At some point early this year, I realised it had been a year without travel.
At a time when the pandemic has wrought, and continues to wreak, so much havoc, it feels almost indulgent to mourn travel. Unlike a hotel owner or a tour guide, my livelihood is not tied to travel. It affects me and my Instagram feed more than anything else.
Yet it has also made me understand how much travel has become part of who I am. It was not always this way. I grew up in a family that loved travel but it was also strictly rationed. We would travel during the Durga Puja holidays in Kolkata, when the city shut down. One year it would be to the mountains, the next year the beach. The rest of the year, we stayed put in Kolkata. My grandparents lived in the city so unlike many other school friends, there were no summer vacations at the grandparents’ home in the countryside, with stories of climbing mango trees and picnics with the cousins.
Instead, we had books. My mother had a whole series of Bengali books called Ramyani Beekshya, which were both novel and travelogue set in different parts of India. The writer, Subodh Kumar Chakraborty, was a railway employee. His own travels to south India on work had formed the basis of the first novel, which had been serialised in a Bengali magazine in 1954. The series proved so popular it was turned into a book; the first edition sold out. That led to over 20 books which criss-crossed India—Marubharat Parba, Kamrup Parba, Bhagirathi Parba. The series took its name from a shloka in Kalidasa’s Abhigyan Shakuntalam—Ramyani Beekshya Madhushcharang Nishamya, a shloka explaining how in the midst of happiness, we are transported by some beautiful sight to the memory of a past love, a memory that remains, almost unknown to us, permanently impressed on our subconscious.
The books came with photographs Chakraborty took on an East German-made Reflex camera but contained no names of hotels or lists of 10 must-visit tourist sights. He was, noted the Anandabazar Patrika in a 2019 centenary tribute, a traveller, not a tour guide. The books have now fallen out of favour but for generations of Bengalis they were portals into the history and geography of parts of India they had never seen. Told against the backdrop of the relationship between the protagonists Swati and Gopal, they literally put travel into romance and romance into travel. Volumes were given as wedding presents and the books were as much a part of Bengali households as Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. On a mellow Kolkata winter afternoon, sitting on the terrace with the sun on one’s back and the book in one’s hand, it must have felt magical to wander around Kamrup or Magadh with Swati and Gopal before returning to the humdrum domesticity of one’s own life.
Like Chakraborty, my father was a rail employee—though in Britain, not India. Long before I was born, my parents had travelled all over Europe on my father’s rail pass. I never set foot outside India, not even to Nepal, till my teens but during summer vacations, I would pull out a purple clothbound album from our storage box where my parents had preserved not photographs from their travels but picture postcards—a flower garden in Interlaken, the moss green statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, mounds of round Gouda cheese in Amsterdam.
I never tired of looking at them. As a boy, they were my portal out of the sticky summer days of Kolkata. Now I wonder what my grandmother, sitting in Kolkata, made of the notes my mother diligently wrote on those postcards. Perhaps mindful of the impossible distance between their lives, my mother wrote not about the sights they saw but more mundane details—whether the hotel rooms had attached baths, how my sister, then a little girl, charmed the European “memsahibs”, the length of a train journey. Occasionally, the wonder crept in. “It feels amazing to think that we are in Berlin. Just the width of the avenues leaves you open-mouthed.”
At the time I did not understand the difference between tourist and traveller. I just hung on, slightly enviously, to the edges of the stories of my parents’ travels. I would trace on my atlas their journey through the Suez Canal, which my mother said was so narrow they could see the clothes drying in the houses on either side, and then on to the Mediterranean Sea where Mount Etna hissed and spluttered in the distance. Years later, when I travelled on my own as an adult, my mother asked for an atlas so she could trace my journeys through places she had never been to, whose names sounded more exotic than Venice and Berlin and Paris—Luang Prabang, Kota Kinabalu, Hoi An.
The pandemic has brought us back to those atlas days in some fashion. For over a year, I have not travelled physically anywhere. All I can do, much like my mother, is retrace in my mind the journeys I once made. In this digital age, I have no album of picture postcards. Picture postcards themselves are passé when you can just WhatsApp an image to friends. Instead of scrolling through piles of photographs stored on the Google cloud somewhere, I try to remember these places once again, that feeling of setting foot into an entirely unfamiliar world, bustling with a different language, different street signs, different smells.
When I summon up these places, I remember not the sights the guidebooks told me were not to be missed or the eateries highly recommended by Lonely Planet but the little things that I often did not bother to even photograph. The men sitting outside their homes on a hot night in Phnom Penh, their white banians (vests) rolled up to the chest, airing their bellies. Walking down the deserted streets of tiny Con Dao island off the coast of Vietnam and seeing families engrossed in front of their television sets watching a dubbed version of Balika Vadhu, the Hindi TV show. A litter of puppies hidden inside an ancient temple off the beaten path in Aihole in Karnataka peering up anxiously at intruders like me while bats fluttered overhead.
Small bits of our new homebound lives trigger these memories. The purple of a sari drying on the clothesline reminds me of the purple jellyfish washing up on the deserted beaches of Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, the sand white gold, the water tropical blue and everything freezing cold. The water spinach growing in our garden will suddenly bring back the taste of freshly sautéed morning glory leaves with slivers of garlic in some little shack in Luang Prabang that I will never find again. A teapot on the breakfast table can take me back to a beachfront bar in Sri Lanka serving beer in teacups to skirt the liquor ban for some Buddhist festival. It had rained torrentially that day but as we poured the beer out of the teapot, the sea was quiet, the sand packed damp under our feet.
Sometimes it hurts like a dull ache to realise I don’t know when we will travel again for pleasure.
But this has also been an opportunity to savour the trips once taken, something I had rarely bothered to do in a world where I took travel for granted, where, at the end of each trip, I was already wondering about where to go next. Now I am forced to revisit where I had once been, to understand that travel is a privilege our parents and grandparents rationed and savoured for a reason. Sometimes, on anxious pandemic nights before I go to sleep, I think of those places once again, perhaps hoping I can will my dreams to take me to Mulu or Casablanca.
Kalidasa understood something I am only beginning to dimly realise when he wrote that shloka in Shakuntala. The memory remains impressed on the subconscious, like a leaf pressed between the pages, just waiting to transport us even in a year without travel. Perhaps especially in such a year.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.