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In Search of the Lost Travellers: Tradition of Travel in the Bengali Milieu

By Sayan Aich Bhowmik

Travelling in India as Indians presents a curious conundrum. Nowhere in the world are you a tourist in your own country. Here in India, a land so diverse, with its pluralistic culture and language, it can be said that one is visiting different countries. Even in my personal travels, I have been greeted with the quintessential identity label of a ‘Bengali Tourist’. Now whether that tagline had been thrown at me as a compliment or as a mark of derision, it took me a while to figure out. I later came to the conclusion that in most cases it was meant as a barb, referring to several Bengali traveller traits, one being their being spendthrift (much unfairly I might add), and the other the fact that a Bengali traveller/tourist is, in general, well aware of the cities/towns and their histories and thus more difficult to be trapped in the exultant rhetoric of tourist-guides.

What I am leading to is not the notion of a Bengali Traveller per say, but rather the reasons why travelling forms such a massive part in the Bengali annual itinerary. In the globalised world, where boundaries are shrinking and distances apparently collapsing, it is only natural that ‘tourism’ would be a fair flourishing business. But my focus would be on the pre-internet and pre-Lonely Planet days. Days where one would have to stand in a serpentine queue at the railway booking offices before the first break of dawn (specially to book tickets for the Durga Puja holidays), save themselves from being cheated by touts, plan and execute for a vacation, sometimes travelling across half the length of the country. This passion for travelling in the community’s gene may, in my opinion, be traced back to two things – a literary repertoire of narratives in which either the central characters are weaving tales of their travels or are actually travellers themselves, and the second being a Wordsworthian idea of nature being a nurse or a healer, embalming the tired soul, weary of the clash and din of city life.

In the cinematic version of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Mr. Ganguly (played brilliantly by Irrfan Khan) meets the old and garrulous Mr. Ghosh in the train compartment. The latter tries to exhort our young hero to travel the world, to which Irrfan responds, that his grandfather would always tell him, “That’s what books are for. You can travel without moving an inch.” The young Bengali reader inherited a particular type/stock character from various literary sources. This was the ‘dada’ (the elder brother, or the further shortened form, the monosyllabic ‘da’). Characters like Tenida (created by Narayan Gangopadhyay), Ghonada (created by Premendra Mitra), Feluda, the most famous Bengali sleuth (Satyajit Ray was the author of the 30 odd Feluda adventures) have not only enriched Bengali Literature, but have often  widened the horizon of imagination of teenagers and kids at their impressionable age and inspired other literary artists too. In fact, as Meenakshi Mukherjee points out in her essay, “Maps and Mirrors” on Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, the novel’s centrifugal force Tridib, whose tales border on the grey areas of lived adventures and fiction, may have been inspired by these ‘dada’ characters present in Bengali fiction. They are colourful characters, especially the likes of Tenida and Ghonada, and claim to have travelled extensively and accrued experiences as Protean as they can get. They do not lie, just present the truth through different filters.

These characters (with the exception of Ray’s creation, of course) carry within them an infinite repository of stories, some remotely believable, but most absolutely incredulous. Their power of narrative is such, and it is true that they often do command a faithful following of young readers, who follow their adventures in lands far and wide (sometimes extra-terrestrial, as in the case of Ghonada, who argues that he had been to Mars as elucidated in the story, “Mongol Grohe Ghonada”, roughly translated as “Ghonada in Mars”), that we indulge in the “willing suspension of disbelief” and lap up every bit of their imaginative creations. What these stories do is that they open up new vistas, new lands in front of us. One must remember, that at the time of publication of these stories, information was still not available at the click of a mouse and the average Bengali, middle class reader’s exposure to new landscapes and countries would be through these narratives. The tales, as I pointed out, do seem far-fetched, but the basis/groundwork of these tales are not. In fact, Premendra Mitra, in an interview to SPAN magazine, remarked, “Ghana-da is a teller of tall tales, but the tales always have a scientific basis. I try to keep them as factually correct and as authentic as possible.”

Satyajit Ray, who contributed immensely to the development of teen literature in Bengali, was another such author with a meticulous eye for detail. In many ways, Feluda is the ideal Bengali gentleman we all strive to be in our youth, trying to pick some of his habits and idiosyncrasies. With his adventures set in different parts of India and a few abroad (in London, Kathmandu, and one in Hong Kong), it led to an increase in travel to the various sites and cities Ray mentioned in his work and films. Thus, even today, we travel to Rajasthan trying to locate “The Golden Fortress”, marking off places which Ray mentions in his Feluda adventure. In fact, there had been a swell in Rajasthan tourism after the release of the film – Sonar Kella – based on the novella, with people from Bengal thronging the cities, gaining almost a vicarious pleasure in trying to re-live the adventure. A similar instance might be given regarding Darjeeling. An already popular hill station, Darjeeling tourism received a new lease of life after Ray set one of his Feluda adventures in the sleepy hill town. Even the famous Makaibari Tea Estate stated that their annual revenue had gone up once Feluda admitted in Bakshyo Rohoshyo that he is very finicky about the quality of the tea and orders his from this estate. In a way, he sets an unwritten guideline for travellers visiting new cities. Following the beloved detective, we are already reading up on our destination in travel guides, we mark the places of historical or social interest as places we ‘must’ visit (like Feluda visits Baker Street, when in London and The Residency, when in Lucknow). He is the ideal traveller in a way, whom we feel we must emulate.

What these adventures did was, in my opinion, create a kind of reference and most importantly ignite the passion to know the unknown and, to drop in a Stephen Greenblatt reference, ‘wonder’ at the marvels of a world whose windows had been opened up in front of us by characters, who straddle the borders of fact and fiction. Borders coalesce, new highways open up, and new places find mention in our vacation plans, handpicked from the sea of stories that have been churning since the last four to five decades in Bengali literature. Travel has enabled one to collect information, to witness marvels, to distinguish between legends and truth. It also represents a willingness to escape from cultural narrowness that attends knowing only one’s own people, enabling us to place familiar customs in relation to the customs of others and hence view the ordinary in a new light.

If one of the driving factors behind the surge in travel and tourism amongst the Bengalis was the presence of the kind of literature that I have just briefly touched upon, the other reason is mostly medical and prescriptive. Travelling to a new place, taking a break from the monotony of the city life would invariably lead to a refreshing of the mind and body, what  Wordsworth in  “Tintern Abbey” refers to as “that blessed mood,/In which the burthen of the mystery,/In which the heavy and the weary weight/Of all this unintelligible world is lightened.” Nature acting as a therapist or a nurse for the soul is a recurrent theme in Wordsworth’s poetry, and for a very long time, doctors and medical practitioners have advised or prescribed a change of scene (which in the Bengali parlance is referred to as “hawa bodol kora”). Now one must realise what Satyajit Ray so poignantly pointed out in one of the Feluda Stories (“Darjeeling Jomjomat”), basically that the state of West Bengal is an “Accident of Geography”. It has the Himalayas in the north, the sea beaches of Digha, Puri only a night’s journey away, the forest and the rivers of the Sunderbans situated at even a greater proximity. Thus, to the Bengali traveller, there was no dearth of option – there was always Darjeeling, Puri, Deoghar for a week’s getaway. It is true that in the recent years there has been a proliferation of resorts/sea-side getaways, but they are products of a very rapidly burgeoning eco-tourism industry.

Travel and tourism have always had a ripe and fertile market in West Bengal. With great business prospects come greater investments. A look at the leading newspapers’ Sunday Supplements would tell the interested party the number of travel and tourism clubs that have mushroomed over the years across the state. These clubs organise tours to every part of India, and sometimes abroad. Add to it the various travel shows that come on the local television channels and the burgeoning travel magazines. However, the gaze with which these shows/magazines instruct us to look at a place is seldom apolitical, value-neutral. More often than not, the traveller is made to succumb to the pressures of the globalised market that leads to a commodification of culture.

This might seem to be a kind of a colonial legacy. The chronicles of exploration in colonised India carried this agenda and sensation of ‘wonder’ that our ‘masters’ preached and felt when they visited India for the first time. As Greenblatt remarks, in Marvellous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, “The expression of wonder stands for all that cannot be understood, that can scarcely be believed.” The strength of the portrayal of the Indian landscape and its people lay in the shock of the unfamiliar, the provocation of an intense curiosity, and the local excitement of discontinuous wonders. Unfortunately, we still seem to be carrying this particular legacy into our travel and tourism industry. No longer do we travel to unchartered territories, but territories that are prescribed to us as worthy of a visit. “Not all those who wander are lost…,” said J. R. R. Tolkien but in today’s world of too much information, gone are the days travelling to get lost. The charm or the innocence that accompanied visiting a place imagined with precision by someone else has taken a backseat. In this age of the internet, of travel shows and brochures, of coming together of multiple cultures, one begins to travel even before s/he has booked the ticket.

Sayan Aich Bhowmik is Assistant Professor of English at Shirakole College (affiliated to the University of Calcutta). When not under the burden of checking answer scripts and meeting deadlines, he can be found nurturing his love for watching movies and writing poetry. A published poet, he is also the editor of the blog, Plato’s Caves, a semi-academic space for discussion on life, culture, and literature.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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