On travel

The late Mangala Moonesinghe was the High Commissioner in Delhi at the time I was an undergraduate student. He and his wife Gnana hosted, aside from the usual Independence Day celebrations at the High Commission in Chanakyapuri, a few of us for home cooked meals. These were treasured, not just for the flavours from back home but also the conversation, meandering through issues flagged in the last edition of The Economist, which the High Commissioner repeatedly noted was essential reading for any undergraduate, through to politics back home. We also often talked about travel, and the importance of it.

In the late 90s, the Sri Lankan student community in Delhi, largely from Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, exceeded seven hundred. We were the second largest foreign student community at the time, next to Mauritius. Delhi University was divided geographically between North and South Campus, and at the time – before the metro or ubiquity of Uber and Ola – there was little interaction between the students from either campus save for occasions when we would congregate at the High Commission. The Association of Sri Lankans in Delhi, which at one point I was the Secretary General of and Sasheendra Rajapaksa, the former President’s nephew, headed, also served as a platform for the student body to meet, markedly divided even at the time by language, class and the alma mater back home. Whenever he met us, the former High Commissioner made a simple point, and as often as he could. Travel in India at the time, especially by train, was cheap. He implored us to visit as many places as we could, and mingle with Indians as much we could.

India was more than a country – it was, and still is, a pot-pourri of flavour, sight, sound and smell, somehow entwined in a vast experiment that since 1947 incredibly succeeds, warts and all, in containing within the structure of a single country what is the diversity of many.  And yet, it was the case at the time that Sri Lankan students only ever mingled with, made friends or enemies out of, cooked, shared ingredients and recipes, went to College, movies or generally only ever spent time with other Sri Lankan students. Rooms and apartments were scouted and selected on the basis of proximity to other Sri Lankans. There were seniors at the time I entered University who for three or more years had never, or very rarely travelled out of Delhi. In essence, they came to Delhi, created little enclaves that were segregated by race and class, and never ventured out. This was evident in events that brought the community together – conversations were often around events, places and communities from back home, instead of new experiences, friends, places and sights from India. The tragedy of this was well understood by Mangala and Gnana, but I don’t think translated with any urgency to the student body writ large. This was a pity.

My travel bug began with India. The flight to New Delhi was my first. I was twenty at the time, and still have that Air Lanka ticket stub. There was no Gmail, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or smartphones. In fact, there were no mobile phones at all. Yahoo! offered a grand total of 5Mb, and aerogrammes were my primary mode of communication with friends. With the Kirori Mal College theatre group, ‘The Players’, we once travelled to a theatre festival in Bangalore at the National Law School, University of India, by train – first from Delhi to Chennai and then on to Pune, and finally, a local train to Bangalore. I cannot recall how many days it took, just one way. When travelling with a group, travel time is compressed into episodes of conversation and laughter. I do recall amazing mutton curry, lentils and rice served by the side of the train station in Chennai, our first proper meal after leaving Delhi. Every station offered through outstretched limb forced through window or acrobatic acts between slow moving train and platform a variety of flavours which had to be picked, bought and handed over in just a few minutes, at most. It was like living in the magic-realism of a McCurry photo, enveloped by the sheer number of people taking the train or seemingly living on the platforms, jostling for space with goats, cows, marigold adorned gods, snakes, chickens and the occasional piglet. In my final year, I packed all the books I had accumulated over three years and shipped them back to Colombo, opting to take the train right down to Trichy, or Tiruchirappalli as it is called now, instead of flying back straight from Delhi. The train takes you under the Western Ghats, through innumerable tunnels and hundreds of bridges, in what was at the time a journey that spanned days. And yet, a single return ticket to Jaffna from Colombo by air today would cost about the same as what I spent for all these journeys by train at the time – it was that ridiculously cheap.

I have since University travelled to over thirty countries, mostly on work. Invariably, some are loved more than others, but all offer an opportunity to engage with difference and diversity. Even to vehemently dislike, one must encounter, explore and engage. An early subscription by my father to National Geographic ensured I had the spatial recognition of a world beyond just what I could frame with my eyes, around me. An early introduction to travel without the trappings of luxury made me ready, even at short notice, to experience the journey in whatever form or route it took as much as the lure of a destination.  An enduring interest in travel remains at the heart of what I love to do, and now, with my son. His mother shares the bug, and I now find myself retracing their footsteps in countries and places I have yet to visit. The late High Commissioner’s repeated peroration to travel makes more sense today – for through it, I am able to see Sri Lanka, loved the most, anew – despite all what I and others say is wrong with it, or going awry. An old friend in Edinburgh recently said that it was easy now to travel out of Sri Lanka, but impossible to really leave it behind. Yet even before social media, I found that travel – from just across hallway, neighbourhood or city to region, province, country or continent – helped me to understand myself, my location, my skin and my gender. To travel is to realise the insignificance of what often one fights over, claims and argues for. Ethnic and other divisions in Sri Lanka, for example, are erased when stopped and questioned at immigration counters outside the country. To travel is also to reaffirm the values of a larger, like-minded, cosmopolitan liberalism over the parochialism of populism, which is on an ascendant today across the world. It is no surprise that along with this disturbing rise of intolerance comes the closure of borders, the erecting of walls, and the imposition of travel bans.

Travel remains, even in a world of immersive photography, virtual reality, social media and live streaming video, something that is best experienced actually doing. It is also deeply subversive, because to travel is to not just see, but observe, question and engage. I am deeply envious at present of a colleague who spends most weekends travelling to destinations in Sri Lanka I would love to go to. That envy, that yearning to go outside, risk an upset tummy, a stolen wallet or phone, a missed flight or train, to get hopelessly lost, is in essence what is politically so explosive – for it forces you to engage with a world beyond that which is handed down to you or framed for political or personal gain. When you realise through travel that we are all equally afraid of and interested in much the same things, our border controls, protectionism, quotas, segregation, othering through fear and hate make much less sense.

This is why travel is so important. I just wish more of us, at the time, listened to the late High Commissioner.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 5 March 2017.

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