When everything seems to be going just fine, what is this restlessness inside? What is simmering underneath this well-composed life I lead every day? Do I just need some silence, some time away from the laptop, internet, email, chat, Facebook? Is it as simple as that, or is that oversimplifying a larger existential question?
My trip to Haridwar and Rishikesh was planned in a manner as impromptu as it happened. I had been on a ’proper’ vacation for a year and a half now. I don’t even know why I chose these places. I just know that one fine day, I booked a flight to Delhi and decided to take it from there.
It is quite ironical that people from across the world go to these two places to find peace. Yes they are considered holy by the Hindus, and they have a unique juxtaposition of nature and spirituality. That does not take away the fact that these places are teeming with hundreds of devotees and animals and noise! But that is what makes traveling in India so interesting. Even if you are seeking peace, you cannot help but steal a chuckle here or have your blood boiling there. Quite expectedly, there was a surfeit of such moments on this journey too!
Have you ever seen a bull and a monkey fight for a piece of fruit on a hanging bridge a few centimeters wide that is, by the way, brimming with people trying to bypass the animals and make their way to God? Have you ever seen a Hindu holy man trying to teach Hindi to a Korean, only that each is trying to establish basic comprehension of the other in less-than-elementary English? Have you been woken up early every morning by a crow pecking vehemently on your mirrored window, thinking it has spotted another crow? Have you ever ridden a cable car with a family that is mortified by heights and is therefore chanting hymns throughout the 3-minute ride while they hold hands and keep their eyes tightly shut? Have you ever…..? Well, the laughs are endless.
But so is the overwhelming sensation of anger and despair that hits you every now and then. How would you feel if you saw people shampooing away in the ‘holy’ waters of Ganga? How would you feel if you saw plastic waste heaped everywhere, some of it even floating down the river? How would you feel if every few meters, you had to circumvent animal waste? How would you feel if you saw large tracts of water channels dried up and become home to the homeless? How would you react to the utter administrative dereliction that stares you in the face from all around?
And then there are things you don’t even know what to feel about. Cripples, lepers, downtrodden, hungry, destitute – some coming up to you for alms, some spread out basking in the October sun as if they were on a picnic. I’ve always wondered why a place of pilgrimage has such high numbers of such people. Is it because they think pilgrims are more inclined to giving? Or is it because they have been ostracized from their communities and have no one to turn to but God?
As I walked around Haridwar and Rishikesh in a semi-amused semi-enraged trance, intensified further by the nonchalant abandon and dark humor of Manto’s short stories, witnessing the varied forms of worship and faith, the only constant was the overpowering presence of the massive Himalayas and the endless gurgle of the waters of the Ganga. This feeling is accentuated by the hundreds of lamps lit by devotees and set afloat on the Ganga every evening. The flickering reflections of these lamps in the flowing waters spark the sudden realization that this river has existed for not just centuries but millennia and has fed not just generations but truly the beginning of mankind in this region! There is also something fresh and crisp about the cold Himalayan air; it seems indifferent to the dust and pollution that we humans so unthinkingly and often afflict on it. The ice-blue waters too seem unaffected by the onslaught of soap and plastic.
I don’t quite know what I was looking for, so I don’t quite know what I found there. It could be a regular trip – it was funny at times, mesmerizing at others, and largely silent. Having gone by myself, my conversations were restricted to placing orders or asking for directions. Some fellow-travelers did chat up, but they then went their way and I went mine.
I did, however, for these few days, feel that I had conquered something that I have been fighting throughout my adult life – time, or the lack of it. For once, I was never running out of it. My cornucopia seemed eternally and bountifully brimming with more than I could ask for! I would sit on the banks with my feet dipped in the ice-cold fast-flowing waters and go into deep thought, only to realize the whole experience cost me only fifteen minutes! Fifteen minutes? What is that worth in my world? I finished page after page of books in no time, I sketched after 15 years and finished them in a matter of hours. Was I thinking faster, writing faster, reading faster, walking faster, living faster; packing in a lot more of my actual self in every passing unit of time?
I have come back with no “Eureka!”. Being Indian and being Hindu, none of the chants, rituals and sages impressed me as much as they impress foreign travelers. Also, the poverty and anarchy is not enchanting, it is a problem that we need to fix, and pretty soon. But I have come back knowing that I can go back anytime, by myself, to sit with my feet dipped in the ice-cold fast-flowing waters, to do things I have not done in years, to stay silent and to conquer time! I have come back knowing that enlightenment is not God one day switching on Her/His spotlight on you; it is what you add to your life every day, but only if you stop to acknowledge.