The Blur of my 20s

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Of all things I didn’t expect my ’20s’ to resemble the opening line of “A Tale of Two Cities“.

Everything overlaps in my memory. I can’t pinpoint what happened when.

My 20s has been a blur: the years, the events, experiences, people who drifted in and out, people who lingered, the hard-earned and the surprise successes, the vicious cycles of failure, the ennui of adulthood, the simple or extravagant joys, deceptions and lies, the foolish heart that refuses to learn lessons, the heart that has learnt to be and even accept indifference, journeys of self-discovery, the indirect search for the meaning of it all, nights of fervent prayers, indulging in frivolities, still reading books with the same love and worship for the written word, still being the pampered daughter and doting sister, paranoid driving, learning compassion and responsibilities, healing others and not just because it is a job, learning the hard way to follow the advice of my parents, waiting for I know not what, laughing at how far I’ve come along yet how long I have stood still, sometimes mourning an untarnished memory, kicking myself often for wavering in the most important thing in the world-discipline, uncertain steps into writing, accepting deficiencies and along the way accepting myself, wondering what my ten year old self would say when my dreams of a settled career and being happily married and traveling the world by the time I turned twenty seven seems impossible now, telling my ten year old self that it’s okay the way things are now and meaning it, still skeptical about most of the people I meet, creating my own happiness, and not even close to learning how to cook.

When I was sixteen, a person who was over twenty-five was OLD, a fossil. Today I have turned 26. I don’t feel like a fossil. I have yet to embark on many journeys. I have yet to find the utopian true love. I have yet to get kicked in the guts by life and learn few more lessons. I have yet to find contentment. I have yet to make my parents proud. I have yet to travel to places I’ve read about in books and compare my mind’s imagery with the real beauty. I have yet to do something meaningful for the causes I believe in and support.

Miles to go…

(Photo Courtesy: kikimatters)

In My Perfect World, On My Perfect Date

Brisk Wind not Warm Breeze

Break of Dawn not Darkness of Dusk

Long Walk not Fancy Wheels

Uplifting Melody not Syrupy Love Song

Companionable Silence not Constant Chatter

Finger Food Platter not French Cuisine

Open Sky not Suffocating Spaces

Exploring Places not Candlelit Dinner

Loud Laughter not Forced Humor

Spontaneity not Calculated Moves

Quality of Time not Quantity of Time

Entwined Fingers not Groping Hands

The Kid in Him not The Macho Male

Creating Exhilarating Moments not Anticipating Sensual Moments

Genuine Words not Deceptive Promises

Shy Glances not Incessant Staring

Goofy not Grave

Genial, Never-ending Conversations not Frigid, Formal Talks

Lingering Contentment not Lingering Regrets

The one where I travel to the past on my time machine…BOOKS!


Yesterday I stumbled across few rare books, travel journals, letters, and periodicals dating back to the 19th century. And I can’t wait to explore these treasures. Given my obsession with history, there’s an ever increasing want to know about the lives of the people in the eras long gone by; their thoughts, lifestyles, experiences and their work. Their lives intrigue me. The past intrigues me. My sister often chides me that I should have taken up archaeology or history as a profession. But I love medicine more, and my love for history has just remained something that I pursue in leisure. I remember the old skeleton passed down to me by a senior during my first year in medical college for the anatomy classes. And during the hours I spent studying its bones, I inevitably got drawn into wondering about its life, what was it like, its dreams, were they fulfilled, or was its life difficult, and I wondered about its family too. That was just the beginning. I still can’t make myself regard any object that might have sustained life before as just a clinical specimen, and often wonder about the life associated with it in the past. It can be a bother at times, because I tend to get emotionally attached not just to patients but even to anatomical specimens in the lab, wondering about the lives of the people they belonged to!

I relish each and every word in the old classics of literature and especially travelogues, as I had earlier written. The journeys undertaken before the advent of modern transport highly interests me. Invasions, seafaring journeys, Viking plundering, pilgrimages undertaken by missionaries, settlers in search of a new land, voyages undertaken to explore the world in the past, the observations of the people is something I thoroughly enjoy.

So here are the books I came across yesterday:

1. I came across few children stories, written and illustrated during the turn of the 20th century. One is called “Abroad”, which takes us on a journey to Paris and is abound with the thrills of exploring a new place. Beautifully illustrated. Another is a short story called “A day on Skates” by Hilda Van Stockum (in 1934), a story about a Dutch picnic which is again very beautifully illustrated. The others are “The Windy Hill” written by Cornelia Meigs in 1921, and “Goody Two Shoes” published in 1888. But my favorite is “The Latchkey of My Book House” written in 1922. I can’t wait to complete it. Two books are based on Christmas. One is a collection of sketches of Washington Irving called “Old Christmas”, published in 1886. Another is a book of poems for children called “Christmas Roses”, published in 1886 too. And the last one is a delight for animal lovers, a story told about the lovable antics of a laughing kitten, Tinker trying to teach a puppy, Floppy, how to play a gramophone etc wonderfully portrayed through a series of photographs. A visual delight. It’s called “Mischief Again” by Enid Blyton and Paul Kaye.

2. Among the travelogues…I found few of the books on my reading wish list this year. I found “Travel Diary of Peter Mundy in Europe and Asia (1608-1667)”, “Travels in Arabia Deserta” by C.M.Doughty, “The Mirror of the Sea” by Joseph Conrad, and “The Sea and the Jungle” by H.M. Tomlinson. I had been craving to get my hands on these books for a long time now and to say that I’m thrilled to have found them at last would be a huge understatement. The book “The Sea and the Jungle” is “the narrative of the voyage of the tramp steamer Capella from Swansea to Para in the Brazils, and thence 2000 miles along the forests of the Amazon and Madeira Rivers to the San Antonio Falls; afterwards returning to Barbados for orders, and going by way of Jamaica to Tampa in Florida, where she loaded for home. Done in the year 1909 and 1910. And the book is dedicated to THOSE WHO DID NOT GO.” These are the gems of travel literature. For more information on the other books, see my reading wish list for 2009 and if you know where I can get the rest of the books in the list, PLEASE let me know.

3. Then I found few works of English and American women residing in India in late 19th century and early 20th century. One is the “The Modern Marriage Market (1898)” by Marie Corelli (1855-1924), Flora Annie Webster Steel (1847-1929), Susan Hamilton and Susan Marie Elizabeth Stewart-Mackenzie Jeune St. Helier. Another is “The laws of higher life” by Annie Besant. And also “Between Twilights” by Cornelia Sorabji. Here’s an excerpt from her book.

“In the language of the Zenana there are two twilights, ’when the Sun drops into the sea,’ and ‘when he splashes up stars for spray,’ . . . the Union, that is, of Earth and Sun, and, again, of Light and Darkness. And the space between is the time of times in these sun-wearied plains in which I dwell. One sees the world in a gentle haze of reminiscence…reminiscence of the best. There, across the horizon, flames the Sun’s ‘goodbye’”

4. And a dance manual…”Dancing” by Mrs. Lilly Grove first published in 1895. The chapters chronicles the dances of the eras long gone by, ritual dances, English dances, dances from rest of UK, Bohemian, Gypsy, Hungarian and polish dances; and dances from France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Scandinavia, Lapland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, India, Persia, China, Japan. It also has chapters on Ballet, Practical use of dancing, time and rhythm of dancing…and even one called DANCES OF THE SAVAGES!!

5. I don’t know Urdu and Sanskrit and the Indian verses of the past were heavily influenced and generously peppered with Urdu and Sanskrit words. So I was very happy to find the book “India’s Love Lyrics” by Laurence Hope (1865-1904). She had translated many Indian love verses to English, and succeeds in retaining the meaning and melody of the original verses.

6. But the most treasured and highly valued objects are two letters and a book about women doctors that I stumbled upon while surfing the net. They are scans of the original handwritten letters written by Dr. Anandibai Joshee (M.D, 1886) to the Principal of Women’s Medical college of Pennsylvania informing him about her educational qualifications, financial status, and the reason for her interest in pursuing medicine as a career. I read the letter thrice. 1885! A married Indian woman of 18 years decided to pursue medicine as a career in America with the seventy dollars she had in hand in 1885! Think about the social scenario then, and the huge step she had undertaken and also successfully completed. I salute her! I also read another letter by Anna S. Kugler to her alma mater describing her life as a medical missionary in India, struggling to make the people adopt modern medicine and she had a tough battle to fight against the superstitions prevalent at that time. Another is a book by an American medical missionary to China, chronicling her time in the hospital there and the hardships involved. Precious treasures for me.

A Dear Wish…

“That there should exist one other person in the world towards whom all openness of interchange should establish itself, from whom there should be no concealment; whose body should be as dear to one, in every part, as one’s own; with whom there should be no sense of Mine or Thine, in property or possession; into whose mind one’s thoughts should naturally flow, as it were to know themselves and to receive a new illumination; and between whom and oneself there should be a spontaneous rebound of sympathy in all the joys and sorrows and experiences of life; such is perhaps one of the dearest wishes of the soul.”

-Edward Carpenter

In today’s world, where tolerance levels have gone alarmingly low, monogamy has lost the earlier significance, people shifting from one relationship to another with dangerous ease, sensitivity and unquestioning honesty has taken a backseat…Is the above quote valid or is it a rare occurrence?

In my own life, comparatively short and therefore lacking in experience though it is, I have known both personally and vicariously a great deal of mental stress and pain that might have been prevented by timely knowledge. It was due to searching for the right in the wrong choices. And even the relationships around me that I’ve viewed in close quarters fail to do justice to the above quote. The faith in the existence of such a love falters at times. But the world thrives on hope…and so do I.

Travel Literature…

Books and Travel are two interests that I pursue passionately. And to merge them both is heaven on earth for me. Travel literature is a genre that I intend to explore avidly this year. The experience of a traveler is always a delightful read. Travel literature is not a log of dates, popular tourist destinations, best food and shopping destinations. It’s the narrative of a wild-eyed tourist who explores little known destinations or well known ones with a new insight. It can be factual accounts or tinged with fantasy. It’s not mandatory to deal with a particular region; it can be cross cultural or trans national. It can document explorations, exotic adventures, voyages, and the different in places. It may describe the geographical territory, the history, the culture, the people, the political scenario but with a pithy narrative and poetic vision. I adore travel literature, fact or fiction, because it often brings forth a fresh, new perspective of a destination, the journey, the experience, the joy of travel. I enjoy travelling a lot and after reading outdoor literature the desire to explore new places only gets heightened. It’s almost orgasmic for me to read the classics of travel literature. Ever since the time I read Lewis Carroll’s “The adventures of Alice in Wonderland” and Swift’s “Gulliver’s travels”, when I was around this high, I was mesmerized by the ability of authors to take us on wonderful, fascinating journeys through the medium of literature. In the past couple of years I’d read Pico Iyer, Paul Theroux and Amitav Ghosh, his “Sea of Poppies” being my most recent read of his nautical trilogy. I not only want to read the books by contemporary authors but also of those who lived a long time back. The rare travel accounts of the medieval times or even a couple of centuries back are something I hope to read someday. Those were the days when travels were rare and adventurous journeys were taken to far lands. Soldiers during battles, vikings during plundering, traders during voyages carrying spices and silk, historians documenting the rise and fall of dynasties, pilgrims and missionaries visiting holy places, the common workmen crossing countries in search of work, explorers in search of a new land, royalty in search of new regions of conquest… I want to devour all these travel accounts. Right from Marco Polo to Patrick French.
The following are a list of books on my wish list this year. I don’t know whether I would find them all, and more importantly afford them all! And I would be grateful if readers of my post share any information about the availability of inexpensive used copies of the following books. On my student budget, these gems of travel literature seem a distant dream.
Here are the collected and edited excerpts from book reviews of each book which intrigued me to put them in the reading wish list for the year:

1. A Barbarian in Asia- Henri Michaux

It’s an interesting look at 1930s Southern and Eastern Asia through this Frenchman’s eyes. He traveled through India, the Himalayas, southern India, Ceylon, Malaya (from Malaysia to Bali), China, and Japan. Strongly recommended – though natives of these lands might take offense. An original and stimulating refraction of the Orient through a very special personality.

2. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia, by Rebecca West

A well-educated, upper class Briton, West a professional writer and literary critic, not to mention H.G. Wells’ mistress and mother of his son, traveled widely throughout Yugoslavia during the mid- and late-30s. It is extremely insightful, as West unravels the often extraordinarily intricate relationships among the various ethnic and religious groups, and the often torturous reasoning behind some of the political developments in the region. Beyond the descriptions of people, culture, and history, it is West’s details about the places she sees that are the most moving and alluring. One wants to wander through the former Yugoslavia as she did, seeing the beauty of the land and cityscapes. But this book isn’t just about Yugoslavia. It is also about Europe on the brink of war.

3. A Journey in Ladakh- Andrew Harvey

A classic among readers interested in Tibetan Buddhism and pilgrimages of the spirit of all kinds, A Journey in Ladakh is Andrew Harvey’s spiritual travelogue of his arduous journey to one of the most remote parts of the world the highest, least populated region in India, cut off by snow for six months each year. Buddhists have meditated in the mountains of Ladakh since three centuries before Christ, and it is there that the purest form of Tibetan Buddhism is still practiced today.

4.Hindoo Holiday- J.R.Ackerley

The double ‘o’ in Hindoo Holiday immediately signals that we are returning to another time. An era that was tragic, perhaps, in its essence, but comic in its particulars; a time of unspeakable wealth and inconceivable poverty, continual cultural misunderstandings, unfettered whimsy, and cruelties large and small: the age of the British Raj and the Indian princes. In the 1920s, the young J. R. Ackerley spent several months in India as the personal secretary to the maharajah of a small Indian principality. In his journals, Ackerley recorded the Maharajah’s fantastically eccentric habits and riddling conversations, and the odd shambling day-to-day life of his court. Hindoo Holiday is an intimate and very funny account of an exceedingly strange place, and one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century travel literature. Ackerley is hardly impressed by any monuments or traditions and his focus is people.

5. In Patagonia- by Bruce Chatwin

In this travel book on Patagonia, Argentina, Bruce Chatwin gives us a delightful account of his trip, taken in 1977. The structure of the book is different from most other travel books – Chatwin goes off looking for one thing, gets sidetracked on to some other and then on to something else. We are given history pertaining to the area; Chatwin’s research is simply astonishing. He travels incessantly and doesn’t hesitate to go the distance to ferret out the story. From looking for the Patagonian creature mylodon to stories about *** Cassidy and a lot of Argentine and Chilean folklore, this is a great book.

6. Shadow of the silk road – Colin Thubron.

He’s the dean of British travel writers. This is his ninth travel book and it chronicles his 7,000-mile journey in 2003 and 2004 (begun when he was about to turn 64) from Xian, China, to the Turkish coastal city of Antioch. The Silk Road Thubron travel is not one road but a “fretwork” of trade routes dating back to 1500 B.C. From the east on the Silk Road came Chinese gunpowder, printing and paper, the astrolabe and compass, silk and Buddhism. From the west came woods, fruits, metals, musical instruments and Christianity. And that was just for starters.

7. Tibet, Tibet- Patrick French

In 1999, French decided to go on a trip covering Tibet from west to east. The purpose of this trip was to demythicise and deromanticise Tibet. Although this is a land adored for peaceful spirituality, it reveals a surprising early history of fierce war-making and its equally fierce monks aka. Dob-dobs. What makes this book so engaging is that Patrick French writes this as a part memoir, part history book, part travelogue, part narrative and part political analysis. The author also reminds readers that the Tibetan empire once stretched as far as Afghanistan and its soldiers laid siege to Samarkand. As Tibet’s influence waned, its king was dragged in shame through the streets of Baghdad, like, French writes, ‘a downed American pilot.’
As a travel writer he paints us a picture of Tibet as a harsh, remote untouched land and nearly the most sparsely populated. A land of blue sheep ringed by snow peaks and impassable high-altitude deserts, dropping to fields of jasmine and turquoise lakes…quite seductive.

8. The Marsh Arabs- by Wilfred Thesiger

During the years he spent among the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq—long before they were almost completely wiped out by Saddam Hussein—Wilfred Thesiger came to understand, admire, and share a way of life that had endured for many centuries. Traveling from village to village by canoe, he won acceptance by dispensing medicine and treating the sick. In this account of a nearly lost civilization, he pays tribute to the hospitality, loyalty, courage, and endurance of the people, and describes their impressive reed houses, the waterways and lakes teeming with wildlife, the herding of buffalo and hunting of wild boar, moments of tragedy, and moments of pure comedy in vivid, engaging detail.

9. The Snow Leopard- by Peter Matthiessen

When Peter Matthiessen set out with the field biologist George Schaller from Pokhara, in northwest Nepal, their hope was to reach the Crystal Mountain — a foot journey of 250 miles or more across the Himalaya — in the Land of Dolpo, on the Tibetan plateau. Since they wished to observe the late-autumn rut of the bharal, or Himalayan blue sheep, they undertook their trek as winter snows were sweeping into the high passes, and five weeks were required to reach their destination. At Shey Compaa, a very ancient Buddhist shrine on the Crystal Mountain, the Lama had forbidden all killing of wild animals, and bharal were said to be numerous and easily observed. Where they were numerous there was bound to appear that rarest and most beautiful of the great cats, the snow leopard. Hope of glimpsing this near-mythic beast in the Snow Mountains would be reason enough for the entire journey.

10. The Lawless Roads- by Graham Greene

Greene wanted to examine firsthand a situation that troubled him. The Mexican Catholic Church was being systematically oppressed by the anti-clerical government of President Calles in the late 1930s. Struggling with very limited Spanish, traveling by trains, taxis and donkey-back, constantly prey to dysentery, Greene found his way to Chiapas, a state in southern Mexico whose history of oppression and rebellion continues unabated to this day. The guides sneered, the people were primitive, the relics and catacombs were cramped, barren, uninspiring. Greene’s Mexico is dusty, ailing, and acrid.

11. The Mirror of the sea- Joseph Conrad

Every sentence is a gem. Sentences deserve to be read and reread and reread. Strictly reflection, and not a novel, given love offers up the character and the characters of the sea. Rather selflessly too, given Conrad rarely uses I. Still here, in the mirror, he writes in first person.

12. Scrambles Amongst the Alps by Edward Whymper

Account of numerous first ascents and other exploratory climbs in the Alps during the golden age of mountaineering, all woven around the ongoing obsession with being the first to scale the Matterhorn. The book culminates with that famous climb and the terrible accident during the descent.

13. Roughing It- by Mark Twain

It’s not often you get to read a travelogue that takes you through such a variety of localities and events, which features amusing yet revealing personal meetings with historically important figures, such as Brigham Young, and yet has been written by a renowned author. With his usual humor, and plenty of exaggerated description, Twain leads the reader west by stagecoach to the mining fields of Virginia City in Nevada, where he spent considerable time, and thence on to California, finally even going on to Hawaii, where he meets the redoubtable queen of those islands. By turns hilarious and fascinating.

14. Dersu the Trapper by Vladimir Arseniev

Arseniev was a surveyor-explorer working for the Czar’s government around the turn of the century, and assigned to do a series of explorations in the Russian Far East, along the Pacific. He found as a guide an old native hunter, Dersu, and his tales of adventures in the ensuing years, among the forests of Siberia, and the relationship between himself, a man of the city and modern civilization, and Dersu, a true man of nature, who lived alone all year as a wandering hunter, are fascinating and often enlightening reading.

15. Over the High Passes by Christina Noble

Christina Noble spent a year in the Indian Himalaya and the plains of Punjab, with the nomadic Gaddi people and their flocks, following them and living with them as they moved from the plains into the Himalaya to their high pastures. Exhilarating and refreshingly optimistic, her narrative tells of the people with whom she lived and came to know, and of their adventures together among some of the roughest mountain terrain in the world. Well written, this book helps us understand that other ways of life are as good as our own, and that the adventures we seek are just the stuff of daily life for many people in the world.

Here are two links related to travel literature:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Travel_literature
http://www.travelliterature.org/