By Dr. Vidagdha Bennett

Most tourists arrive in Kolkata clutching the latest guidebook to India as if it were a lifeline tossed in a stormy and troubled sea. The 2007 edition from Lonely Planet, to take one popular example, is reassuringly crammed with well-researched facts on all the practical aspects of travelling in the sub-continent. The section on Kolkata prescribes exactly what to do, where to stay according to your budget, places to eat – and how to exit the city rapidly once you have exhausted the slender range of options that are listed. In practice, I found that this tome is, without doubt, a compendium of vital information should you happen to be a ‘casual’ traveller, someone who is just passing through the city on the way to, say, Darjeeling or Varanasi, someone who wants to skim the surface and cross Kolkata off the list of 100 places you hoped to see before you die.

But I was not. Kolkata has been such a rich and vibrant presence in my imagination for more than thirty years that my first trip to this cradle of spirituality, literature, music and art had become more a pilgrimage than an excursion. For me, Kolkata was not on the way to anywhere; it was a destination in itself. Having sacrificed valuable space in my suitcase for the whopping 1,236-page, one kilo Lonely Planet doorstopper, I consulted it religiously in the first instance to find somewhere decent and economical to stay. From its excellent maps, I memorised the basic layout of the streets. Then, a few days later, I sold it to a second-hand bookstore and launched into life beyond its carefully regimented scope.

After a month of exploring the city on my own, my experiences have led me to believe that Kolkata is one of those great destinations in the world that warrant a vastly different approach to tourism. To me, the worst aspects of our Western attitude to travel are summed up by Sir Edmund Hillary’s statement after he became the first person to summit Mount Everest: “We knocked the bastard off,” he declared when he arrived back at base camp with Tenzing after their victorious ascent of the world’s highest peak on May 29th, 1953.

Hillary had climbed the holy mountain Chomolungma, “Mother Goddess of the Universe”, whose snowy slopes no Tibetan or Nepali had previously dared to desecrate. Even now, sherpas perform elaborate pujas to ask for the blessings of the mountain before starting out on an expedition. At every step of the way, they invoke her compassion. To Hillary, this sense of the sacred, this devotion, this reverence for a mere mountain – an upsurge of marine limestone caused by a collision of the earth’s tectonic plates – was so much baloney. In fact, his dismissal of these deeply ingrained beliefs was so absolute that he used language which to the Indian, Nepali and Tibetan cultures contained the most abusive of all references, language which, in truth, shamed our Western culture. And even now, fifty-five years on, his attitude is reproduced in the phraseology of those travellers who boast that they have “done India” or some other remote and exotic locale.

Unfortunately, it seems that the current trend in guidebooks reinforces this soulless approach. We have only to look at the pressurised way in which information is gathered to ascertain their priorities. Tony Wheeler, co-founder with his wife Maureen of Lonely Planet, somewhat disturbingly describes his company’s research process in his book “Once While Travelling: The Lonely Planet Story” (Viking: 2005):

“Guidebooks are perishable commodities; the information quickly dates, so once you start work you must push through to the end as rapidly as you can. As a result, guidebooks are researched at breakneck pace. There’s no time to sit around and soak up the atmosphere…”
(p. 243)

In other words, no time to ‘see’, only to look. Fortunately, there has always been another kind of traveller, a traveller for whom logging countless miles to look at something is not enough. For these travellers, each journey is born of a purpose – it is a search for meaning, an act of devotion. Phil Cousineau, in his wonderful book “The Art of Pilgrimage” (Conari Press: 1998) writes:

“For millennia, this cry in the heart for embarking upon a meaningful journey has been answered by pilgrimage, a transformative journey to a sacred centre. It calls for a journey to a holy site associated with gods, saints, or heroes, or to a natural setting imbued with spiritual power, or to a revered temple to seek counsel.” (xxiii)

And spiritual Master Sri Chinmoy assures us:

          Shall forever last.

Essentially, what defines a pilgrim is the ability to be moved by something, to respond with heart and soul, to cross that invisible divide between past and present, so that the past lives and breathes vividly and intensely. It is our receptivity to the dreams and aspirations of the past, our urge to experience life through the eyes of a saint or a genius or a hero. This is the hope we carry in our hearts when we imbue our journey with an element of the sacred. And we risk all, offer all, pass through endless difficulties and trials to fulfil it.

Equally, we may start out as tourists and be so swept away by the power of a place that our journey is quite unexpectedly transformed into a pilgrimage and we find ourselves returning to that place or object over and over in our imagination.

Quite frankly, what is required of a tourist, other than the means to travel? He may derive pleasure from his adventures, but he is not required to give of himself or be touched in any way by what he sees.
He remains a foreigner, a bystander, someone who chooses to maintain a degree of separation from what he has journeyed so far to gaze at.

Sri Chinmoy expresses this difference between soulless and soulful travel in an imagined conversation between man and God:

“Father, I love to travel.”
                    “Son, I travel to love.”

Even if they acknowledge the large numbers of pilgrims moving invisibly around the world, how can the directors of guidebooks possibly adjust what has become an internationally successful publishing formula? How can guidebooks be re-invented to meet the needs of today’s pilgrim-travellers?

I believe that guidebooks would benefit by focussing on what endures, rather than what changes, and by recognising that it is more important to inspire than to inform. Imagine coming across a slim volume called “The Kolkata Guidebook for Writers”. Perhaps it would contain detailed maps of Kolkata showing the homes of Rabindranath Tagore, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Vidyasagar, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, D.L. Roy, Jibananda Das and a host of others. Perhaps it could show the precise place in Sudder Street where Tagore wrote his immortal poem “The Awakening of the Fountain.” It would describe where to find the gravesite of Michael Madhusudan Dutt with its deeply moving epitaph:

“Stop a while, traveller!
          Should Mother Bengal claim thee for her son.
          As a child takes repose on his mother’s
                    Elysian lap,
          Even so, here in the Long Home,
          On the bosom of the earth,
          Enjoys the sweet eternal sleep
          Poet Madhusudan of the Duttas.”

(Translated into English by Sri Chinmoy)

My Kolkata Guidebook for Writers would include directions to the cell in Alipore Jail where the great spiritual leader and epic poet Sri Aurobindo was interned on charges of sedition in 1908. The book would also showcase the works of contemporary Bengali writers, such as Sankar, Amitav Ghose and Buddhadev Bose. It would detail the history and development of College Street and the Kolkata Book Fair, list the major bookstores and publishers, give directions to the favourite hang-outs of Bengali writers, perhaps include a section on where visiting writers could submit their articles and poems for publication, where they could participate in readings or find translation services.

I would offer separate guidebooks for lovers of music, art and film, for spiritual seekers, for students of architecture and photography, for gourmets wishing to acquire or merely taste the delights of authentic Bengali cooking, for those who would like to explore the city on foot or bicycle, for those who yearn to serve on a volunteer basis at Mother Teresa’s homes or similar foundations, for those wishing to stay and work in Kolkata, for sports fans, for shoppers, for scholars and researchers, and, finally, for those interested in tracing the footsteps of Bengal’s heroic freedom-fighters.

In short, I would offer a plethora of in-depth specialist guidebooks, preferably written by Bengalis, for this most fascinating of all cities. True, they would forfeit all pretence at being comprehensive. But perhaps they would achieve something far more important: perhaps they would evoke an imaginative and inspired response in the minds and hearts of travellers.


Picture: Unmesh Swanson – Traffic in Kolkata, Sri Chinmoy Centre Galleries

Comments are closed.