Art of Travel

THE ART OF TRAVEL in its purest form cultivates a state of uncertainty and moves beyond a situation of similitude towards a condition where there is no likeness. The mere going to places—the crossing of physical space, the visiting of different countries, societies, and landscapes—is not necessarily to travel, for one can travel far—mentally—within a

THE ART OF TRAVEL in its purest form cultivates a state of uncertainty and moves beyond a situation of similitude towards a condition where there is no likeness. The mere going to places—the crossing of physical space, the visiting of different countries, societies, and landscapes—is not necessarily to travel, for one can travel far—mentally—within a circuit of just a few miles. There is also another kind of voyage, as with the art of Norman Rockwell in Vermont, of Paul Gauguin in the Marquises, or of the poet Byron in Ottoman Greece, where the traveller or artist moves in a fashion that is conceptual as well as spatial and so creates a place that is in fact ideal and unworldly. The paradox is that in such cases it is the fictional which is actually more authentic.

I would like to describe a recent journey, the kind of human mobility which rests upon a surface of shared amity, a necessary condition in the search for what justly composes time. Friendship is at its best founded not upon resemblance but—to my mind—upon unlikeness, upon an affinity drawn completely from the present, from recognition and admiration. In the West today friendship is usually a circumstance that exists among correspondents and even marriage has become almost a professional kindness. The old humanist ideal of friendship however was for a situation of differential values in which mutual worth could be engendered.

Last Summer I returned to the Kacch of Western Gujarat, a large island next to the border of Pakisthan and on the Arabian Sea. In the east and north it is bordered by salt marshes and when the monsoon comes in July, the Rann, as this area is known, becomes a shallow basin which isolates Kacch except for the one causeway which connects it with the Gujarati mainland. I flew from Boston via Doha in Qatar, where I always wanted to simply walk out of the aeroport and to enter that amazing desert; but all I did was to stare through walls of ambiguous green glass, admiring the dust of evening and the elusive life out there. My driver met me in Ahmedebad and—at three in the morning—we passed through the unlit streets and headed west. Thousands of men slept in those streets upon charpoys, ‘low string beds’, and the temperature then was above an hundred degrees; the air was heavily odorous with rotting vegetation, refuse, and smoke.

It was always a pleasure to see Jagdish, our driver, as he was effectively one of the family and had seen our children grow up from the early days when we had first lived in the Kacch at the turn of this century. I trusted him absolutely and his driving skills were remarkable, almost preternatural, such was the precision and concentration which he gave to the vehicle. At one place where we stopped for tea I handed him a wristwatch that my wife had found for him, which pleased him extremely, although I never saw him wear it.

Jagdish’s son was working in Dubai, in the gold business, and we spoke about the Gulf; Jagdish himself had been there in his youth in order to secure the cash with which to purchase his first automobile. His father, who is now in his nineties, was an old sea-captain who had once sailed the dhows that Mandvi—the seaport of Kacch where even the Romans had once traded—is famous for about the Arabian Sea; the vessels ply towards Mombasa and Zanzibar and up towards Muscat following a triangle of seasonal monsoon winds. In those days mariners did not use timepiece, charts, or sextants to navigate and understood the lore and living details of wave and airstream, much as the old Polynesian sailors knew the swells and shadow of islands, the night skies showered with delicate signs and the patterns made by migratory birds. Mandvi is one of the last places on earth where the colossal old dhows are still constructed; made from huge baulks of Burmese mahogany they are built on the tidal sands of the Rukhmavati River, the shipwrights working with few iron tools and no plans.

It was wonderful to be back and as the robust little Indica car sped along the empty pre-dawn unmetalled roads towards the causeway into the Kacch I felt happier and happier, more easy and familiar and it was as if this was an homecoming as all the terse gravity and imperative life of Cambridge dropped from my shoulders. When I had first met Jagdish many years before he had owned a tiny rudimentary automobile with a two-cylinder diesel engine; now, thanks to all the business which the state government in Ahmedebad was promoting for the District, he owned three other stylish cars and employed his own drivers. Jagdish was also a drummer in the port’s Dariyalal temple, a high status position, and we spoke about that for a while and the recent Kacchi new year ceremonies. The Kharavas, his seafaring people, had long ago migrated into the Kacch from near Jaipur in Rajasthan.

Where my family and I stayed in those early years of our life in the Kacch was on the date farm of Mr. L.D. Shah, a retired timber merchant from Bombay who had virtually given us a house on his estate. Mr. Shah had been born in village Kacch and had gone to the metropolis as a boy and had succeeded remarkably in business; his people had migrated into the region from Rajasthan more than an hundred years prior during a time of drought and famine. Now he had returned to his native terrain and was cultivating dates. He was also a passionate environmentalist and developed many tree-planting programmes and cistern building projects, which is where I helped: speaking publically and conducting various inaugural events for the establishment of orchards. Reforestation, however, in a sterile and rainless desert topography was difficult in that much of the work was bound for failure.

Shah-sahib was also considered a guru by the village for he was a Jain who gave a lot of his time— at least three hours a day—to dhyána, the Sanskrit term for ‘profound reflection’; this was in an underground marble-lined ashram which he had restored and which was next to the farm. The Jains are the oldest continuing religion in India and nowadays far more prominent in spiritual life than Buddhism. I learned so much from Mr. Shah as we sat in his small shadowy gazebo surrounded by peacocks who patrolled the sandy ground in search of grain. He would speak about his own guru, long ago in the Himalayan foothills, who had initiated him into a world that was immaterial and intangible: ‘nothing in the would can replicate that experience,’ he used to say, ‘and from that my most important knowledge derives.’

I journeyed far in that diminutive wooden gazebo during hot pre-monsoon afternoons when the fan spun noisily above us and we would drink coconut water and cooled buffalo milk and he would describe his illumination; that was a world without entities and unspeakable and yet it drove his endlessly philanthropic life, for he was a most munificent patron among the poorer communities of the village. Talking about his plantation work he once said, ‘I can hit a stone an hundred times with a hammer and it will not break, and then, someone else will come along and break the stone with one blow. That is karma,’ he added. It was a view of human efficacy which I had not encountered before, an appreciation of causality that eventually inhered not in action but in speech and thought, and in that sense daily altruism was the only possible mode for humankind to move pragmatically. ‘We die when we exhaust our suffering and are no longer capable of compassion,’ he once told me.

I recall him saying—gnomically repeated on several occasions—that it was ‘the sight of the sight’ which we should pursue in life and that was the only right terminus for human endeavour in the universe. ‘All that we can ever do in this life is to be a perfect witness’, he used to say. I never quite understood what he meant by these statements but the words remain with me still. ‘When I am there I shall be free to die,’ he added.

On this particular visit to the Kacch one of my intentions was to spend time with a good friend the Maharao Pragmulji III, who had requested that I return at some point before the monsoon; he had been unwell and was troubled by his future and I had not been back to the Kacch for a while, having been too busy in Cambridge, writing books and simply keeping quiet. Pragmulji had always been most generous to me, with his knowledge and with introductions among his bhayad, his ‘brotherhood’, introducing me to many of the Jadejas, his clan. They had ruled the Kacch for several hundred years having migrated into the desert region from Sindh, to the north-west. The Maharao possessed great moral authority in the Kacch rather than holding any material stature and that kind of prestige was mysterious for me; we spent much time discussing its nature and presence in the world and I eventually wrote a book about moral authority based on those conversations.

In Pragmulji’s youth there had only been one road in the district, from the capital town of Bhuj southwards toward the coast and the prosperous port of Mandvi; travel otherwise had been by cart or camel along desert tracks. He had grown up surrounded by ritual and performance and his childhood had been thoroughly imbued and informed by such devotional life, so that he was now what he described as ‘the first servant of the goddess’, Ashapura Ma, who oversaw Kacch and its fertility. The best times that I shared with Pragmulji and his wife, the svelte Maharani—who came from Tripura, far away on the Eastern borders of India—were at those rites, which were marvelous and unearthly, complex, beautiful, and profound in their sincerity and belief.

Pragmulji also kept a sanctuary, the Pragsar rakhal that was to the west of Bhuj. There was a lake there—rare in that dry landscape—which had been dammed almost a century ago, where many crocodile now lived; the Maharao’s great-grand-father had stocked the waters with these creatures, imported from mainland Gujarat. The site also attracted thousands of birds, spectacular varieties of gallinules, stork, and crane, and it was the last area in the Kacch where leopard continued to thrive. I spent many afternoons during those years out at Pragsar, walking the hot stony landscape, always making my way towards a hill above the lake, toward what the Maharao described as his ‘lookout’, where there was a sandstone bench upon which I would sit and almost disappear from myself as I looked out over the waters of the valley. In June thousands and thousands of silky white herons would noisily congregate before nesting in the shadow of thickly viridian banyan trees. Dark floating forms of crocodile were discernible upon the surface of the lake as they ceaselessly stalked their prey.

I travelled far in those fugitive hours always returning downhill as if re-assured about the vicissitude of ordinary life, all one’s anguish and uncertainty pared away and refined by the aerial light and the quiescence of such a bare harsh solitude where only hawks and snakes existed. Pragmulji and I often used to talk about our experiences at that scene, and it was as if the place was the locus or metaphor of much of our shared thought and observation concerning the natural world. ‘All of my life,’ he once said to me as we both sat up there on the hill-top, ‘has been a search for a truly moral sky which I could always admire and draw strength from elsewhere. If we cannot be true in this universe,’ he added, ‘then we are dreadfully and obliviously lost.’ ‘Time is not an embodiment of years past but of human experience that is retrieved,’ he said. ‘That is why I come here and sit with you on this hill,’ he laughed. ‘Love does not only occur within the dimension of time.’

At the palace on the coast, just to the north of Mandvi, Pragmulji would spend the hot season. The gardens were extensive and nilgai or blue buck roamed the paths and many juvenile camel wandered about the chikoo groves. There were no wells so the place was arid and rough and the ponds and courts were nowadays dry and desolate with here and there a few worn faux-Gupta statues; even the palace water had to be trucked in by lorry every few days. We spent many hours in a small cabin on the roof-top where it was shady and breezy and hidden behind stone screens we would discuss kingship and the kind of the life which he had once led and how it was that his support of and participation in temple ceremonies was presently the focus of his days. This was his form of dhyána, he said, and it was his duty to preserve, sustain, and implement such consciousness within the kingdom. The former martial code of rule had for long been abandoned, once the British arrived and the Jadeja income from taxation, customs duties, and the royal mint diminished, to be curtailed at Independence and terminated during Indira Gandhi’s tyranny.

I travelled far during those inimitable conversations, through time and towards a period that was absolutely non-secular and changeless. There were many portraits and early seventeenth and eighteen century pictures on the walls of the palace rooms, and they too illustrated that antique world before the Scottish Captain James MacMurdo arrived with his artillery at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. Certainly that former age could be one of terrific duress due to near famine circumstances caused by failing monsoons, but it was one of equilibrium—being preliterate and premonetary—where social amendment did not exist at all: it was a world without invention or innovation whose domestic economy was based upon exchanges that were made according to loyalty and hierarchy. There was no money only a tradition of fidelity and service.

Pragmulji was like an ancient giant who was immersed in all the centuries of his clan and who could touch upon those eras and epochs at will and walk among those so many small intermediary and intervening days, drawing them closer in order to illustrate or magnify his words.

Two years previously I had been in the Kacch during the Winter and had—in the company of a guide—walked across the small and isolated Banni territory in the north of the province. On that occasion I had met up with two friends—both virtuoso natural historians—when I had finally arrived at a periodic fresh-water depression to the south of that area, the Chari Dhand. Their expertise was unmatched and they were most liberal with their learning: Jehan’s family had migrated into the Kacch as Parsi traders in the late Seventeenth Century, being refugees from Iran who had later become creditors to the Jadejas; and Jugal, having trained with an American zoologist in Danakil Eritrea in the late Twentieth Century, had left his family town in Rajasthan and had come to the Kacch in order to study and record its rare and notable wildlife, especially the birds.

Tens of thousands of migratory flocks from as far afield as Siberia would migrate to the Chari Dhand each winter and the view was outstanding, almost supernatural, especially at dusk when the countless enormous flights would descend upon the shore for the night, singing their strange songs. I had often spent time there sleeping in a small concrete hide that the Government had built for ornithologists; there was always a problem with the starved and rapacious foxes and jackals though, who would try to maraud our camp and we would have to build a defence of thorn.

That was the part of the Kacch where the Phakirani Jaths would bring their camel herds during the cold season when the Banni would become a rich grassland, that is, if the monsoon had arrived; herds of many hundreds of camel would be strolling there, drawn toward the lake for refreshment. The Phakirani are one of the most unusual communities that I have ever met, being esoterically Moslem and eschewing property, for they considered their whole life a pilgrimage; they survive almost completely on camel milk and it was forbidden for them to sell this sacred vitality. Centuries ago they too had moved southward out of Iran. How I loved watching the Phakirani and drinking tea with them upon the tawny sands; they were always strangely quiet and had such benign mystery about their eyes and expression, something that was utter goodness.

On my visit this Summer I had particularly wanted to return to one of the Indus Civilisation sites which was far out in the desert and located on a small island in the Rann. I had been to Dholavira many times before and had sometimes stayed out there for a night or two, on several occasions with my wife and small son, sleeping on the stony ground in a rural shelter, always wary of scorpions.

On this occasion Jagdish collected me at the date farm long before dawn when even the animals had not awoken from a breathlessly hot night and the vehemently bright stars appeared sluggish in how they emitted their dense flashing. We drove out towards the north-eastern part of Kacch, passing through Bhuj and by the Maharao’s city palace, now in partial ruin from the earthquake of Two Thousand and One which devastated much of the District and ended thousands of lives. That eastern region was all desert, austere and sterile, and it was the most conservative area of the Kacch where many of the communities and villages remained hardened in their attitude of manly violence and feminine seclusion. Jagdish never liked to go through Vagar, as it was called, and detested the brutality and narrowness of the culture there. We had been many times though, visiting ceremonies and festivals and had seen amazing rites of sword-dancing and fabulously exotic camel fairs.

The heat was terrific and to put one’s hand outside of the vehicle as we sped towards the Rann was like placing it within a fire. Soon we were driving along a thin perfectly straight causeway towards the first of the lesser islands, crossing the bare alkaline waste where there was nothing but stark white terrain and a fierce candid sky without the distinction of horizon; as the car rolled on for hour after hour without any sign of animal, avian, or human life, until we finally approached Khedir isle where the site of Dholavira was located. The place was ancient and untouched by humanity, was made up of stone and waterless mineral and a few prosopis julifora thorn bushes. Jagdish parked the vehicle in the shade of a solitary neem tree and we found a terrace upon which to lay out our food upon the ground and to dine, surrounded by a crowd of young boys from a nearby nomadic Rabari camp.

Then I left him and wandered up a beige sandy hill toward the massive walls of what had once been a citadel; there were several completely lined and deep cisterns in that section, for the people there had perfected the art of water harvesting and conservation. In fact the hydraulic and sanitary systems of the town—a small city—were remarkably sophisticated and complex as well as being uniform. This had been a pre-bronze-age chalcolithic culture and it was still possible to come across fractured chert blades upon the earth, broken but still razor-sharp, and I often discovered small green copper beads or pieces of shell bangle which had once been worn by women. I always managed to detect lovely smooth potsherds, sometimes with beautifully painted decoration, and my wife had once uncovered a diminutive terracotta bull which must have been about four thousand years old.

It was vibrantly hot, almost delusively so, and after an hour or two of wandering the abandoned lanes, walls, and rooms I was beginning to feel mindless and hazy. The air was brilliantly sharp and clear and of a diamond-cerulean hue—caused by the salinity of the atmosphere—and this began to affect my vision; on my pocket thermometer I recorded a temperature of one hundred and twenty-three degrees. After a while I took an old piece of cotton cloth from my bag and wound it about my head as a paghadi or turban, to keep myself from feeling deranged; my vision began to oscillate and to become wavy and black and I could feel a euphoria superceding all sensibility. So I reluctantly set off back towards where I thought I might find Jagdish, sad to leave behind this transport of another time and unrecognisable humanity.

Once back in the little Indica we set off further into Khedir island, heading northwards toward the coast itself and away from the site of Dholavira. There was no road any more only rock and stone and a vague indication of an animal track along which the infinitely resilient Jagdish drove slowly and with especial care, always in low gear so as not to break an axle on a boulder. We spent about an hour winding our way up a hill and then, there before us lay the glorious Rann, gleaming and obscure, indefinite and undulating in a terrific aqueous heat. The light possessed such lucid verve that all the sky was an electric blank without the sun being visible due to its fervent radiance and there were not even shadows, visibility being so diffuse.

We gently descended toward the brackish waters, the track snaking back and forth across the hillside in random bends and when the way ultimately vanished we left the car and walked down towards the shore, which was stale and acrid, the hyper-salinity of the deliquescent margin reeking of preserved decay, with a peculiar odour, almost feral and yet unnaturally clean. Jehan, one evening in Bhuj, at his family house which he had restored after the earthquake, as we sat out in the courtyard beneath the hollow sky, told us about this place and that—if we walked to the west—we would discover some ancient trees, what must have once been a large grove. Drenching our paghadis from water-bottles before winding them on we set off soon to be dazzled and deluded by the intransigent glaring light and its miraculous heat. In the far distance another island was visible, in dark grey silhouette, ominous and apparently gigantic, for such was the complete lack of perspective. There were no sounds at all, not even from the desiccated salt pools of Rann water.

Then there they were, lying horizontal upon the rock, inclined slightly downward towards the shoreline: huge umber-coloured trunks of trees with intermittently a few visible limbs and an indication of roots. They were stone however, fossilised timber from the Jurassic period, sixty-five million years or so ago. Their petrified immobility and the intense flaring illumination of the place, the absolute silence, all combined to make both Jagdish and I somewhat uneasy and restless. He did not stay long, saying that it was too hot, and retreated back towards where we had left the vehicle; I wandered about, trying to focus and to think about the spot but my brain was too ardent for that and I only became confused by the rocks and candescence and the total muteness of the air. Then I too departed and almost staggered back towards the car, and we soon left.

I have never been in that position before, at the site of something which evades all consideration and comprehension and which actually makes normal perception unfeasible. It was beautiful in its sublimity but without any medium almost, without object, for such was the ghostly temperature and its unique luminosity; there was also the weirdness of being beside a former living thing which had not moved in an inconceivable amount of time. It was in fact not possible to experience anything there but only to quickly withdraw and to know that one might perhaps at best imagine what it was which we had experienced at that tensely unnerving locale.

In former times to travel was to either engage in trade or to migrate from landscape to landscape in an effort to survive—either politically or substantially—and was by sea or on foot with draught animals. Exploration as a medium of human experience is actually quite recent and developed with the burgeoning European empires of recent centuries.

Migrants bear within them a seminal grief or core of deep absence for the loss experienced in their original removal and even if that is eclipsed the sorrow remains, indelible and invisible. Conversely, human culture can be easily destroyed as with indigenous Americans or the people of Australia, or when the Saxons and then Normans in Britain forcibly ruined and eradicated the society which they encountered. Colonials, by the same measure, are not travellers, for they only wreck and demolish with their diseases, restrictive impositions, values, and their need for extensive commodification; they possess only their own valence for life and merely dominate from that sole point of view.

To travel as a means of learning or for acquiring experience that is otherwise unavailable or inaccessible is a Nineteenth and Twentieth Century phenomenon; one thinks of Stevenson in the South Seas or of the young Charles Darwin as he paced the decks of the Beagle travelling backward through modes of genetic evolution, for instance. For me, the reality of travelling is essentially an act of con-fusion, to become con-fused by what we do not comprehend and therefore one struggles— verbally, intellectually, emotionally, and perhaps even physically if conditions are not good—to apprehend what one is not. That is the only true condition of mortal transition and correspondence, that movement of the human psyche towards something of which it is unaware.

Byron, Rockwell, Gauguin, or the American cinema of Wim Wenders: these artists create— through fiction or visual illusion—a world that is more true than ordinary and diurnal experience. They went further than mere topography or human ethos towards the refinement of an ideal community and landscape which—being beautiful—was thus more than true and more proximate to the nature of the durable. Such artists depicted or represented a society in which human experience was played out as design, in order that something of the anonymous, enigmatic, and the concomitant emptiness of human life might be better delineated: a little more conspicuously or delicately, made more familiar and yet simultaneously timeless.

For if human values are only arrangements and systems of signs that is all that any art form might ever attempt to perfect, creating a beautiful lens through which one might perceive a possibly truer world: for art is not life. That for me is the true mastery of any excursion, when one approaches the margins and borders of human experience and observes a severely new or untold sight, so acquiring a novel proficiency there.

As with the hero Odysseus who for nine years desperately attempted to return home, the journey or the travelling does not concern mere physical movement but more the conversions that arise within the human psyche, the changes in one’s intellectual, conceptual, and emotional persona that facilitate our firm movement on earth, via an understanding of what we are not.

Like the Socratic fish that put its head out of the water and saw ‘the true sky, the true light, and the true stars’, so the traveller—like certain artists—puts him or herself in situations that are initially incomprehensible in order to perceive what it surely means to be human. Or, as with another metaphor of Socrates from the Phaedo, where he tells of how, if all the string instruments in the world were destroyed, harmony would continue to exist in the cosmos as a system of ratio or proportion which is indestructible. It is that kind of audience which the genuine traveller is seeking and which he or she strongly wishes to attest.

For me, friendship is like that, the personal amity which comes from shared distance, of being in common situations which are totally unfamiliar and imperfect, whether geographic, social, or affective. It is the human affinity which occurs then—like the Socratic form of ideal harmony—that is the one sustaining and inerrant unity of our existence, supplementing our otherwise culpable exchanges.

It is that truth of potential worldly parity which indicates what we are not as private individuals but which is nevertheless secured from reciprocal earthly transience: the sole currency of ingenuous human life when we, in the presence of a companion and with tremendous effort, witness something entirely human that is without equivalence to anything that we—until that moment— know; something, in fact, akin to the metaphor of sexual union. For all human residence and its variety of affection is always and only founded upon how it is that we have moved, move, and continue to move in time as well as place.


❖    K E V I N  M C G R A T H  ~  V e r s  L a  F l a m m e  ~  T W O  T H O U S A N D  &  S E V E N T E E N      ❖

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  • Jenny Kozlow
    August 26, 2021, 3:19 pm

    I found this essay while visiting Kacch and it has stayed under my skin ever since. As a nomad by nature, without the need to belong officially to any place except where I happen to be, it affirms the sense we have when we are out of our comfort zones, striving to connect to new places and new people. Wonderfully written! Thank you Kevin McGrath!