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Roaming travellers and their world views

Shihab Sarkar   | Published: September 19, 2019 21:25:22 | Updated: September 26, 2019 21:16:34


Most of the people confuse travel with tour. In fact, these are two different types of recreation. While on a tour, we just engage in activities like sight-seeing. At tour destinations, people watch marvels of nature, and humans in different forms of activities. A seasoned traveller casts his look beyond the surface. He is deeply interested in the original human face that lies hidden beneath the surface. In other words, a traveller is in search of the inner masks under the outer ones. Ranging from nature to humans to inanimate objects and abstract ideas in a foreign land, they try to explore truth.

There are also two kinds of travellers. One section comprises people who are born to travel. They cannot be confined to the warmth and security of the family atmosphere. The other type has the creative faculty ever active within them. The whole world including the distantly located sites continues to beckon them. Some cannot resist the charm surrounding a few particular places. On one fine morning they set out for those distant lands. A few of them, however, do not completely extricate themselves from their near and dear ones. French poets and writers are said to suffer from this dichotomy: whether to say final goodbye to their country and the families, or keep a faint link with their motherland. Both groups of travellers enjoy an equal percentage of presence among the French people.

 At the later point of his career, Paris and its monotonous urban life had disillusioned the French post-Impressionism 19th century painter Paul Gauguin. He made a voyage to the Pacific island of Tahiti, and lived on several Polynesian islands until his death. His adventure-filled and unconventional life, as well as his talent, went unnoticed by the mainstream French painting world. Following his death he was recognised as a major French painter.  Later he was portrayed as a legendary, colourful person in Somerset Maugham's 1942 fiction The Moon and Sixpence.

The travels of painters and authors, especially those undertaken by poets, are prompted by one common trait. It is gathering of experiences of things exotic. A latent urge to explore the real meaning of existence also drives many to visit remote lands. Poet Rabindranath Tagore was a tireless traveller. In spite of the hardship which he would go through during travel mostly in the fast half of the 20th century, the poet had left few opportunities of visiting foreign lands unutilised. His journeys abroad were not futile exercises. Those were a marvellous blend of an almost insatiable thirst for seeing man and nature and the progresses made in society with the help of science and technology. A noticeable feature of Tagore the traveller was he never thought of staying abroad for long, let alone severing his ties with the then colonial India. A committed advocate of the emancipation of Bengalees, Bengal would occupy a wide space in his mind.

Medieval travellers like Ibn Battuta didn't think much of returning to their homelands after their intercontinental adventures. The Moroccan Battuta (1304-1369) is considered one of the greatest and indefatigable travellers mankind has ever seen. He set out for performing Hajj from Morocco in 1325 at the age of 21. Later, the traveller stepped into the greater world and moved from country to country for 24 long years. He travelled extensively the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, Iraq, East and West Africa, northern Africa and Anatolia, now Turkey. The adventurous traveller having a keen interest in different countries' cultures and the ways of life  travelled the Indian Sub-continent, China and Southeast Asia. His journeys also took him to the UK and Spain. From the 19th century to the second decade of the present century, several books have been published on Battuta's travels. One of them contains his in-depth account of the days in Bengal when he travelled across the Sub-continent. Like the Italian merchant-traveller Marco Polo's (1254 AD- 1324 AD) observations on China and its people, that of Chinese Fa-Hien and Xuanzang (Hue en Sung) on India has also passed down in history as two vivid descriptions of this 'mysterious' land and its people. Both the Chinese travellers were Buddhist monks and curious about human lives. Fa-Hien (337 AD-422 AD) was an avid traveller. He visited India during the rule of Chandragupta-II. Xuanzang (602 AD-664 AD), who came to India in the 7th century, was a scholar and translator besides being a Buddhist monk. His account of the visit to India provides insightful observations about the early medieval Bengal.

No creative person or curious and scholarly traveller visits other lands to enjoy their natural beauty only. As has been the case with Poet Rabindranath Tagore or his life-long admirer Syed Mujtaba Ali, also a traveller, they remain focused on humans in the foreign lands. Those countries' history and social scenarios become part of their travel accounts. Tagore's incisive observations about Japan, China, America, Russia, Iran and many other countries later proved uncannily true. People of all the countries he visited evoked his unalloyed love and admiration. But he did not fail to disagree with the emotion-sodden praise showered on certain socio-economic realities. While writing in detail about his days in Kabul in Afghanistan, Syed Mujtaba Ali did almost the same.

The common Afghans, fiercely freedom-loving, straightforward and trustful, elicited Ali's generous admiration on the very first day he entered Kabul. His helping hand Abdur Rahman eventually became his friend-philospher-guide from that day. But Mujtaba Ali was unsparing while dealing with the political anarchy and factionalism which was tearing the country apart during his stay there. That certain social groups of the country were leaning towards extreme conservatism and they would be at the helm of the land was indirectly referred to in the writer-traveller's book Deshey Bideshey. Mujtaba Ali was particularly concerned about the foreign interventions in the country. The turbulent socio-political situation in Afghanistan in the late 20th and early 21st centuries corroborates his forecast made around 90 years (the 1930s) ago. Similar predictions about the excesses of socialism in the now-defunct Soviet Union made by Tagore came true in the later part of the 20th century.

The Algerian-born French novelist, one of the greatest in the 20th century, travelled to the USA in 1946. Mainly centred in New York, he stayed in that country till 1949. In his book American Journals, Camus describes his inability to understand America and its people. He did not hesitate to call the US 'absurd', a statement which had confused many of his American readers. One should keep in mind that Albert Camus did not visit the US with any literary ambition. He visited the post-World War-II country as a traveller. Rabindranath Tagore was initially welcomed in America - as a mystic poet - in 1912. Few Americans had little idea about his sharp knowledge about world politics.

While in the US, the poet expressed his annoyance and displeasure at the American and British world policies in the early part of the 20th century which earned him a lot of detractors.  He was misquoted in the press after his speeches on child marriage in the then India. In his five trips (1912-1930) to the USA, Tagore could not fully impress upon the American audience his views on life --- earthly and eternal. Unlike his visits to Japan, China, Russia, Argentina and many European countries, Tagore's travel of America was filled with uneasy moments of communication gap. In spite of that, the poet also won myriads of admirers in some states. Tagore's mixed experience of travel to America stands in sharp contrast with that of Swami Vivekananda. The mesmerising and erudite theologian went to America first in 1893 to attend the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago. He stayed in that country till 1897. During his second phase of travel (1899-1902), he travelled across America widely to preach the message of the oriental way of seeking peace. He was spreading a special message, the one of Vedanta. The thoughts were alien to the American people at large, and they swarmed on his speech sessions. Vivekananda's case was like Veni Vidi Vici. While in the US, Vivekananda was showered with epithets like 'militant mystic', 'Brahmin monk' or 'cyclonic Hindu'. It pains many even today that Tagore's rational world perceptions were lost on the American audiences during one of the most turbulent periods in human history.

shihabskr@ymail.com

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