When India was born in 1947, there were many, colonialists and pacifists alike, who swore that the country, too diverse, too fragmented and with little common cause, would not survive. India was an ambitious experiment, a postcolonial attempt at a liberal nation-state, a project so radical that it might have been collective doubt that forced the country to pull together and stand upright, tall, on the shoulders of Jawaharlal Nehru, who did the one thing we all ought to do more often--travel to the country's heartland, its edges, its pockets, its valleys, its nooks and its crannies.
It was his long treks across the country that won him favour in the early days. Despite his distance from the teeming masses in terms of upbringing, lifestyle and worldview, he was, in the 50s, a man that a great many revered. Maybe because, despite all the elements of his identity that could have alienated him from the country and its people, he found and created from his travels something unified about what was apparently disjointed. India may have grown exponentially since and may have overcome its existential uncertainty but Nehru's challenge, that of finding and building an inclusive yet cohesive national identity, remains as relevant, if not more. And travel still is our tool, our gift, a thread that can delicately weave together the patchwork quilt that is modern India.
Witnessing the large expanses of the Himalayan valleys accommodates those within us, gazing at the stars in clear Ladakhi skies reminds one that beauty is to be shared, walking through the labyrinthine roads of Old Delhi asserts that history has not yet ended--travel shows us that we can find things to love in the unknown. And if the unknown is too remote, travel makes us grapple with our bare, naked selves to carve out the familiar in what is seemingly foreign. And we realize, as the carefully drawn-out borders of our identities begin to shift, erase and sketch themselves again, that against all odds, we still belong.
We still belong.
In a world shaped by the contested relationships of modernity and tradition, self and other, good and evil, as well as by the struggles to create new fault lines and reinforce old lines of control in order to mark our ground and stake our claims, to belong, in spite of all these clashes is a powerful, powerful thing. And to know that it is the saltpans of Rajasthan, the wetlands of the Sundarbans, the peaks of the Pir Panjals, and the white sands of Kovalam that can restore us to ourselves is an act so great that it transcends the old and regurgitated dichotomies of identity, nation-state and politics.
How strange to think that it is transcendence that can root us so deeply to our material selves and surroundings. But travel reveals this, as Persian Sa'di once too did: "There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will."
In the same vein that it feeds our souls--and indeed, our rough-hewn but divine ends--and endows us with a manifest belonging to wherever it is we currently are, it reminds us of the right to belong that every single other person, no matter how different from us, is also entitled to. Those who live in far-flung villages of eastern Maharashtra and do not know what India is; those in Manipuri towns who feel greater affinity towards Korean pop culture than to Bollywood; those who unwittingly incur religious wrath by worshipping, as their forefathers have, Muslim Goddess Bonbibi--we are all bound together, not by our shared national identity but rather, by our innate right to belong.
And so we must travel, if we can, to witness India not as a landmass, a flag, a static monolith nation-state but rather as a microcosm of the universe, a butterfly that cannot be caught, a multifaceted paradox that exists above and beyond its well-ordered, tamed borders. Because if we choose to open our eyes this way, travelling around India could be, apart from a pleasure to the soul, a necessary political project of our times.