Let us go there, you and I, hoping chocolates fall from the sky. Let us go into a hilly terrain, where flows the ancient Amu Darya, where Marco Polo watched sheep graze on the grass of Pamirs. Do they still browse or is it tamam shud with a rat-a-tat-tat? Has the river turned red? Incarnadined, gaze ghosts (Click here to read the full poem)
“One night I was walking alone along the beach. There was a strong wind blowing, dashing the salt spray in my face, and the sea was crashing against the St Helier rocks. I told myself: I will go to London; I will take up a job; I will finish my book; I will find a publisher; I will save money and return to India, because I am happier there than here.”
Ruskin Bond’s own return to India was in quest of happiness much as Indian youth leave their country to adopt USA in their mythical search for a better life, and in that sense contentment. There was a time when those who dreamt big came to India for spiritual succor before conquering the world with the their humongous visions; Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were among these. I am not one to critique moves to different countries in search of happiness, for learning new things or just for survival. Think of it, if everyone stayed forever in the country where they were born, all the human race would have continued in central Africa forever with great to the power millions grandmother, Lucy, and her family…
Recently, I read an article in Hindu, which started with a blurb saying “Travelling in the 50s and 60s, Odia writer Chittaranjan Das realised that the only way to become an Indian was to first become an Asian and then a world citizen.” What a fantastic holistic thought from a writer who thrived in an era where mankind started to stumble under the narrow walls of partisanship and political nationalism!
The article on Chittaranjan Das makes me wonder what I, an Indian-born, consider to be the attributes of those populating the country of my birth.
The simple answer is I do not know.
With a cultural diversity that houses thousands of mother tongues (19,500 in 2018), India remains an enigma to me. Most cultures would have their own distinct rituals and beliefs and each one of them cannot be called anything other than Indian. A simple example would be the stories behind each festival. I know a few around the major Hindu festival of Diwali; some Ram centric, some Krishna centric, some Vishnu centric and, in Bengal, Kali centric — all these are different deities in Hinduism itself. Jainism and Sikhism have celebrations around the same period for different reasons. India hosts more than half-a-dozen major religions with myths and legends modifying the rituals and customs by local needs. Indian cuisine too is of such a wide variety. It includes an indigenised interpretation of Chinese food, which can be had nowhere else in the world and is a favorite with many in India, a fusion of cuisine developed by Chinese who migrated during the Opium wars and Mao’s regime. Then how can one define food, values or a composite culture that is Indian?
When I read the travels of Marco Polo, I was struck by his mentioning Russians in India and how many races thrived within the region. Of course his concept of India has to be taken with a pinch of salt. We also need to understand his concept of the country could not be what was defined by Radcliffe five hundred years later and accepted by the billions living across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the rest of the world without a question. Polo probably felt all cultures outside that of Italian were novelties when he started travelling at the age of sixteen. However, having spent a long time in Kublai Khan’s court before making it to India, he was more likely to be open than most, even if he is regarded as a bit of a charlatan. But one thing that I understood with my reading of Marco Polo was that India was the melting pot of diverse cultures and the geographical definition of India varied, thus making it more a concept than a national entity.
Nationalism as a concept started to develop only around the eighteenth century in England and Europe, after industrialization and French Revolution became a reality. When Marco Polo adventured into Asia from Europe, such travel was rare and long- drawn. With the onset of jet travel, time has ceased to be a constraint for crossing distances. Now it is borders drawn by nationalism. All the borders, of nations, cultures, religions and races are ones that are defined by man, by what twentieth century guru Yuval Noah Harari would probably call ‘orders‘ or ‘tribes’.
The other thing that struck me in my travels within India were sculptures of griffins and sphinx-like creatures introduced into the ancient frescoes of Ellora, an architectural marvel hewn into rocks between 600 to 1000 CE. In the midst of sculptures depicting Hindu mythological lore, a few odd looking creatures that resemble griffins and sphinxes blend into arrays of elephants. How and why did these get here? Did at some point a worker travel across to India from Africa or Europe, carrying with him the concept of a griffin or a sphinx and hew it into the rocks of Ellora? Was such travel to find work in multi- cultural India a norm in those days, when even Marco Polo had not set foot in China?
Again, I do not know… but I do love Chittaranjan Das’s perception that to be an Indian is to be a citizen of the world; Tagore’s perception of the mind being a fearless entity that would look for larger answers than just nationalism, being above narrow, parochial thought processes; Bhupen Hazarika’s concept of being a wanderer which he put to words in his well known song, Aami Ek Jajabar(I am a wanderer)
And in this spirit of openness and multi-culturalism, I celebrate my own humanness…
My home is anywhere under the blue skies. I enjoy drifting like a cloud, exploring the world and in my thoughts the outer space. I see no boundaries… no limits in space or time…no barriers of cultures, language, religion or politics…
However, when recently a friend asked me why I was not contributing to develop my home…the place whose language I use as my mother tongue and where my ancestors had paused for a considerable period of time, I grew defensive instinctively. I tried to condense my life… Then, I started to say that I believe in mankind and not borders…and therefore lacked a need to belong or to be tied down to a region. I explained I try to help people in need wherever they are irrespective of borders. I see myself as a citizen of the world, a term coined by my fourteen-year-old more than half a decade ago…
The simple answer would have been do I consider the place my home…? I have never lived there. My great grandfather moved out… and none of his children returned to the region, leave alone his grand children… his ancestors had lived there for probably a little less than one and a half centuries. Before that, they were in an area that now belongs to another country…The first time I visited the city for a few days was when I was sixteen. Subsequently, I have visited the town a number of times because I really like the place. The issue now is that for the last twenty-five years, I have not even lived in the country I was born. For, more than the last couple of decades I have been roaming the world. I have lived in a number of countries, including China…
And yet stories are made and songs are sung to glorify Man’s homing instinct. John Denver’s song… Country road take me home to the place I belong…is a song I liked all along… but perhaps I like it for the ‘blue ridge mountains’ and the ‘… river’, for ‘the misty taste of moonshine’… I am not quite sure…
I love L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, again a story that centres on the protagonist Dorothy’s need to return home. I almost wept when Dorothy after her adventures in the land of Oz clicked her magic shoe clad feet and repeated, “There is no place like home. There is no place like home…” and she was magicked back to her home in Kansas…to the farm…and to aunty Em…Dorothy’s whole adventure took place because she wanted to return home from where she had been deposited by a swirling tornado, in the wonderful Land of Oz with it’s rainbow, Emerald Palace and magical creatures…
Analysing my tendencies, I would probably have continued in the Land of Oz like the wizard, who could not leave because the balloon did not take off…yet the story is about Dorothy and not the wizard…
There is something magical about visiting unexplored lands, a kind of promise that opens new horizons for the mind and heart. I loved reading the travels of Marco Polo, even though it may have had it’s biases. Tagore has a song that says “kothao amar hariye java neyi mana, mone, mone…” ( “I can lose myself anywhere in my mind…”).
…And I do find myself getting lost in the mists of time when I read Marco Polo. Those days they wandered in search of trade through so many lands fraught with so many dangers. Then, at some point Marco returned home facing more adventures, weaving more fantasies (he talks of unicorns the size of elephants, cannibals and men with tails!). Despite his wonderful adventures he returned home, first to be imprisoned, then to become a merchant. But, what endears him to the world is the retelling of his marvelous adventures by his co-prisoner Rustichello da Pisa…
Sometimes, I wonder if all our ancestors had returned to their home, like Dorothy and Marco Polo, where would we all be? In the heart of Africa where mankind originated, where Lucy danced in the wilds? And how many people would the continent support? If we also retained our original culture and homes, what would we be like?
Perhaps, that is why this summer I am off to find answers to these questions in the rolling plains of Savannah grasslands that beckon me with the lure of endless mysteries… I am off to explore the part of the landmass where our ancestors originated…
The land that was first populated by man rolls out an invitation to explore why we all did not return home or why we developed other parts of the world which we spread out to populate over centuries and millenniums…and not our original home…
Title: The Travels of Marco Polo
Author: Rusticello da Pisa
The Travels of Marco Polo always cheers me up!
Marco Polo related his experiences between 1276 and 1290 to his prison buddy, Rusticello da Pisa. The prisoners of war collaborated and came up with this fantastic book. It was written in langues d’oil, a language that is no longer in use. My edition is a reprint of the translation by William Marsden in the eighteenth century.
In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo’s father, Niccolo, and uncle, Maffeo, successful traders, were invited by an envoy of the Mongols and made a trip to the East to meet the Grand Khan. They returned to Venice after seventeen years of adventuring to pick up some holy oil and give the Pope a letter from the Grand Khan. The Grand Khan, being Kublai Khan, desired to introduce Christianity into China. The Khan wanted the Pope to send a hundred representatives to support the spread of Christianity.
The two brothers had to wait a long time as the Pope had died and it took time for the new Pope to come to power. That was when they met Marco Polo the first time for Niccolo had left behind a pregnant wife who gave birth and died in the interim.Marco had been brought up by his uncle to be a trader. Niccolo and Maffeo took Marco with them for the next set of adventures and it is from Marco’s recall that this book was created. He wrote this book most likely for the trading community. However, what has come down to us in the translation is a very poetic and interesting account of the East. The description of Shandu in this book inspired Coleridge to write Kubla Khan, one of the most enchanting poems I have ever read. Perhaps, he read the same translation as I did, the one by William Marsden.
Most of the world regard Genghis and Kublai Khan as the worst kind of tyrannic rulers. However, in Marco Polo’s narration, the Grand Khan comes across as a competent ruler who provided security to his subjects. Trade prospered. It was Kublai Khan who popularised paper currency in China. Marco mentions it in his book.
Marco worked for the Grand Khan as an envoy for a number of years. The book is about his travel to and from China to the surrounding provinces and then his return to Europe. It took the party three years to reach China with the holy oil and gifts. The new pope had sent two representatives instead of one hundred. The two monks had absconded during the journey. The Grand Khan did not penalise them for not getting the hundred men but expressed happiness on seeing his old friends and Marco.
The thing that I really like is the open mindset of Marco Polo. He has no preconceived notions and takes people as they come. His father, uncle and he were multi-lingual. They could pick up languages easily. They all picked up tartaric, the language spoken by Kublai Khan, even before they met him. The Polos truly embodied the spirit of a one world society. They could take the best from every culture and survive under all circumstances. They knew no borders where trade was concerned.
The authenticity of Marco’s rendition has often been questioned by erudite scholars. Marco has been represented as a charlatan who made up a tall tale. However, what I do see in the story is an open-minded, large-hearted adventurer who did not acknowledge pre-conceived biases of the medieval world, rose above all pettinesses and recorded a fantastic travelogue with the collaboration of a friend. The retelling is of his own personalised experiences.
That the book has survived seven centuries of intellectuals and is still regarded as worthy of debate makes it an eternal classic in my perspective. Marco Polo’s travelogue has an infectious spirit of optimism and a one world outlook beyond borders.
The travels of Marco Polo helps me dream, imagine and create a fantastic world of my own…
Happiness is a subjective thing. People feel happy for different reasons and in different places. I found happiness among friends and people in Suzhou. When I left Singapore, I was convinced that I had lost the ability to make friends. It came as a pleasant surprise in Suzhou that I had not.
I found friends with no effort. People were appreciative of what I had to offer. China started out as a country which for me was shrouded in mysteries. The people who mingled with me had all come from different countries, including China. Perhaps, I got in touch with the positive energy within me. I do not know why and how it happened. Did it happen because I had started doing pranayama five days a week? Or, was it because I had no expectation from the people around me? Whereas, in Singapore, I did?
Perhaps, when we travel, we learn to accept things as they come. We become more open about people, cultural rituals, things and places. By cultural rituals, I mean social norms as well as the cultural heritage of a people brought up in a particular way. Imagine, when Marco Polo crossed over the Pamirs, through the Uzbek territory into China, how many different varieties of people, languages and cultures had he experienced? In those days you had no electronic translators. How did he grapple with the languages? His father, Nicolo Polo, could talk the language of Tartars, the account says. He had picked it up as he travelled across the continents! When we travel nowadays, we have our electronic equipment or little books with translated phrases to cope with foreign languages, cultures and people. We have our pre-conceived notions too and try to fit the country and people in that. For instance, in Singapore and Malaysia, often Indians are associated with vegetarianism and Bollywood. There are many in India who eat all kinds of meat, fish and non-vegetarian food and are not appreciative of the song, dance and culture of Bollywood, just as there are many Americans who may be vegetarians and non-representative of Hollywood! Pre-judging a person by the norms of a country or a race, I have learnt, is always inaccurate. Putting people into boxes of nationality and culture is an error I would not like to be guilty of. Can you factory produce people in pre-conceived groups with labels? Aldous Huxley actually wrote a whole book about it… Brave New World. He based the boxing, or rather the bottling of embryos, on intelligence levels and economic needs. Schools were set up and the products were educated to suit their stations and cultural needs in life. It was rather a bleak scenario he painted.
In contrast, I prefer Marco Polo’s outlook. He took life as it came. He travelled half way around the world and made his own conclusions and lived and roamed as an free individual. In Saba, Persia, he looked for the grave of the three Magi who blessed the newborn Christ with gold, frankincense and myrrh. He never saw the grave but, because he believed in it, he narrated with conviction.
What has come down to us is an interesting read, chronicling customs and history in a way no historian can emulate. It is an individual perspective, beyond borders, beyond nations, beyond space though mapping an era. Ruminating over world history, I feel after the national borders had been drawn by the power brokers of the world, we lost out on our ingenuity and wonder for the world around us. We spent our time worrying about acquiring wealth, exhibiting money and power and warring over property and boundary lines. That has led us nowhere because, for most common people, it does not matter. What does matter is we have food to eat, education for children, a fruitful and happy life. When has warring over borders ever made any common person happy? Yet, people are willing to sacrifice their lives for a concept that was an outcome of industrial revolution, a nation. It is, as TED speaker Taiye Selasi pointed out, not even a real thing. Why is it we cannot rise above these concepts and live in a world where our introduction is that of a good human being?
Most of the friends I made in China were just good human beings to me. The countries didnot matter. Something clicked for us in a way it didnot click for me when I looked for friends within the confines of the borders of my country of origin, my motherland. I had very less in common with the representatives of my country of birth that I came across in my journey through the world. And, yet, most people try to tie me down to a region. I have moved so often since I got married that if I kept looking for roots, I would feel bereft. I look for what I gathered within me from different places I lived in, travelled to, from people who impacted my thinking, from ideas that help me look for a more positive future…
Some of my friends, like Donatella and Heidi, pointed out to me that what was most important for being friends was that our heart remained in sync. Recently, I had an interesting discussion by email on education with Heidi and Joanna, a Chilean friend married to a Finnish. Joanna, a mother to two sons, one of them being a good friend of Aditya, had lived in Australia for eight years and now she is living in Suzhou. We could discuss the systems from Finland, India, China, Singapore, Canada and Australia. The outcome of the discussion showed that every country had strengths and weaknesses in it’s systems. I would have liked to pick the best of each for my kids. They cannot study in each of these countries but I have at least put them in a system which aims at bringing out the best in the child. It does have it’s hiccups but I would say that I cannot think of a better alternative.
I would like my children to think mankind and not nations. I would like them to be like sunshine, open, free and bright. And luckily for me, they and many of their friends do not think borders atall. Aditya in his English essay in the eighth grade called himself a citizen of the world. My sons speak five languages and have friends from all over the world. They know bad words in probably ten to twenty languages, including Korean and Finnish! That is a start!
In China, pasta is called Yi Da Li mian. The direct translation is Italian noodle. In China, we eat mian and in Italy, pasta, the difference in flavour is from the herbs, garnish and oil used. But, the staple is the same…Historically, there are number of theories about the origin of pasta. Some say Marco Polo carried it back from China to Italy. Some say it was Arabic and some even say, Greek. In China, noodles were eaten 4000 years ago, according to a National Geographic report in 2005. Either ways, the stuff remains most popular through the ages served in an Italian or Chinese way.
I started figuring out all this after moving to China. However, I had to leave China to figure out some more stuff… I had to be in Singapore, missing my friends and my life in China to write this book. I had to think and reflect on why I felt lonely and irritable after moving back and then find the answers.
I missed the vibrancy of life, happiness and the feeling of being a traveller through time…like Marco Polo. I wanted to continue in the society of optimists who made things happen with their positive outlook and enthusiasm for living! I wanted to live perpetually in a world without borders…