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- Visiting Asia
Journeys - Real, Notional, Combinatorial
The theme of the movie "Inception" may seem incredible the first time that we are confronted with it. Equally incredible is the fact that we simultaneously live and journey in multiple dimensions most times, generally being unaware of it until we make a conscious effort to comprehend this phenomenon. The first journey is the one through time that we call existence, of which we are only vaguely aware. The second is the immediate one that we intentionally use our physical self to accomplish. Technically, even transporting ourselves from one room to another within the confines of our home, is a journey.
The third is the one indulged in by the ever-active and normally uncontrollable part of our brain that we refer to as "mind". While the first two mundane journeys happen at a relatively dreary pace, this more exotic one canters along at bizarre locales and ideal conditions, or those steeped in despondency and hopelessness, or even those rooted in apparent-exalted-unbiased-truth, depending on the flavor of the moment.
My recent trip to the city of Varanasi was one where the journeys in all three dimensions mentioned above were experienced with full awareness and equal fervor.
**All color pictures in this lens have been clicked by my friend Bharat Shah with whom I made this journey. They have been included here with his permission. The two black-and-white pictures on view are from my personal collection.
It all started with a friend of forty-three years expressing his intent of visiting the city of Varanasi with his family, which in turn stoked my long-standing yearning to go there too. Vivid memories, liberally embellished with fanciful imaginations of a happy childhood spent at my paternal grand-parent's in the 1950s and early 1960s in this city made it alluring enough to disregard the weakness of my body that was recovering from a two-and-half-year-long illness and decide to accompany my friend. It was to be a journey of rediscovery of sorts.
As the aircraft landed at the Lal Bahadur Shastri International Airport, Varanasi, I experienced mixed emotions. As we drove into the city on our way to the hotel, the feeling of being in an alien, unfamiliar, and not-a-very-agreeable place gradually increased. The Varanasi of my memories was a rustic city of about 400,000 inhabitants, horse-drawn-carts and human-drawn-rickshaws on the roads for transporting people and goods to their destinations, with an occasional car thrown in. I was now in a bustling city of almost two million; roads choked with powered vehicles; noise, air-pollution, and filth devastating the senses.
Later, that afternoon, a visit propelled by an excitingly expectant spirit to look up the old structure that once was my grandparent's residence, resulted in the spirit's plummeting down to the depths of despair. Gone was the character of the structure that once stood majestically alone surrounded by wide open spaces. Gone too were the tall trees that stood sentinel at the gate. The densely populated surroundings looked like a ghetto now. Portions of the old building had been pulled down to make way for a low-end restaurant on one side and a coaching center for students on the other. Next door stood a police station, that seemed to be radiating more notoriety to the environs than a sense of security.
I wished I hadn't made this trip.
As the cab started its tortuous way back to the hotel through narrow roads brimming with an unruly traffic of vehicles of every possible genre and pedestrians from all walks of life, I began to wonder as to why childhood memories that lay dormant for almost six decades had to resurface all of a sudden and compel me to have this rendezvous with disappointment. Following a bit of focused analysis, the answer was not long in coming. It was to do with the need of re-enforcing my self-awareness - or so said my brain that had been conditioned by my earlier profession to logically keep seeking solutions to problems until they are found. The loss of my parents six years ago, both passing away within a span of a few months had deeply shaken my sense of identity; profoundly disturbed the basis upon which my equations with the immediate environment and the world in general were established. My self-awareness needed a re-jig. And it was about this time that this longing to visit places associated with my childhood had emerged from its quiescent state.
Books authored by leading neuroscience researchers for lay-persons and video lectures by such individuals that I had been reading and listening to lately, helped me set up a platform for a broad analysis of this nature from a lay-perspective and vaguely understand the mechanism that caused such reactions to happen. Whether or not this was a valid conclusion, it certainly helped in soothing my sense of dejection. It was the every-day occurrence of the brain calming itself - the functional part called "mind" logically bludgeoning the part called "heart" into cheerfulness.
The next day, a partially-reinvigorated-conscious-me with a gentle suggestive nudge from my well-meaning friend, decided to make the remainder of our stay at Varanasi, as interesting as possible. A city with reputations like being one of the oldest continuously inhabited with archaeological finds suggesting that it had human settlements dating back to at least the 11th century BC, and being the spiritual capital of the people of India professing the most prevalent religion of the land, must certainly have something to offer for a deflated spirit struggling to regain a semblance of buoyancy.
The roads of the city were positively uninviting. The only other commonly used thoroughfare here was the river Ganges on whose bank the city had unfalteringly stood, braving the surging and ebbing waters across many a millennium. However, so many centuries of human habitation had rendered the waterway too as sullied as the landed roads, though marginally less abhorring. The plan then, was to hire a boat and row along the entire length of the river that the city spanned - around sunrise as well as about sunset to experience the essence of this unusual place.
Accordingly, we were at the waterfront the next morning a few minutes before sunrise and got into a rowboat. The boatman with some deft strokes of the oars, gently eased the boat into a current, and the boat settled in turn into a leisurely pace downriver, about a hundred meters from the bank; close enough for a clear vision of the happenings on the riverbank and far enough to filter out the cacophony of human-made sounds originating there. With the calming and almost inaudible gurgling of the flowing waters for a background, the soft cries of water-birds intermittently breaking this serene monotony, the sun lazily rising up on its way into the bright morning sky on the bank opposite to where the city lay, made us river-farers experience brief periods of bliss. Varanasi, or at least its river-front appeared to have lived up to its hallowed reputation.
Panning the shoreline through a camera fitted with a zoom lens, I could see many other individuals suffering similar bouts of bliss under very different circumstances. Oblivious to the muck floating all around and about them, the devout - many hundreds in number of every possible age group - were dipping themselves into the water, hands stretched above their heads and palms held together in a posture that they believed was appropriate for conveying deferential obeisance to the gods of their choice, chanting invocations that the heads of their respective religious sects had convinced them would be heard and answered by those they were directed at, in the firm belief that their accumulated sins would be washed away leaving them as unspoiled and virtuous as angels. The contrasting paths to bliss appeared strange indeed.
However, this was quite easily explainable with the realization that the definition of bliss was notional, being a combination of our inherent mental makeup and the environment that it interacts with during the course of life. There was nothing absolute about the notion of bliss nor the many paths leading to this ephemeral state of being. Reasoning in this manner too was blissful and it was to the credit of the city of Varanasi to have provided the right ambiance to fleetingly attain it.
Time quickly sped by, as it inevitably does, and the approaching sunset brought us back to the river shore for a boat-ride in failing natural light leading into darkness. It was a similar boat, the same set of people riding it, but the experience was very different. The sense of intrigue that twilight and darkness bring along with them influenced our thought processes, and the manner in which our brains deciphered and analyzed whatever that our senses gathered from such an environment.
There were two short stretches of the boat ride that presented a very different spectacle compared to what they did during the daytime jaunt. Couched inside the blanket of overwhelming darkness and intensely lit at vantage points by appropriately positioned halogen lamps on tall masts, was the first stretch packed with the devout, and priests leading the congregation in a thanksgiving to the river. This was an every-night ritual whose first enactment is neither recorded nor can be speculated. In a city where myth, religion, history and emotional passion coalesce, establishing milestones in time is not just hazardous but an impossibility. To a dispassionate observer, its present version appeared to be more like a decently choreographed extravaganza sustained by a vibrant economic model, while for those with a religious bent, it seemed like the 21st century avatar of a typical evening in the kingdom of god.
One cannot dispute the fact that it is sound economic sense leading to reasonable profitability measured in material or emotional terms, and a fairly regular routine by which to execute such a scheme, that sustains any earthly, and perhaps even extraterrestrial, activity. When there is a disturbance in the routine, the model, or the manner of conducting the activity, the system that comprises of these components strives to initiate corrective measures to neutralize the disturbance and restore the process to normality, albeit by tweaking the roles played by individual components to suit the new environment. If it cannot adapt, the process gradually withers and ceases to exist after a while. Such system-component cartels - both material and conceptual, form hierarchical chains from the lowest known cartel comprising of subatomic particles as components, to immense ones like galaxies with star systems as components, where a system at one level is viewed as a component of another at the next or higher levels. The common measure of profitability in all these cartels is energy - the human realm converting it to pecuniary or emotional equivalents. This recognition was yet another moment of bliss. Varanasi was beginning to a make a regular habit of imparting it.
The stretch of the boat ride that followed the thanksgiving spectacle was just the opposite to the earlier one in its setting. It was somber, eerie, alarming. It was here that the dead, or at least their physical remains were confined to flames according to a long held tradition. Adherents of the widely prevalent religion of the land considered it a privilege to breath their last in this city and be cremated on the banks of the Ganges. Those denied this benefit by providence, wished that their ashes be immersed here. If explainable in mundane parlance, the first option granted the soul a straight and express pathway to heaven while the other offered a more winding path and less comfortable means of transport to the same destination. Under normal circumstances, which sensible soul would want option two? A few funeral pyres would always be glowing here at any time of the day or night.
I wondered whether any of the fundamental tenets of any religion anywhere in the world would stand detached logical scrutiny with regard to their universal applicability. In my opinion, they wouldn't and certainly not in the face of the abundance of knowledge about how things work in the universe that we can access today. Not that such knowledge is all encompassing; not yet and perhaps never. However, in my opinion again, it would be more blissful to dwell in limited ignorance and strive to get to the truth through the pursuit of confirmable knowledge than to live life in a domain defined by unverifiable, speculative, and illogical notions. Varanasi was at work again. This was its final bestowal of bliss upon me, as we were embarking on our journey back home the following morning.
Did Banaras (as Varanasi is known colloquially) with its conferral of a bonanza of bliss succeed in making me a wise man for ever more? I doubt it, because wisdom too, like bliss, is an ephemeral commodity and being wise or otherwise is likewise a transient happening.