Back to book responses – this time of one that seems to parallel my own journeys. The kindred spirit feeling and all that sort of thing. Very nice.
An Indian Odyssey by Martin Buckley (Not released worldwide yet – trade paperback out only in India)
It’s not often that I can say that I identify with the author of a book and can feel a certain empathy with what he’s going through but I’ve found a book where I can say just that. An Indian Odyssey by Martin Buckley is one such book. It chronicles the journeys of the author who sought to visit all the major places mentioned in the Ramayana, the great Hindu epic. Incidentally, Ramayana itself can loosely be translated to ‘Rama’s Journey’ as it tells the tale of the many adventures of Rama, an incarnation of the god Vishnu and how he regained a kingdom lost to political intrigues and nasty demons. One thing I liked about the book is that it’s a little more complex than a linear travelogue – he layers more recent travels over journeys that he undertook over 20 years ago young adult and intersperses these with snippets from the Ramayana itself. While far from seamless, the layers did show how multi-faceted one’s adventures can be when looked at from different angles and also how many similar many journeys (and the feelings that we have while on them) can actually be.
Another thing that struck me about this experience was that when and where one reads a book can make a difference to the experience as well. I read most of this book while on the train from Delhi back to Bangalore and the experience of reading about someone’s travels while one is travelling through some of the same places is quite unique. You not only feel like a kindred spirit on a similar journey, but one’s own experiences also serve to enhance those described in the book. Buckley’s journey was somewhat mirrored in mine and reading it while watching half of India pass by my train window was an experience in itself.
Travelogues like this seem to appeal to me because they’re more than just a record of a person running round a country or region just to cover places or do particular things. The underlying richness of the Ramayana infuses the travelling done here with a sense of spirituality (because of the religious nature of the epic) and grandeur. One can almost feel the power of the narrative of the original epic through the places visited but Buckley doesn’t only deal with the historical bits. The present state of the places he visits are talked about – from the dismal to the intensely politicised, showing that even important sites in a major epic like the Ramayana are not spared the evils of human callousness and indifference.
Buckley lived and worked in India for a while and shows a sensitivity to the country and its people as he describes the people he meets and places that he goes to without condescension but with a certain sympathy that comes from familiarity. From descriptions of the conflict in Sri Lanka to ashrams in Varanasi, he brings a self-deprecating sense of humour to his travels that doesn’t seem to be manufactured or put-on. Fuelled only by curiosity and a desire to learn more about the country that he already knows fairly well, the unfolding of his experiences that leads him to discover more about his own yearning for spirituality was probably the bit that caught my attention and interest.
While my own travels through the north of India were far shorter and didn’t have as clear a goal as Buckley, there were similarities in that I too am on a search for a certain spirituality and saw the chance to travel as a way of getting away from the hum-drum of daily life to see more of the country that I’ve lived in for about half a year. Travel transforms a person and gives the traveller insights into both the places that are visited and how they change one. Buckley was slowly absorbed by the whole narrative of the Ramayana and was transformed from an observer in the rituals and ceremonies that he sees into an active participant. While I’ve not been around long enough to be a participant in many things, I do feel a sense of attachment to where I’ve been living for the past months. Feeling a strange calmness and a sense of homecoming even in the chaos of the bus station when I got back to Bangalore from the north did make me realise that I’ve come to see this little bit of India as home for the moment.