'That thing you cannot put your finger on but which makes us who
we are and the universe what it is'.
was dreaming that I was in the English Lake District. I was walking
along some desolate mountain path, with the biting wind swirling
and the rain lashing my face. The smell of grass and soil filled
the air and I was alone. Splendid solitude. Every now and then a
gap in the mist appeared, giving way to a magnificent view of Conniston
village below, or some craggy peak above. A feeling of being at
one with nature.
that I was on some ancient forgotten path and thinking of India. I thought
of Varanasi; a place teeming with life and soaked in death. A place
of quickly constructed funeral pyres and of timeless rituals; a place
of pilgrims and New Age traveller-types from the West; a place of believers.
People who believe in something that transcends the human condition;
who believe in a better tomorrow. A place of holy men and hippies; where
eastern mysticism meets western post-modernism. And as I sat looking
at the Ganges, surrounded by life and death - burning ghats and bathing
bodies - I began to daydream about life, death and somewhere else.
My dreams would take me to some imposing hilltop fort in Rajasthan,
and memories of sandy-lands and Rajput warriors from yesteryear. I was
sitting in some rooftop restaurant in Jodphur under a clear blue sky,
enjoying the early morning chill of a December day. At that point, I
gazed across the rooftops and thought of another far away place.
The place was a city; not any city - tropical Chennai - that unique
mass of humanity in the land of the small-eared elephant. I was walking
past the dingy Emerald Chicken House on Triplicane High Road. The Keralan
proprietor serves the best chicken tikka. And across the road is the
Maharaja Restaurant where they sell the best vegetarian meals. After
eating at one or other place I was drawn onto a nearby hotel rooftop
to watch the sun set over the soaring minarets of the Big Mosque. It
was magnificent. And I recalled the splendour of long gone New Year
Eves and fireworks that once cascaded across darkened skies. I was standing
where I had stood before; where I greeted the dawn of 2002 and 2003;
where I had once stood and pondered about what had been, what was about
to be and what should always be.
looked out over Chennai and the sunset drew my thoughts across South
India, to the opposite coast and to some golden beach in Goa. The
waves crashed upon the shore and a red sky sunset prevailed. I looked
out to sea and thought of Europe - a land far away. And I thought
of familiar places and faces, and of times gone and of memories
now fading. As the sun disappeared over the horizon, a tapestry
of stars filled the night sky. I looked up and was reminded of the
timelessness of the universe and my own mortality. The darkness
engulfed and I felt my solitude once again. The same solitude that
I had felt on that lost mountain path in the Lake District, and
the same solitude I had felt while pondering about life and death
on the banks of the Ganges.
the canopy of a billion galaxies I wondered about the spirit of the
human condition - that yearning for freedom: to roam, to explore, to
think, to escape from pain, hardship and suffering - to escape from
ones own mortality. I looked up at the sky and thought about my
own significance in the grand scheme of things. I also thought about
my constant need to travel through the world and my own thoughts; my
constant need to be somewhere different, somewhere better - somewhere
I looked up and thought to myself It is out there - It
is out there in the vast universe: inspiration, love, hope, emotion
and truth. All of those things that make us human. All of those things
that are within us all come from out there. Whatever it
is, it is out there. Some call it God, shroud it in mystical ritual
and belief, and cover it with ultimate values. Others call it the Big
Bang, construct technical theories and dress it up in rational science.
Whatever it is, it lies somewhere between the two; between reason and
emotion. It defines both. It is greater than both. It transcends both.
Whatever it is, I see it everyday - in the faces of a hundred dusty
beggars and in the eyes of those who throng each and every temple. I
see it in the mass of humanity bathing along the ghats in Varanasi and
in those selling their wares as they squat on pavements. I see it in
Calcutta among dark-skinned soap-lathered men who wash at street stanchions
and among poor migrant workers, living and dying in miserable conditions.
From the ubiquitous tea-boy to the pavement artisan - I have seen it;
I have felt it. What is it? I cannot say; I cannot define it. But I
know when it is present - and I know when it is absent.
It was absent when Pol Pot brought his havoc to the Khmer people, and
it was absent when Mao confused tyranny with progress. It is also absent
everytime George W Bush and the Pentagon commit crimes against
humanity in the name of freedom and democracy. It is absent when
people act like machines, void of empathy and feeling. It is not enough
to act in a state of pure rationality, lacking any feeling, love or
emotion. But it is also absent when people run away and reject reality
and to nothing but romanticise. To love somebody is not enough and to
hate somebody is not enough. Pure emotion without reason is insufficient,
and pure reason without emotion is not enough. The former leads to a
retreat from reality while the latter leads to man-made hell.
It is strange where dreams can take us. That path in the English Lake
District is jagged and twisting. It is not the best route to take. It
is neither straight nor smooth. It is was straight and smooth, it would
take me to where I want to be quickly and comfortably. But in many ways
it is the only route to take - as it is, and not how some would like
it to be. I have walked along that path many times: the journey elicits
great joy and great hardship, but it eventually gets me to my destination.
It has, what author Robert Pirsig once said, Quality. That
thing you cannot put your finger on but which makes us who we are and
the universe what it is. It took me many years to appreciate this. Its
a long way from Europe to the ghats of Varanasi and eateries of Triplicane.
The Americans send probes from Earth to Pluto and beyond. Lets
hope they find a fraction of what can be found on any earth-bound journey.
May be one day humanity will reach the edges of the universe; maybe
then, and only then, will it realise that what is has been
in front of it all along - in the hearts and minds of one hundred dusty
beggars and one million toiling tea-boys. The secret is within. It is
what we already know but too often seek to deny.
© Colin Todhunter August 2003
Tale of Two Woman
Todhunter on love and the power of Old Monk
Colin Todhunter on a dark road
More travel stories
all rights reserved