Mindscapes and memories
DESTINATIONS are the objective of many sorts of journeys, real or imaginary, past, present or future.
How many times have you said, ‘Oh! I would love to visit Venice or Gulmarg or San Francisco or Dubai!’ And then again how many times have you said, ‘I had such a lovely time in Venice or Gulmarg or San Francisco!’ ‘I would like to spend a week at the Ritz in Paris, eating in all the three star Michelin restaurants in the company of my beloved… but, it will never happen. It’s just a pipe dream.’ Or ‘I need some time alone, some time for myself away from the demands of everyday life, perhaps a yoga retreat or a Vipasana session.’
What about travel books? We read these to flesh out destinations which populate our travel imagination with places we might go to, with images seen through others’ eyes, with accounts of places seen long ago, or places we never will visit but which speak to our yen for far off peoples and places.
These are all destinations: the first a possibility in the future, a destination we keep tucked away in our middle consciousness, ready to be fulfilled when time and pocket allow. The second is a destination which exists in our memory, a place we return to with pleasure from time to time, reliving a particular rainy day on Venice’s Grand Canal, or a walk on Gulmarg’s Outer Circular Road overlooking Ferozpur Nallah, or a plateful of cracked Dungeness crab and a glass of Sonoma Valley Sauvignon Blanc on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. The Ritz escapade is a fictional destination, one which we think of wistfully but without true longing, knowing full well that the sybaritic luxuries which attend this destination are forever out of reach of our wallet, or abstracted from us due to some deep internal reason.
Travel books satisfy both the real and the armchair traveller, the person who lives vicariously, absorbing images, smells and characters through others’ eyes, and whose wanderlust is confined to what he receives whilst sitting before the fire, a cup of tea or a cognac at hand, the pages of his book drawing him into the travel of the mind. And lastly an inner destination, a place within our consciousness which requires no travel ticket, no hotel stay, and where the only meal available is one which fills the hungriest part of our being, our soul.
Venice remains one of my favourite future destinations, fixed forever in my imagination by Turner’s magical paintings and Jan Morris’ evocative and informative writing. The thought of moving only on foot or by water is tremendously appealing – the chance of hiring a traditional flat-bottom lagoon boat and ever so slowly wandering around the lagoon for four or five or even six days; of walking across Venice’s myriad bridges, not in sunlight but swathed in the visual mysteries of mist and rain; of sampling the city’s varied and peculiar seafood, such as risotto alle seppie with a bright black colour that’s a result of the cuttlefish being cooked in its own ink, or gratin of granceole or spider crabs, or yet another classic Venetian risotto, flavoured with a purée of the little lagoon fish called go, a sort of native goby; of luxuriating in the fabled Cipriani or Gritti Palace Hotel, imbibing the atmosphere which saw Thomas Mann write Death in Venice.
Venice has stayed out of my reach for a profoundly personal reason, reserved for an experience with someone special. I spent six months as a college student in Florence; Venice was not so far away as all that, and though in love, I never went. Most likely I was too young. I have roamed Italy several times since, but never to Venice. I have found someone special, but because of a personal tragedy which I have to live with, Venice is slipping away, and from a favourite future destination, it is in danger of turning into a destination of my own fiction, somewhere I will never reach as I have long dreamt. I imagine I will go there, but it may well be without that magical presence which would fulfil that destination for me.
Kashmir is a destination which exists largely in my memory. I can say that for the first 25 years of my life I knew Kashmir better than any other part of India. My father had loved Kashmir and made sure that, back from school or college in the United States, I spent all of my summer holidays in the Valley. The Nedou family of Srinagar and Gulmarg renown was my second family, and the fact that their sister was married to Sheikh Abdullah opened up the Valley for me in quite a unique way.
I loved trout fishing and stalking bear, the thrill of hearing a hundred thousand water fowl take wing at the first gunshot on Hokra Lake making me forget that my fingers, toes and nose were freezing in the damp cold of the Valley’s winter. It was there, smelling the summer fragrance of pines and tasting the wild watercress in the Erin valley that my mother introduced me to the ultimate way to cook a trout one had just caught.
Preparation was a newspaper, salt, pepper, butter, dry willow branches and, of course, the trout – ideally never more than a pound and a half. The willow twigs were set alight as we put the paper to soak in the stream, and downed a beer or a gimlet; the trout gutted and its cavity seasoned with salt, pepper and butter. Willow burns quickly and long before the drinks were over, a heap of embers was ready. Eight layers of the wet Kashmir Times were wrapped around the trout and into the twiggy coals it went, to be covered completely. After about 15 minutes it was time to have a look, and if the embers had burned through six layers of paper, the trout was ready. Nothing finer, anywhere.
Two memories are from Kashmir’s lakes, and the pleasure of what was known as a dunga party. Dungas are boats made for conviviality – a large space for sitting, a roof, a kitchen for cooking and a highly rudimentary loo. One memory centred on the wish of a college chum of mine to call Bismillah Khan to play for us in the middle of Nagin Lake; he remembered Bismillah giving a concert at my wedding which he had attended. All was in preparation, the dunga attached to land by a gangplank, Sheikh Abdullah and his youngest son Mustafa in attendance. The maestro arrived and settled down, but as the dunga pulled in its gangplank, Bismillah Khan hurriedly got up and made for the exit. He had never been on water despite living in Benares, and had no intention of doing so now.
The gangplank was reattached to the shore, the Ustad settled down once again, and the firmly anchored concert began, followed by waazwaan, that unique and delicious Kashmiri way of eating virtually every part of a sheep. Sheikh Abdullah was a large man, and his consumption of waaz-waan was prodigious. He would always eat from the four man trambi, that uniquely Islamic expression of commensality in which a huge heap of Kashmir’s delicious rice is kept in the middle of a platter at least three feet across, and a succession of dishes are ladled out, a little at a time, before each of the four diners.
The next dunga party was organized by one of the Nedous in honour of a school friend of his, founding editor of this magazine. Both had not seen each other for nigh on 40 years, but they gale lagjao’ed in earnest affection and chatted merrily into the afternoon as the dunga poled its way to Chaar Chinaar on Dal Lake. Neither was with us for long thereafter, and they never saw each other again.
The Valley was renowned and indeed treasured for a unique Kashmiriyat atmosphere of tolerance which seeped into my consciousness, and my reverence for the Sufi shrines of the Valley became as great as my devotion to Lord Shiva. The Lidder valley was a frequent fishing destination, and I would often stop at Aishmuq’am, the resting place of the Sufi saint Zainuddin Wali, a disciple of Sheikh Nuruddin who brought Sufism to the Valley. In 1943, my parents had entered the sacred cave where the Saint passed his life meditating, and tied a string praying for a son. My appearance some nine months later was an answer to their prayers.
The magnificent shrine and mosque in Chrar-e-Sharif, tomb of Sheikh Nuruddin, was a magnificent brick and cedar building with architectural and aesthetic roots right out of Central Asia. It is gone now, a victim of the conflagration of intolerance and violence which is the very abnegation of Kashmiriyat, but which has spread through the Valley like a cancer, turning what was a very real destination into something which will exist only in memory.
I fear that the Kashmir I knew and treasured will not return despite my hopes for an end to the Valley’s torment. It may well be like the history of a friend’s daughter, severely brain injured in a motor car accident. After surgery and several years of therapy, she looked as she had before the accident, but was a totally different person. Her friends and parents had to get to know a person whom physically they recognized, but whose character was entirely new to them. They were fortunate that the new character was pleasant and attractive.
Many of the shrines to Sufi saints were burnt down by militants over the past 15 years. Though they have been rebuilt, it is without the intricate woodwork and painted papier mache panels which were some of their glories. The willows and pines still grow, Dal Lake is being cleaned, and from time to time the Valley overflows with tourists. But it is nothing like the Kashmir which I knew and loved. I fear that the lyrical and tolerant grace which marked the Kashmiriyat of old will be replaced by a sad, resentful and bitter resignation.
Inner travel has a special quality to it, a reality which is in reaction to the physical and emotional world which we inhabit. The inner journey may have several destinations, and the journey itself can be a destination, a never-ending process of inner discovery and growth. But there is also an inner destination where time and again I return in moments of meditation or just to be bathed in the spirit of peace which such a destination affords. These are real places where I have been, and where I experienced the peace and sense of unity which in my recurring journeys I regain.
The first of these destinations is again from Kashmir. I had been fishing in the upper reaches of the Noboug Valley, where access to the stream was hindered by a cliff. I would either have to walk back upstream half a mile and cross, or climb up the slope behind the cliff and descend once more to the stream bank. I decided on the latter. The slope was steep, and after 15 or 20 minutes in the hot sun, I reached the treeline, pines and some fir. The temperature dropped, and after another ten minutes I was at the crest and could think of going back down. I looked at the stream below where I had been fishing half an hour ago and decided to sit down. There blew a light breeze, and the ground was soft with pine needles. The fragrance of the evergreens was accentuated by the hot sun. As I looked down at the stream, the memory of my hours fishing that morning and the serenity of my position on high ground merged to give me a feeling of deep contentment and peace.
Some years later we had rented a house in Ramatuelle, a small fishing village around the St. Tropez headland. The house was unusual in that it was circular, with an electrically operated roof. At the press of a button the roof would rise up six inches so that in the heat of summer, hot trapped air was allowed to escape and be replaced by cooler air. Surrounded by the fragrant scrub which in Provence is called maquis, we were able to reach the rocky coast by an overgrown path. I would rise before the sun, and walk down to the rocks. Immediately below the sea was quite deep, the bottom clearly visible. I took off my clothes and dove into the water, opening my eyes as I reached the bottom. As I swam along I felt at one with the water, at one with this very different world.
Both of these have become destinations of refuge to which I make inner voyages, sometimes daily, sometimes not for months, but always with the knowledge that as I reach them, when I inhabit them, I enter into a world of harmony and well-being.
For travel books I wish only to mention a few from a long list which have captivated me. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, and Slowly Down the Ganges by Eric Newby (his perceptive and amusing experiences walking and boating in greater India); Sacred Virgin by Royina Grewal (a personal inquiry and memoir of the Narmada); Hav and Last Letters from Hav by Jan Morris (a novel in the form of a travel book remarkable in that many readers have written the editor asking where Hav was); all books by Jan Morris and in an earlier avatar, James Morris. Walden Pond and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers by Henry David Thoreau (philosophical meditation on New England); Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs by Wilfred Thesiger (the pre-eminent narrator of Arabia and a commentary on what is lost); A Portrait of Japan and Journey into Russia by Laurens van der Post (great use of language and insight).
Interestingly, none of these are current, with the exception of Royina Grewal’s book which is about her travels along the Narmada river. Yet they satisfy both the need for the texture of a place, and the itch of the armchair traveller.
What about the destination which exists, where we can plan to go, first doing our research into place, history, culture, cuisine and then looking at our own travel calendar and pocket book, seeing when the voyage might start, what we would do along the way, and whom we would go with?
I strongly recommend a visit to Maheshwar on the banks of the Narmada river about 90 kilometres south of Indore. This town of 20,000 souls has what I believe to be a unique attribute. It is a remarkably beautiful and historic town, as yet unspoilt.
Here are the reasons to go: The Narmada river flows before the 16th century fort, remaining a kilometre wide all year. This river is perhaps the last of India’s great rivers which is unpolluted. In its centre is the Baneshwar temple, thought to be the spot on the globe through which passes a line connecting the centre of the earth and the north polar star. Across the river starts South India, both in classical Indian geography and in modern geology. Maheshwar is one of the sites where Gondwana land came to join the Asian continent.
Maheshwar itself is a centre of civilization going back to the times of Mohenjodaro. The fort itself dates from Akbar’s time, and within lies the simple and elegant wada built by Ahilya Bai Holkar in the 18th century. Adjacent are the beautiful temples, facade and ghats built by Krishna Bai Masaheba, wife of Ahilya Bai’s successor, Yeshwant Rao I.
The handlooms of Maheshwar are world famous, and provide livelihood for a quarter of the town’s population.
Maheshwar can be a wonderful base to explore the surrounding area. An hour and a quarter to the north is Mandu, the remarkable abandoned 14th century Islamic city built at the edge of the Malwa plateau. Its beautiful buildings are scattered amongst splendid trees and lakes. This was the site for the romantic tale of Baz Bahadur and Rupmati. To give you an idea of the size of this unknown jewel of India, Mandu’s walls are 25 kilometres in circumference.
A short drive to the east of Maheshwar is Omkareshwar and the site of one of the Jyotirlingas, located on an ‘aum’ shaped island in the middle of the Narmada. The land surrounding Maheshwar is unique in that within 50 kilometres you can find wonderful Islamic architecture, a mini-Benares and all from a base – Maheshwar – which is still unspoilt, where life goes on much as it did in the 19th century, and where the arrival of a visitor is not treated as an opportunity to reap riches from the wary tourist.