What does “foreign” mean? What exactly is foreign about a foreign country? The instant answer is “distant”, but distance is deceptive. The Indian middle class is far closer to America than it is to Pakistan. It takes less time to reach Tashkent from Delhi than it does to arrive in Trivandrum, but we know which one is the foreign city. Till partition ravaged hearts and minds Peshawar was part of the psychological home of the Punjabi living in Delhi and a Malayali so far away that he was called a Madrasi. Today Peshawar is part of either family romance or nightmare; and Kerala an Indian tourist destination.
The visual is part of the rationale for travel, but internet has turned information into a horizontal flat line; is there anything really foreign in the age of internet? The honest answer might still be yes, but remain on the lookout for shifting responses.
Is nature the great variant? I am writing this early on a summer morning, in Vancouver. The sun has just begun to climb sagely over mountains dressed in forest and fading snow, an undulating panorama that stretches across a sparkling horizon. Below, seaplanes rise noisily from a pond-surface Pacific, ferrying passengers to a splurge of miniature islands in the bay, past large cargo ships that look as lazy as seagulls until they disappear. But nature is majestic and startling everywhere. The Himalaya is in one world; the Rajasthan desert in another; and the Kerala rainforest in a third, but they are not foreign to one another. They belong to a natural geography that lives beyond the insularity of manmade divisions.
It is human nature that separates the earth into compartments, ever fighting to cut them into smaller pieces, never finding the rationale or spirit to expand them. Travel is a temporary door through such compartments; but what is the difference that you discover? The human being is the same in essentials. The eyes may slant differently in Alaska or Mongolia, and the skin acquire a different hue in Africa, but everyone has the same organs, and uses them for the same reasons.
What is different, and therefore worth travelling for, is culture. Heaven knows who put this word on a pedestal, and turned into a synonym for rarefied activity. The most exciting exposition of culture is at the mass level, visible in laughter and temptation on the street or in the home. Television has married the two, and then spun it off into a mass market, by making the common emotions of a community into a profitable commodity for home consumption. It requires great insight to spot the genius of a successful soap opera or reality show.
Obviously a TV reality show is as fake as any formula. When an American icon like Jerry Springer sets up his daily dose of visual marijuana, he never changes the component parts: sex, rejection, sex, competition, sex, violence between rivals, sex and youth. The audience is as pre-programmed as the players, and I do not mean merely the studio audience. Everyone watching this morning show has been programmed into suspending disbelief. But this works only in the culture of its breeding ground. From the keyhole of another society, this is utter stupidity gone rampant. On the stage of its intended viewers it is as entertaining as a wrestling match packed with simulated body hits that are as untrue as the grunts. It works. It makes money.
The fundamentals of capitalism are not terribly sophisticated. The capitalist sells fat for one half of your life so that he can sell obesity cures for the other half. But the enormous strength of the market lies in the ability of the manufacturer to persuade you, through advertising, that he is doing you a favour. A successful business understands parts of the buyer’s psyche that the latter barely knows existed.
It is not logic that keeps this balance sheet healthy. American billboards in Pittsburgh are selling clothes by keeping pretty models as bereft of them as possible. Logic suggests otherwise: if I want to buy clothes, I expect to see their presence, not their absence. But less is more when it is fed into your imagination. Imagination leads you to the prison cell known as the shop. Once inside that cell, you have to pay for the key that will return you to reality. The problem with socialism, and perhaps an important reason why it failed, was not the lack of clothes, but the lack of imagination. Man does not live by bread alone. And neither does the woman.
There is sufficient motivation for travel: the human being might be the same set of bones everywhere, but life is also different everywhere. But don’t make travel didactic. The search for morality, or the lack of it, is merely the pompous face of an inferiority complex. Bring the foreign back home as a pleasant memory, not as a lesson. We all laugh in our different ways, and thank God for this big mercy.