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Meanderings

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(Through the ages, authors and poets have walked – through nature, through towns and cities – to tap the wellsprings of creative thought and imagination.  In this pensive, philosophical piece, Kavita Sharma takes us on paths both well trodden and undiscovered with some of the world’s best known literary walkers).

Than longen folk to gon on pilgrimages
And palmers for to seeken strange strondes.
Geoffrey Chaucer, Prologue to Canterbury Tales

‘Walking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of heartiness and soul primary to humankind.  Walking is the exact balance of spirit and humility. – Gary Synder

“Ekla cholo re”, sang Tagore and even while we walk with others, we essentially walk alone.  We stand at the many crossroads of life.  Lanes and by-lanes stretch before us.  Which is the path?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
…I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood,
and I – I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost, ‘The Road Not Taken’

However, before it can make all the difference, there is the journey of life itself with its heartaches of meetings and partings; when we become

    …less than two
            But more than one.
Robert Frost, ‘Meeting and Passing’

And finally, all we are left with are memories, nostalgia, longing for what could have been.

But is it really possible to walk back in time?  And even if we could go back, would it serve any purpose?  Or does the sorrow only deepen?

I walked last night with my old friend.

Vikram Seth tells us,

Past the old house where we first met,
Past each known bush and each known bend
The moon shone, and the path was wet.

No one passed by us as we strolled
At our sad ease.  Though hand in hand
We did not speak.  Our hands grow cold,
Yet we walked on as we had planned.

We did not deal in words or tears.
At the dead light we did not rage.
What change had crept through our forked years
We did not have the will to gauge.

The pain of life can only be sublimated when all attachments are shed and the soul sets out on its own quest.  It is once again a path that has to be traversed alone but this time there is a difference.  There is faith and conviction, not groping and uncertainty.

Mathew Arnold’s scholar gypsy had to forsake his academic career at Oxford to roam the countryside alone to feel the truth of life on his pulses.  He could sometimes be espied

Rapt, twirling in (his) hand a
            wither’d spary
And waiting for the spark from
            heaven to fall.
‘The Scholar Gypsy’

To plough a lonely furrow requires immense courage and this comes only when there is ‘one aim, one business, one desire’.

Wealth I seek not, hope nor love,
     Not a friend to know me;
  All I seek, the heaven above
    And the road below me.
– R.L. Stevenson, ‘The Vagabond’

As the wayfarer walks the roads, the whole vista of life opens before him.  In Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders or Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, the wanderer is a lovable rogue, a picaro, drifting from place to place and from one social milieu to another encountering many adventures in an effort to survive in a society that has marginalized him.  His journey thus becomes an expose on life and the manners and morals of society.

Closer to home, Ved Mehta walks the Indian streets in quite another fashion, to encounter India and himself.  His impressions of ‘cinema India’, ‘skin-deep and deathless’ change as he travels through the country and he agrees with Han Suyin that ‘Asians are like onions.  They fatten, layer upon layer, over the centuries.  Strip them, layer by layer, and there are still more layers to go.’  In Walking the Indian Streets, he seeks to reconcile the conflict between the English in him who hankers for Oxford and the Indian who wants to find a place in his own society.

Yet another Indian walker who has lived away for long from home is Vikram Seth. ‘To wander the streets of Calcutta,’ he tells us, is

To force the whole world’s misery on
                        the heart
Children on broken stumps, staring
                        with eyes
White and opaque, begging with
                        hardened art.
Homecoming is a painful experience,
 Living abroad, I have lost sight of
                          home
  Locked in my web I have grown
                        Happily blind
 And blindly happy, and few images
                         come
To jar the fine strands of my peace of
                        mind.
‘A Morning Walk’

Not all of us are lucky enough to have the freedom of a ‘vagabond’ but there can at least be short, therapeutic intermissions when we walk alone ‘because freedom is of the essence; because you should be able to stop and go on, and because you must have your own pace, and neither trot alongside a champion walker, not mince in tune with a girl.  And then you must be open to all impressions and let your thoughts take your colour from what you see.  You should be as a pipe for any wind to play on. Robert Frost writes with obvious feelings of exhilaration,

   Now I’m out walking
       The world desert
And my shoe and my stocking
            Do me no hurt.

            I leave behind
     Good friends in town.
      Let them get wined
            And go lie down.
– Robert Frost, ‘Away!’

As we walk on with none but Nature and our own thoughts as companions, we may even experience a ‘peace that passes comprehension’ such as Wordsworth found in his Evening Walk.  The twilight brought with it nostalgia for his lost youth,

Return Delights! With whom my road
                        begun,
  When Life rear’d laughing up her
                 Morning sun,
 …When linked with thoughtless mirth
            I coursed the plain
  And hope itself was all I knew of
                    pain.

His walk ends on a note of immense peace.  The soul expands to become one with God’s creation as all Nature retires bathed in the tranquility of moonlight.

Can one find the same affinity with Nature today even if one tried?  And if not, where does one turn to from this ‘mad disease called modern life’?  R.K. Narayan gives us one solution in his Testament of a Walker in which he declares his ‘strong belief that man’s ultimate destiny lies in walking, that is why he is endowed with a pair of legs, which can operate without petrol or gears.’  This philosophy leaves him indifferent to the hike in petrol prices, for he is confident that ‘the hiking will culminate where it can’t hike any further (that will be at a stage where it may cost a thousand rupees to travel one kilometer)…man will rediscover the use of his feet; and when that happens, oil wells will overflow into storm drains or stagnate for want of takers and petro-civilisation will have become defunct.’  He himself walked ten miles a day, Mysore being an ideal city for that and still walks, though less now.

As we walk through life, its ups and downs, agonising over the paths to be taken, reminiscing over the past and apprehensively walking into an unknown future, we have to remember that life is a song of the road.  The beauty of life is the path; its achievement is not in reaching some preconceived goal or destination which may turn out to be a mirage.  The joy is the path.

– Kavita Sharma

(Sourced with gratitude from THE EYE, VOL. II, NO.3, 1993)
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