When I was about to embark on my maiden voyage, my dear father had a few words of advice, 'Don't take books with you. Keep your eyes and ears open and alert. Make the most profitable and fruitful use of your keen mind. Look out of the window. It will become your window to the world. And, last but not the least, pay close attention to the person sitting next to you. Talk to him, ask him all sorts of questions. He will be your best source of information.'
Globe-trotting. Wandering. Now that's something everyone would love to do. Traveling across the length and breadth of different countries ' studying the cultures, lifestyles, food habits prevalent in each. What better way to broaden your horizon, increase your store of knowledge? Tempting as it may sound, this is one luxury not all of us can afford. Especially if we happen to be students. The 'real thing' may be out of reach for most people. But there is one option that comes quite close to it ' Browsing through travel books and magazines and watching travel documentaries. Traveling is important I think for every student ' even if it is the arm chair-type. For nothing confines the mind more than the borders of a city. Perhaps it should be made compulsory.
The seeds of wanderlust were sown after I had read Bill Aitken, Pico Iyer and other confirmed wanderers. Suddenly, I was free, unencumbered and was transported into another world, another way of life. The veil over my eyes had been finally lifted. I had the gift of vision again. I fancied leading a Bohemian lifestyle at Greenwich Village or better still, wandering from one place to another with no roots of my own. And this passion for traveling developed into a magnificent obsession. Like my love affair with Paris.
Like all affairs, my affair with Paris has gone through many stages. It began in Calcutta at the precocious age of nine ' an impressionable age no doubt. At that age, I decided that I was going to be writer or perish in the attempt. It may have started with the reading of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days or by sensing something in the general climate of the time that made me feel that no artist could consider himself fully prepared for his life without eating a croissant for breakfast in the capital of France.
As I grew older, my appetite for the unseen city was whetted by the tales of returning travelers. A college friend recounted how he had picked up a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses in a Parisian bookstore and had lain on his bed in a cheap hotel near Saint Germain-des-Pr's for 28 hours without sleep, food or drink reading the book until he had come to the last thunderous 'Yes'. This incident seemed to prove that there was something magical and all embracing about the city. Later, an artist friend of mine also regaled me with accounts of every play he had seen in Paris, every concert he had listened to and every art gallery he had visited.
The opportunity to do so came at a later date and true to feeling Paris captured my heart and soul.
Having penpals the world over seemed to accentuate my thirst for novelty, excitement and adventure. I also became intellectually curious. For example, I had this friend who was of Lebanese extraction and had grown up in a small town in Tennessee. These aspects of her life fascinated me. I wanted to know all about how her father stowed away on a boat as a young boy to come to America.
It is a fact that traveling makes a person less narrow-minded. It broadens our horizons, satisfies our enquiring minds and compels us to develop an interest in our fellow human beings living miles away. I realized that it was mandatory for me to acquaint myself with the outside world. Living in a closed, sheltered environment stifled my natural exuberance and curiosity. I had to look beyond. I had to venture out. I found myself asking incessant questions about everything ' sometimes bluntly and sometimes with finesse.
English is fairly well spoken everywhere ' enough to communicate, anyway ' but the real communication I found, was non-verbal. It didn't much matter what people said; it was the passion behind their words, or the lack of passion; sometimes their silences were more revealing than their outbursts. Their laughter and intimacies with each other, which eventually included me, drew me into their worlds, their viewpoints, their concepts of life, death, happiness, their sense of honor, their system of what was important and what wasn't ' The Americans, French, Germans, Italians ' made me realize how limited and narrow my horizons had been all my life.
From the 16th floor of a Bombay skyscraper, the world can seem a very different place from what it really is. One's version of the truth is so much clearer when one has only one view of it. As I traveled, I began to learn that truth is relative. I had always believed what was right was right, period. That what I had been taught was wrong was simply wrong. That the truth was tidy and indeed easy to understand once you'd been taught to understand what the truth was. But that, alas, is not what I found. The more I saw and traveled, the more I had to reject everything that had conditioned my moral ethics while growing up in India.
I began to get more of a distant, objective view of myself. I understood more of me while attempting to understand others. And it made me more compassionate, more lenient to a fault, not only for others but for myself as well.
The more I traveled, the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends. But things did not become simple once I had established a rapport with the natives. It seemed the more I learned about people, the more confused I became. Often I contributed to my own confusion by staying long times in places soaking into whatever the 'thing' was. As though by becoming someone else for a time I would understand something of how they lived, ate, thought, but I was still ME when it was all over. So, nothing, not even close proximity could bridge the gap. Maybe the fundamental differences between people magnify their attraction. Opposites attract, as the saying goes.
As for myself, traveling has done me a lot of good. To put in a nutshell, it has worked wonders. Being away from home in the quest of distant lands also gave me a chance to look at myself with a jaundiced eye. I have also become more confident and, simultaneously, more relaxed and at ease with myself.