Everyone has a place they return to time and again or a thing they simply can’t resist while on vacation. Think beloved mountains or beaches, spas, street food, an 18-hole course or bungee jumping, et cetera. For me, it’s World Heritage Sites*: majestic reminders of a glorious, often mysterious past, scattered all over the globe, to be guided through, explored solo, photographed and cherished.
My search for such sites led me to Lothal — an enigmatic lost port-city, one of the central characters in the mysterious drama of the subcontinent’s origins. Part of a national obsession – the Indus Valley Civilisation: perpetually hiding in plain sight, its broken cities scattered across the north and west. Its script continues undeciphered, its story always tantalisingly beyond reach — confined, until that moment, within the yellowing pages of my schoolboy history books, with their prim descriptions of planned cities, streets meeting at right angles, baked bricks and standardised weights.
At a distance of just 80km from my hotel, Lothal was perfect. Lying forgotten in its ruinous state, Lothal was perfect.
Gujarat’s well-laid roads zipped past as we hurtled towards our destination. Bountiful rains this year, the driver Ratan informed me curtly, as we passed soaked paddy fields that glittered in the morning sun. Unprecedented. Looking out at the gentle, jovial cumulus clouds that glided past, I prayed that they withhold their yield until at least that evening.
Zafar Anjum writes about his Shanghai trip in 2011
Initially I was not sure if I was going to Shanghai at all, but the visa came through. I had tried once before but was not lucky enough to get the visa (in that instance, the paperwork was not complete and so on; it’s a long story). I was totally unprepared for the journey this time. This was one of those rare journeys which I undertook without reading anything about the city that I was visiting. I think there was some innocence about this unpreparedness, this ignorance. I took Shanghai as she revealed herself to me. I didn’t go there with any fixed images, so I was neither overwhelmed nor underwhelmed when I stepped into Shanghai.
Before going to Shanghai, one of my colleagues had shown me pictures of his visit to the city nearly ten years ago. In his collection, there were pictures of skyscrapers, the famous Bund, and some Chinese temples. In the pictures, the sky looked muddy, overcast with smog. Only that image of a smog-laden Shanghai stayed with me. Avoid the beggars in Shanghai, my colleague warned me. There will be plenty of them and they will approach foreigners like you, he said. I noted his advice. From my Indian experience I knew how to avoid beggars, so I was not worried about encountering them.
Title: Beyond the Himalayas Journeying through the Silk Route
Text: Goutam Ghose, Michael Haggaig
Photographs: Goutam Ghose
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Date of publication: 2019
Beyond the Himalayas Journeying through the Silk Route is joint collaboration by award-winning Indian filmmaker Gautam Ghose and British writer and producer, Michael Haggiag. Ghose in his introduction has named this venture ‘a film-book’ because it is based on his five-part documentary, a cinematic marvel, also named Beyond The Himalayas.
Made in 1996, his documentary had been screened extensively on Doordarshan (India), Discovery and BBC in the late 1990s. The book, Beyond the Himalayas, commemorates the silver jubilee of the journey he undertook to make the documentary in 1994. Ghose writes in his introduction:“The so-called ‘present’ is a fraction of fractions betweenthe past and the future and hence the present moments are stored in our memory as recent or remote past. …. This book narrates one such vivid memory , a once-in-a-lifetime kind of adventure.”
In his introduction to the book, Ghose reveals how he came across old negatives and slides which featured their journey through the meandering valleys and endless deserts of the fabled Silk Road more than two decades ago in a ‘caravan’ of jeeps. Breath-taking reproductions of these negatives and slides intersperse the narrative which is based on the script of the documentary.
Siddharth Dasgupta is an Indian poet, novelist, and travel journalist. His words have appeared in global literary journals such as Litro, Entropy, Cha, Punch, The Bombay Literary Review, Coldnoon, and Burning House, included. He also undertakes cultural immersions with the likes of Travel + Leisure, National Geographic Traveller, and Harper’s Bazaar. He has three books to his name thus far; the short-story collection The Sacred Sorrow of Sparrows and the poetry collection The Wanderlust Conspiracy emerged in 2017. Siddharth is currently looking to secure an adequately courageous publisher for his next literary release – a new collection of poetry. He writes at https://citizenbliss.squarespace.com | @citizen.bliss
Pervin: You’ve worked with the long-form and the short-form of fiction, as well as with various kinds of verses. What are your reflections on the processes behind all of these? In what ways are all three distinctly demanding and fulfilling?
Siddharth: The most compelling thrill for me in all of this is not knowing what comes next, and not knowing how exactly to control or demarcate ‘the process’ once it finally does arrive. In that sense, I treat each form the same – as an arrival with whom a courtship needs to be formed over time. Whether this leads to a relationship that is thrillingly brief or a drawn-out epic, sometimes manifesting itself over years, the frame of mind doesn’t actually alter itself all that much. You simply go in with the knowledge that with some journeys you’re going to have to buckle in for the long ride, while with some it’s more of a ‘wham-bam-Amsterdam’ time frame. Novels and stories will test time, patience, friendships, and perceived ideas of sanity. Poetry will test line lengths, dance forms, the heart, and an almirah of desires. The sense of fulfilment from both is proportionate, and dare I say it, contagious.
Pervin: Your work is very firmly anchored in various geographies, whether remembered or imagined or explored, and yet, there is rootlessness, a wandering, a yearning that characterizes your narratives. Where does this absorption with nostalgia and voyaging come from? And do you use place to actually talk about time?
Siddharth: I find this shared habitat between lastingness and rootlessness to be an entirely natural one. It speaks to our human existence as a motley crew of nomads, refugees, and wanderers. A sense of movement has always been integral to my life; it’s only natural that this state of being would extend to my life as a writer as well. It’s often been second nature to find myself at home, or at least something resembling home, at different places in the world. Concurrently though, I’ve found that you can very well be in a specific place at a specific point in time, and yet find yourself longing for it. You’re right: I think nostalgia lies at the heart of it. Some of us were assembled in that manner, I suppose, with a deep ache for another time and other horizons resident as permanent companion in our lives, nestled peacefully beside this to-and-fro between finding home in different longitudinal addresses and fleeing. In my literature, place is often the strongest indicator of time, even more so than character. A place doesn’t have to speak or gesticulate or enter into lengthy monologues; a place simply conveys.