Roads to Nowhere

In Pondicherry where I live they say that even if one were to trip and fall one would fall full length only at the feet of some deity or other! There are ever so many temples and places of worship and sanctity in these parts that our developing townships and the planners of the powers-that-be find it so very difficult to widen and modify the roads to suit their convenience: they have to deal with temple structures sometimes plump in the middle of the motorways. However, being caught in the roads to development our state government finds itself forced to tear down and modify old places of worship, sometimes (or most often) much to the chagrin of the devout. An occasion tussle or political tug-of-war might ensue, but eventually the development-factor gets the upper hand, and the roads are laid and temples later conveniently rebuilt elsewhere.

Roads in these parts of the world have evolved over the centuries from the older footpaths and cart tracks of an earlier era—they are not the well-planned off-springs of a city designed for the present days.  In those days perhaps these pathways necessarily would have winded through the sanctified points in the compass of simpler ways of living. The way-farer would have desired to touch upon these significant places, rest or even dwell beside the same for a brief period before setting forth again. Of course religion and religious beliefs were the mainstay in determining ways of living here as with most old cultures. And now, all of a sudden when we have progressed ever so fast on transport and technology the temple structures have suddenly become block-holes to traffic. They have even become superfluous and outmoded, very much like our older generation that finds so little space for itself in the fast-track culture of youngistan!

In the elite University campus where I live there are many trees and tree-clumps that ebb and flow with tides of the monsoons. Some of the greenery in these parts still can boast of long term heredity as being indigenous to the semi-dry east-coast tropics on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. Our high-tension electricity lines are drawn for the most above and across these tree clumps that when the tropical storms rage and drive through them the charge sometimes could easily be outraged and we have to suffer many a long dark night without power.  I have often heard people otherwise quite knowledgeable about many things curse the trees and even opining that they ought to tear down the trees that cause so many problems! Perhaps there is little difference between these electrical highways and the motorways of our developing cities. I am often left wondering why instead of drawing these lines over the green belt we don’t invest a little more and draw them through the other clearer, already denuded parts of our campus. These are perhaps the exigencies of modern life so very much like the highways and byways of traffic that becomes our urban living.

Roads are the nerves of our modern-day civilization and one cannot even imagine a country without roads. In fact we could say that our essential societal structure is founded on and depends on the breaking of new-wood and laying roads.  Does it by extension become the arch writing that Jacques Derrida talks about?   In the deep dark woods of the early dawn of human culture when the first homo erectus stood up and walked through and laid the first ever track there was no sense of divide and separation but one only of a nameless sense of direction of the left and the right, the front and the back. Of course as life evolved in due course there was a sequential trail of smell and sense that made out for mental maps and directions as well.  Paths and roads made ways for communities and social groups to keep up, interact and cohere.  All roads ultimately lead back to where one started from. Traveler, says and Arabian proverb, there are no paths! Paths are made by walking!    

As I traverse slowly on this mud-track through the grass carefully avoiding the rain filled ditches, I hear the harsh notes of the Black Drongo and the sweet melodious fruity call of the Golden Oriole.  At the edge of the tree line I come across newly felled trees and raked up soil.  The red earth is breathing still. All trees and bushes are fated to make way for the growing human needs.  All birds and insects like all mammals and reptiles have to stand aside to let the juggernaut of the human machine to slide by. Some are lucky enough to adapt to and be adopted by new habitats and newer environments. Some are not so lucky, and are forced to resist and fall. The maps of human evolution and the environment are constantly altered and the roads run calmly on and on. Like these red ants that scurry along in silent lines and like the unseen energy that flows through the high tension wires we too move, trying to find new and newer paths.

My times like my environment are definitely changing. In my boyhood for us to behold a casual tourist in our village was a cause for celebration.  All of us brats would perhaps run after the unfortunate guy and stand around and simply stare.  If they were from another land and in another costume we would gape open-mouthed not knowing the finer aspects of civilization that staring is such a bad habit! We took our way of life and our own nineteen streets so very much for granted that our world closed around them. All beings from beyond were aliens and hence strange. Nowadays tourism itself is considered as a culture of its own—we speak so proudly about tourism in terms of cultural history and the economics of urban development.  Tourists are an inevitable contingent of every developing nation.  The fanciest term these days is eco-tourism.  We cater to the professed lover of nature—the eco tourist—who roams the country and gapes upon “nature and human nature” with the same benign expression of those children of our old times. Eco tourism opens up new inroads into the wild and the seemingly untouched.  The eco tourist is invited into the virgin forest to trace the tracks of peaceful and healthy living! Those silent mountains and deep green forests that I have secretly enjoyed in my own mighty solitude have now become the common property of many prying vagrant touristy eyes! How could they ever enjoy the profundity of wilderness if they keep on laying broader and broader roads? This is so very much in the spirit of the cartoon that I recall from an old newspaper depicting the city tourist asking eagerly of the tourist guide while they settle for the night in their camping site: where do I plug in my electric blanket?

What is wild? Is it something that stands counter to the domesticated and the friendly? Is wild the other side of our cultural habitat? Is it where our children should not trek lest they be swallowed into the unknown? Is it where the savages lurk who do not belong to our known territories? Is it the periphery of our centres? The end of our roads, perhaps? Can we ever know it for what it is?

Robert Frost has a poem that presents a dark wood from within which a thrush song beckons the passer- by to come in. Is it a welcome song or a sign of something sinister that lurks and lures beyond the known and tested? But then, paths are made by walking and walking leads us to the unknown.  It leads us to new signs of front and back and left and right, up and below. In the wild our world of relatives and the known collapse—we are left to face the presence of the unknown.  The pathless woods are virgin deeps. And to sense the unknown we need a path. The paradox becomes more complex as we reach into spiritual truths. In the wild we return to reason and faith, noted the American philosopher Emerson. The Victorian poet Browning writes: Ah that man’s reach should exceed his grasp/ or what’s a heaven for?  To reach into the unknown we need to tame it and know it and in the process it simply ceases to be what it was!

The worm glides majestically over the thorns; the rose blooms silently on the left and right of the winding path. The steely blue sky is a tight curtain drawn in the sunlight. The mist rises slowly and I can see right up to the bend in the horizon. The red earth is breathing still.  Even the huge electrical grids with their high-rise spires and their welter of high-tension wires have never appeared so beautiful like now. Did I stray far from my well-worn path?  Or have I left all paths and taken that road to nowhere?


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