Reading about travel can be a mildly disturbing experience.
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. - Marcel Proust
What does travel actually do to a human being? The experience of walking through new terrain, of losing and finding oneself in unfamiliar territories, and of discovering bits of your soul in the process … how does it manifest itself?
Reading Five Movements in Praise by Sharmistha Mohanty was one such journey. Spread across five sections or ‘five movements’ — Town, Forest, City, Caves and Landscapes — the book moves at a self-conscious pace allowing ample opportunity for readers to stop and reflect.
The first section, Town, takes us through the landscape of an old town; what seems like home to an ancient civilisation or the remnants of a spiritual and holy place. “The traveller does not choose his landscapes. He takes what comes,” says Mohanty in the first few lines of this chapter. These lines stayed with me for a long time — the fact that I was reading this book during my own travels away from home, made a difference. In this town, the traveller-narrator finds herself amid grey hills, mausoleums and a dargah where she befriends the dargah-keeper, Rashid. And we are told that it is Rashid pronounced with a long vowel, meaning “the one who shows the way”. They form a bond as she keeps returning to the dargah, in her discovery of the land and its spirit.
Throughout these experiences, she remembers the dilemmas and fortunes of the traveller. For example, how the traveller knows that cause “is a false home. That if you unravel the cause of anything it will not be like a thought or a cloth but like a river at its course which has just begun to flow and very soon will carry along all that it meets on its way, flowers, corpses, and gods.” So, she goes along, taking each experience as it comes, without questioning the cause driving it.
The second movement happens in a forest — a night world where “lovers, gods and travellers walk without a lantern”. The narrative turns more lyrical, poetic and sensuous, changing from first-person to third-person, describing the mythical traveller’s experiences. He encounters Tara, a little girl; a child of the forest, who seems to represent innocence and wisdom. The settings shift between the forest and a little German town about which the traveller reminisces.
The landscapes through which the traveller moves keep changing as the book progresses — events, journeys, people, nightmares — unravel as each geographical location invites the traveller into its inherent and characteristic spaces. I was swept into mildly disturbing yet familiar experiences of what travel — not tourism — can do to you. The last movement, Landscapes, ends rather ominously, yet with hope: “This is an immense night, continuous with the universe.”
So, what are the five movements in praise of? It could be of God, of nature, the universe or, quite simply, the liberating experience of travel itself.
The traveller does not choose his landscapes. He takes what comes. Instead of a forest he may find a desert, instead of a pond with the tiniest fish he may find an ocean that has no end. Some will tell him that he may find what he needs instead of what he desires. And he will tell them that he has no desires left because they have all turned into need.
Five Movements in Praise, Sharmistha Mohanty, Almost Island Books, 2013, Rs 550