Why We Travel: My Latest Passage to India
The renowned and worldly Pico Iyer writes about “why we travel” in ways that make me think about why we look at art. Sample this from his eponymous 2000 essay:
Travel spins us round in two ways at once: It shows us the sights and values and issues that we might ordinarily ignore; but it also, and more deeply, shows us all the parts of ourselves that might otherwise grow rusty.
One part of himself that Iyer has explored over the years—on journeys and in print—is his Indian-ness, as you will read about in the following essay, the third in a series based on travel and research for the Carnegie Int’l, 57th Edition, 2018. Like all of the contributors to the Travelogue Series, Iyer did not actually go on the trip, which I took with Doryun Chong. Doryun is the chief curator of M+, a new museum and cultural center for modern and contemporary art in Asia that is now being built in Hong Kong.
Pico’s essay generously expands our journey.
Ingrid Schaffner, Curator
Carnegie Int’l, 57th ed., 2018
I touch down in India and barely recognize the place. From the plane, I see glittering skyscrapers clustering around an airport more spotless and gleaming than LAX or JFK. I look to my side, and there’s Doryun disembarking from an Air India jet alongside a sari-clad woman; there is so much going on that I’m not sure Ingrid’s camera will ever begin to catch it all. Outside the terminal, amid a swarm of shawled figures pushing and shouting near the exit—is this a riot or a festival?—there are so many cars with blaring horns in the sodium-light fog that there’s a 2:07 a.m. traffic jam. Brand names flash from the modern, glassy shopping malls that tower above intersections, and everyone seems to be chattering at high speed into cell phones, even as they simultaneously shout at cabbies, dispense orders to peons—classic Indian word!—and lecture to loved ones.
And then I step into the great surging current that is India and wonder how much has really changed, since I learned to walk here in 1959, under the shiny surfaces. All around the high-rising Hilton and Sheraton and Hyatt—unforgettably depicted in Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers—there are still slums where children try to survive by collecting garbage and thousands scratch out a kind of existence. If you head into a McDonald’s, you’ll find that most items there are vegetarian. Even in the face of so much that’s collapsing, the governing feeling is not one of despair.
Looking at my mother’s land—my father’s land—through the eyes of Ingrid and Doryun, I notice how much warmth and brightness animate and bring to vivid life the worn staircases and dark, cluttered rooms. My friends lead me on studio visits and to museums I’d never see otherwise, and at every point we’re greeted by people who exude an elegance and delight not so easily met in Berlin or New York City.
This will be the theme that slowly develops, like a Polaroid, throughout our voyage together: somewhere in the clamor of the streets, something more ageless, even crafted is hidden. And the grace of traveling with friends to a place in which you have too much invested is that they can bring your home back to you with clear, unpolluted eyes. Doryun and Ingrid spot two cows chomping happily on grass in the middle of bustling, downtown Mumbai! Perhaps in response to such sights, art in India seems to cherish stillness, and the buildings that house it serve as sanctuaries, sometimes prayer halls.
In Mumbai, at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum—the name itself a riddle— there are no special projects on view yet even the display of pencils, of all wonderful things, is stylish and composed; and the Chemould Gallery is as spotless, through my friends’ eyes, as its director, Shireen Gandhy. At our next stop, New Delhi, in its Nature Morte Gallery, Aparajta Jain—sipping wine with her codirector, Peter Nagy—could easily step into a movie or a page of Vogue without having to rearrange a hair. These are tonic reminders—the kind I, as someone of Indian origin who’s never known what to do with his Indian origins, urgently need: “human capital,” to use an unfittingly dry and technical term, is inexhaustible here. “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” Samuel Johnson famously wrote in the eighteenth century, but the good doctor had never seen India. And anyone who tires of India must have lost all appetite for color, humanity, art—and the sparks that flash between them.
* * *
It must be apparent by now that for me India is a conundrum. Look at my polysyllabic given names, or at the Iyer that marks me firmly, by caste and region, as a child of priestly forbears from Tamil Nadu, in southern India, and you see that part of me belongs here. The circles around my eyes, the record-breaking nose, my inability to dance all confirm the impression. Both my parents grew up in what was then Bombay, in British India, and, thanks to the Catholic nuns and priests who instructed them, can recite forward and backward the Bible, Shakespeare, and many an obscure Victorian poet.
And I, classic child of the postmodern age, am even more confused in my origins. I’ve never lived a day in the country of my parents; India is said to be home to twenty-two thousand languages, and I can speak not a word of any of them except English—though, when I’m ordered to “Kindly revert this message before shifting,” I realize that I don’t have much of a handle on English in the Indian version either. I’m still a bewildered tourist when I step out into these crowds, more displaced than I might be in Vietnam or Bolivia—and especially in Japan, where I’ve lived for thirty years. Like Ingrid and Doryun, I’m one of those new-millennium beings who lives and belongs everywhere—on planes, in passageways and transit lounges. This bold assertion conveniently elides the fact that perhaps I belong nowhere and can be shocked and mystified anywhere, from my parents’ hometown to Pittsburgh.
So I share with my traveling pals a trip to Dayanita Singh’s studio, where I’m transported, as well as soothed and pierced. Like so many, I have been an admirer of her haunting black-and-white photographs for years and from afar; but meeting her before a wall crammed with those images, through a door opened by Ingrid and Doryun, makes everything feel new. An artist’s eye can convert even cacophony into order. And the eyes of fresh outsiders—Doryun, the chief curator of Hong Kong’s new M+ museum, and Ingrid, curator of the 2018 Carnegie International—open up what a semi-native sleepwalks past too often
* * *
The last time I visited Bangalore, it was to find a sleepy green city of parks and slow-moving bicycles—India’s Portland, perhaps, except quieter and emptier. There were only two television channels in the whole country then, both government run, and most people didn’t have TVs in any case. Cars were rare, and a special outing meant a trip to the nearest Chinese restaurant. The place was home in those days to bespectacled accountants and a flurry of merchants selling their wares out of open storefronts under flickering lights. I was seventeen, staying in a distant bungalow with relatives; the only way I could justify my trip to India was by telling my friends back in boarding school in England that I was investigating the land of the Beatles and the home of the mystical spliff.
Now—well . . . in truth my memories are affirmed a little as Doryun and Ingrid lead me to the National Museum. The city has barely changed since that visit in 1974, and the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens to which my friends take me are as zany—and as peaceful—as they were then. Even the Srishti Institute of Art, Design, and Technology takes what is now and turns it into something enduring, as art always aspires to do. (I think of how forty percent of the start-ups in Silicon Valley are said to come from one group of Indian technology schools; when I go to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, I see more people from Bangalore than I do in Bangalore.)
* * *
My companions continue to open new windows and doors to the place I thought I knew: they take me to one place after another where artists are encouraged, given spaces in which to work, brought into a circle. In New Delhi, it’s the Khōj International Artist Association; in Mumbai, it’s the Clark House Initiative and R and R, a projected home for aesthetic and intellectual activities. Collectives, exhibition spaces, new projects: this old place is bursting with fresh vision.
It’s not India that’s out of date, I see, so much as my ideas of it; it’s I who has failed to adapt, to wake up to all the ways this isn’t the place I first saw all those years ago. I find so many moments that speak of a commitment to change, even as many of its public surfaces look as if they have been barely touched since the time of the Vedas. The rakhi the driver gives my friends for Sibling Day; the motorcyclists waving flags for Independence Day (August 15); Khirki, the village that Doryun and Ingrid track down and pass through: all point to the ageless, enduring India that I remember. But those constancies are of a place also very much on the move. The signs on the board at Clark House in Mumbai tell us we’re living in a global community, where Brexit is of concern. At the gracious Imperial Hotel in New Delhi, one of my homes since I took my Japanese wife there on the first night of our honeymoon back in the twentieth century, Ingrid checks into a wing for “Ladies Travelling Alone,” where she can enjoy the protection of a TV screen, beside her bed, that shows her what—or who—is just outside her door. If women still must be on their guard in New Delhi, as they might not have to be in Japan, the country is working to be aware of such tensions. It takes Ingrid to point out to this Indian male how the car ahead of us brandishes a sticker that proudly states, “This Taxi Respects Women.”
India has always had a tumultuous effect on visitors: how to remain neutral in the face of psychedelic pandemonium and how to make sense of an experience everywhere so intense? I was thrilled to find Doryun and Ingrid giving such raw voice to their bewilderment. In India, it’s easy to feel you’re in a place where nothing makes sense, yet everything makes a thunderous impression.
Not long ago, I returned to E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, and was quite amazed. I’d never been impressed by the novel, though I must have read it three times or more (and once played a small part in a play we put on of it in high school in England). Forster’s tea-cozy, timid, cloistered temperament seemed uniquely ill suited to a place of such blinding colors and ferocious emotion. Yet Forster was wise enough to see that India was important to him precisely because of his limitations. “One might disagree with him,” the novelist wrote of his first Indian friend, Masood, “but he never left one cold.” India, he was open enough to accept, was messy, fresh, and impossible to push into boxes. As I revisited his novel, in conjunction with my companions’ travel journals, I came to think of it as worthy of Paul Bowles in its honesty about how travel can jolt one out of the inexplicable and into somewhere entirely interesting.
You can’t begin to say what exactly India is doing to you, Forster suggests; even words like shock or horrify or exalt are too reductive. But you’re always aware of something beyond the little town, beyond even the hills behind it, something beyond the words or labels you might apply. A quality of mystery, perhaps, that reminds you that the heart of existence lies in what we can’t spell out.
In the central scene in A Passage to India, a young Englishwoman talks vaguely of having been assaulted in some caves; Forster initially wrote a straightforward description of what had transpired in the dark. But then, over the eleven years it took him to complete the book, he gradually took out every detail of what “really” happened. “You’ve asked what happened [in the caves],” he told a patient biographer. “I don’t know.” India is the great “I don’t know” that takes the what and the why out of things and leaves you—as my virtual companions found—with the simple, complex sense that your experience there was momentous, but you will never be able to say quite what it meant.