Neela V Raman

Tick Tock Tick Tock

The little pendulum in the brain keeps the rhythm. Relentless wondering; ceaseless questioning. In retrospect, most of this serves absolutely no practical purpose but then again, it allows one to make a life more interesting.

What does make life interesting? As subjective a question as this is, I am sure the answers themselves are entirely relative.

In our globalized little-big world, so many things (maybe almost everything) have reached a point of being stereotyped. And it’s a wonder each time, when experiences move a person beyond familiar reference points to take seriously the more imaginary, fantastic and emotional aspects of a place. To listen to the multiple stories and memories that make up a culture, to see the past from the present, to taste the unique and the mundane, to touch the earth and the masses even if it means juxtaposing one’s definition of space, to wrap oneself in the olfactory sensations of smells that draw pictures and yet also overwhelm. And amongst all this, finding means of responding to the multiple narratives of a place, known or otherwise. I have wondered often about how it would be if I could map the cultural geography of a place through my travels, even if it is only for my own needs. How would I do it? Would I track stories and people, ideas and practices, customs and objects that , when put together, fashion cultures – and when these cultures form identities, would the people recognize themselves and others. I imagine it as a huge jigsaw puzzle and that I can make my way through its many layers, seeking an image or multiple snapshots. If culture helps form identities, then it has moved beyond products – it is inherently present in ways of life, places, lifestyles and identities and the interconnectedness between them; a colorful, dense and varied mosaic.

A kaleidoscope of people, ideas, thoughts, opinions, colours, races, languages – that’s my experience of travel.

Doped up Bedouins, sitting atop a 2000 year old ruin, contemplating world music and cinema

A pretty young Mongolian teenager, crazy with a crush over a fading Bollywood star

A Palestinian taxi driver in Bethlehem waxing eloquently on the historic veracity of goodness

An old Chinese man in Beijing, with no English language ability, communicating in sign language about the problems of youth in the middle of a street fight

A ‘freedom fighter/underground militia’ in troubled Northeast India, asking for a true definition of freedom and courage

A Czech artist, with an encyclopedic knowledge about the intricacies of Hinduism and its multiple god pantheon

That’s the curious thing about travel. That indescribable sense that anything can happen at any time, that I can meet anyone, anywhere and if I keep the box open, an incredible, larger than life adventure awaits me. This is why my gut still seesaws when I hit an airport at the start of a journey – it is so much more than visiting a place and notching up another boarding pass or frequent flier miles. I talked to someone recently. A well travelled someone. She said, “Every time I look at a world map, instead of rejoicing in the places I have visited, I only see blank, empty spaces; places I have not”. Is this what travel has become?

And so I wonder if too much exposure can jade the senses. Is it possible that at some point every place starts to resemble every other place? Am I in danger of becoming a mere receptor of images thrown up by a place? Could it happen that I will reach a point where I unconsciously walk past environments, into cultures and see the remnants from my own memories that speak or repetitiveness, of the mundane, of the most dreaded of words – boring? Has the journey become so predictable that every vista is now in the arena of already read and that I am merely logging the environment, not immersing myself in it?

In the words of Guy Debord, “The study of everyday life would be a completely absurd undertaking, unable even to grasp anything of its object, if this study was not explicitly for the purpose of transforming everyday life”. Do my own travels transform my everyday life? I think so. It helps me create a vocabulary of openness that makes my everyday ( at the same time ) more comprehensible and more overwhelming.

How does one define a place? Is it a product of memory rooted in objects and architecture, a place tied within regional and global networks or an arena wherein communities form, images take life, reproduce themselves and create a unity? Is it a lack of space or lots of space? Does it represent cultures, sub-cultures and diversity? And do these very same cultural values and layers mark a place’s identity? But for me as a traveller, how do I read every new place of travel, each new people, how do I make sense of the extraordinary variety and complexity that exists everywhere, especially when every single place, even the ones from my inner consciousness that exist only in my head, juxtapose nature, people, things and the built environment in a number of ways.

I don’t think I have the complete picture yet. But I am searching. And to be honest, I think I will be happy never to really find the answer. Tick Tock Tick Tock – the pendulum swings

Neela V Raman

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