By: Srinivas S
(for Preethi, who was part of the best of them)
It seems almost clichéd these days to say that journeys are more important than destinations. In my case, though, journeys have always mattered so much more than destinations that I find myself a lot more at ease, paradoxically, when I am on the move towards some place, than when I have reached there. Perhaps, the most obvious, physical aspect of journeys puts an element of living into my life; perhaps, it allows me to be more spontaneous, muting, or at least muffling, the constant chatter about the past or the future that my mind often indulges in, when my body is in one place.
I enjoy journeys for the same reason that a ten-year old might enjoy them: for the sights outside the window and for the sounds that emanate from within the train or bus on which one is travelling. I remember how, as a school boy, I looked forward to daytime bus journeys to my uncle’s place in Kumbakkonam, because they gave me a chance to see uninterrupted miles of tall Coconut trees (alas, there is hardly one every five miles these days!), their branches cutting and streaming sunlight in unexpectedly beautiful angles, and their barks wearing their age as brown-black rings. Nor can I forget the many train journeys to many places during summer holidays, for during most of them I had — apart from my father, mother and sister — the many glorious languages, clothes and food-smells of India for company.
The most memorable journeys in my life, however, are those that took place between the time I left school and the time that I went out of India for higher studies: an eventful eight-year period during which I had my share of travel inconveniences, which I attempted to see as adventures, after G. K. Chesterton’s wise counsel in On Running After One’s Hat. May 2010, for example, took me on a backbreaking five-hour night journey from Hyderabad to Utnoor in pursuit of data for my dissertation, and brought me back, two days later, to Hyderabad through an Andhra afternoon that — I was later told — was 50 degrees centigrade at its peak.
In between, I allowed sleep and an early morning breeze to embrace me at the mosquito-infested bus stop at Utnoor, because there was just one guest house in town for tourists who wanted lodgings, and getting into it required permission from the ‘government office’ in town, which wouldn’t open till 11 a.m.. I was also taken (on a bike) by an amiable staff member of the Integrated Tribal Development Authority to his village, which was twenty-five kilometres away by a patchy uphill road, and, there, experienced the initially awkward but later cheerful hospitality of a father and son, who helped me with my data. Now when I look back on the trip I remember the onward journey to and the return journey from Utnoor with a feeling of nostalgia, too, because the strains and sweat they entailed were, in their own right, immensely satisfying.
A few months earlier, there was a memorable ‘Good Friday’ trip to Mangalore, its purpose to meet someone who had become an incredibly important friend in a matter of weeks, along with
her family. Having arrived at the Yeswanthpur Junction from Hyderabad on a hot and moth-infested Kacheguda Express, I proceeded to Majestic — that ramshackle but stubbornly clinging jumble of lanes, bridges and subways which connect the City Railway station and the BMTC and KSRTC bus stops with the rest of the city — the harshness of the midday sun in Bangalore offering a sharp contrast to the city’s lemon yellow afternoons of the yesteryear. So, it was with great relief that I boarded Volvo 1 to Mangalore, the engines and the air-conditioning of the bus already running, a full twenty minutes before departure.
The bus departed on time, I dozed off, but when I woke up, it was frustrating to discover that it had still not crossed the outer limits of the Bangalore city. Then there was the halt for lunch at a highway shanty, and each delay served to heighten my expectation of setting foot in Mangalore — “a quaint small town you would love” in my father’s words — and seeing my friend for the first time. As afternoon gave way to an overcast evening, however, and a thin drizzle mixed with the condensation on the bus windows, I was to discover the tree-lined , cloud-enhanced and windswept splendour of the hilly roadway that straddles Karnataka and Kerala. Later, when night had painted the skies completely black — and when a few tens of stars had crept upon the moonless sky, their light from light years away, however, doing little to illuminate the mileposts that revealed the distance to my destination — I realised that I had had a great evening in solitude, a rarity in those days of hesitant company-seeking and self-imposed loneliness.
Long before the trips to Utnoor and Mangalore, though, there still was Bangalore, and the October evening return from there to Chennai in 2002, for the navarathri holidays. I was travelling on a Second Sitting Compartment of the Brindhavan Express, my eyes fixed on the sky that went from afternoon-yellow to twilight to night-black, my mind contemplating a professional future (in law) that seemed bleak at best and hopeless at worst, and my homesick Chennai-boy heart already dreading the return to the grey silences of the Garden City a week later. Around me, there was a group of college students, their cheerful banter, a contrasting accompaniment to my own uneasy silence; a school teacher who was valuing answer scripts with a Reynolds 045 pen, the middle class’s writing weapon of choice in those days; a lady with a sleep-hating one-year-old who was trying his best to bring the proverbial roof down; and a bespectacled school girl who, seemingly detached from the world around her, divided her time between working out Math problems and reading the book Bloodline by Sidney Sheldon.
After the trained crossed Katpadi, the last mentioned co-passenger and I exchanged a poignant and prolonged hello along with our email addresses. We became very good friends, then drifted apart for a few years, and have been good friends again since the turn of the decade. The journey of our friendship reflects, in my view, life’s journey itself: we don’t always get to choose the people we travel with, how long we travel with them, and how many times, but we usually have some control over what we remember from our journeys.
I don’t go on too many journeys anymore, thanks to the desk demands of my teaching job, thanks to importunate requests from the home front to quell my wanderlust and to settle down in every
sense of the term, and thanks to a body that has become far less sporting in taking on weather gods, traffic jams, and other travel-related inconveniences. On the rare occasion that I do undertake a journey, however, I take a notepad along to jot down the sounds and sights from it. Some jottings become haiku and some short poems, and some inform an essay such as this one. Those which remain untransformed and untapped are the ones which I hold most dear, though, because they recall, simply and modestly, journeys as they unfolded