Anklets, airports and identity

Anklets, airports and identity

By Debotri Dhar | 16 April, 2016
Are not being at home and travelling two sides of the same coin?

This time in India, my sister gifted me a pretty pair of payals. These payals, or traditional anklets, are a joke in the family; I love them, and I lose them. Many pairs have disappeared without a trace in different cities, countries and continents, the magic tinkling of their tiny silver bells a distant memory. Hence in choosing her gift, the eternally optimistic sibling was courting troubled waters that others have long stopped wading into. During security check at the airport, I was wearing these payals when the metal detectors went off shrilly. A uniformed woman pressed around my ankles in alarm: “Kya lagaya hai yahan, Madam?” Upon discovering anklets and not a bomb—yes, these are the mad, mad times we live in—her facial muscles relaxed visibly. “Very few women wear these now, especially here,” she said with a smile, stamping my boarding pass. As I was thanking her and leaving the cubicle, she confided that she loved payals too but could not wear them with her uniform during work, unlike her stay-at-home female cousins in her native village. She missed her village, and its river, but liked her new friends in and out of work, and the little things she could do for herself and her family with her income that her cousins could not.

The suddenness of this confession to a stranger did not surprise. When the poet Faiz had been exiled from Pakistan, he wrote “Mere dil, mere musafir,” whose loveliest line is “Sar-e-kuu-e-naashanaya, humein din se raat karna/kabhi isse baat karna, kabhi usse baat karna,” about homes, homelessness, and random conversations with strangers.

An old friend says travellers understand each other. Yes, we understand the open-endedness of life’s journeys, the impermanence, the multiple truths, the many losses. Browsing in the airport’s books section, one was reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s haunting poem “One Art”. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master/so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost, that their loss is no disaster/places and names, where it was you meant to travel/I lost two cities, lovely ones, two rivers and a continent/but it wasn’t a disaster.” Yes, we learn to live with loss, and even to celebrate it.

Songs for the road: for lovers of Hindi cinema, S.D. Burman’s “Wahan kaun hai tera, musafir, jayega kahan (Traveller, who belongs to you, where will you go?)” from the classic Guide will remain forever seared in our hearts. Rabindranath Tagore had penned the powerful “Jodi tor dak shune keu na ashe, tobe ekla cholo re (if none heeds your call, then walk alone)” in Bangla, in recognition of an eternal truth: we are all travellers, and in our moments of deepest reckoning, we are always alone. Strangely enough, I also associate Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata with travel, perhaps because the moon looks the same in every country. Another old favourite is Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, first heard on a foggy evening in Amsterdam more than a decade ago, and in many world cities since: “I’ve looked at life from both sides now/from win and lose, and still somehow/It’s life’s illusions I recall/I really don’t know life at all.”

Can life and its vicissitudes ever be known, let alone mastered? I highly doubt it. What I do know is that our lives, our multiple identities, are always a little less than the sum of their parts, and always a little more. And that, like individuals, cultures too must keep evolving with time.

Change without continuity is often rejected, but continuity without change leads to ossification, stagnation, death.

Can life and its vicissitudes ever be known, let alone mastered? I highly doubt it. What I do know is that our lives, our multiple identities, are always a little less than the sum of their parts, and always a little more. And that, like individuals, cultures too must keep evolving with time.

I want to tell the unnamed woman at the airport that, despite the many differences that divide us, she and I are united by our love of unnamed rivers, and silver anklets, and by our grief that we cannot wear them to work.

Yet work brings its own little joys, as does travel. Life, dark as it can be, does have some silver linings: ancient memories, timeless friendships, creative journeys, books, songs, food, poetry. And, for some of us, our payals. No, I have not lost them this time.

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