse, a criminal. He considered the options—he knew he couldn’t be attacked when riding the bike because they would both fall and, once he got down, being six feet tall and stout, A knew he was strong enough to fend him off. He asked Mohammed to get on. When they reached the hotel, Mohammed got down and went his way. A still has that piece of paper in his wallet.

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