Thursday, 10 March 2022

The language of War

 The language of war, of destruction and killing is everywhere, it comes easily to us. Even if you only occasionally watch, listen to, or read the news, you cannot escape it. The words create images that permeate the brain, clouding perception of the immediate and darkening what might lie ahead.

‘Peace is boring,’ she said with the certainty of a thirteen-year-old. ‘If we all lived in peace life would be very boring.’

Every time another wave of organised violence crashes down upon innocent occupants in their flats and houses; their lives exploding with horror and misery, I am reminded of this girl’s words in that class of children some fifteen years ago. There was an imperceptible murmur of agreement from a few, but mostly there was a profound silence. It may be true that we have become slaves to entertainment and crave excitement and stimulation in our passive and disconnected lives; but it is certainly true that there is part of us buried deep within our minds and hearts that yearns for stillness, calm and tranquility.

Our advancing technologies and scientific innovations continue to give the illusion of the progress of humanity, that time is an unstoppable process from one success to another, constant improvement. However, we know that this is not the case as we remain in the thrall of hatred, division, fear, and greed. Our relationships are built on ever shifting ground and we are constantly looking for safety through power and material security.

In Yemen, in Afghanistan, in Myanmar and now in Ukraine, to live in peace is what the vast proportion of these populations want. They want to go about their lives with their families and friends without the threat of being destroyed by bombs, bullets, shells, and rockets. Meanwhile, weapons are being bought and sold through the multi-billion-pound arms trade, and new, more effective, weapons are being researched and produced. There is much profit to be had in killing our fellow human beings under the euphemistically named ‘defence industry’.


‘This is, I’m afraid a very naïve piece of writing. You cannot believe that what you have written here could possibly happen... It’s rubbish really.’

The teacher tosses the piece of paper towards me with disdain. After all this man was high up in the Sudanese Colonial Police Force before he became a teacher, he had sentenced people to death. The British Empire was not built on the ideas of this foolish boy.

I am about fifteen years old, sitting in a class of boys in a boarding school in 1967. I had written an essay in support of the phasing out of all nuclear weapons. I had argued that these weapons threatened the very existence of the human species, and that it was only a matter of time before a powerful leader with access to nuclear bombs and missiles would threaten to use them. Once the threat was out then it would only be a short step to their actual deployment.

The teacher turns when he reaches his desk and, with a withering look, says,’ Nuclear weapons have made the world a safe place.’


The year before this took place, I was sitting in the school chapel enduring another daily compulsory school service conducted by the chaplain. I sat, like most of the boys there, reducing whatever went on to a background noise to whatever daydream I chose to conjure up. My years at boarding schools had convinced me of the astounding hypocrisy of the teachers, professing the love of Jesus on one hand and yet treating us with continuous aggression and cruelty. Like many of my peers, I was keenly aware of what was happening in Vietnam, in the USA and the increasing solidarity among young people in protesting against the war. Much of the music we were listening to proclaimed peace and unity. 

I heard the Chaplain read from the Sermon on the Mount and my attention was caught by the words of compassion, humility, and care for those who were suffering. If the meek were to inherit the Earth, then surely the arrogant, the greedy and the powerful were going to destroy it.


Peace is not boring – living in tranquility and harmony is the only way we are going to be able to address the challenges that face us. Not only a war where there is a distinct possibility of the use of nuclear weapons, but also climate breakdown and serious global economic meltdown. But we love conflict, we love to oppose, to compete, to compare, to be superior and powerful. We are entertained by the drama that is the tragedy of others. We are easily convinced that we have enemies who will destroy us, and, as the conflict in the east of Europe plays out on our screens, we become mesmerised by heroes and villains. We watch this story unfold and forget the refugees that are being driven from their homes by conflicts all over the world, forget the pain and suffering caused to so many by institutional violence. 


I must, after all, treat you with dignity, compassion and respect, for you are a fellow human being.


Tuesday, 15 February 2022

Teaching - the relationship that exists in learning.

 I stand and hold my five week old grandson in my arms. He lies, eyes wide open, searching my face, exploring the landscape of a new discovery. I watch him as he frowns with concentration and the effort of focusing. We hold our gazes. Suddenly, his mouth explodes into a wild, unruly smile. There is connection.

 

Arlo lives in Copenhagen, so I have not had the chance to hold him since then. Nevertheless, we have seen many times and have been able to watch him grow. The love his parents have for him is unfathomably deep. They are learning about him, and he is learning about them. They are teaching each other.

 

***

 

Learning is probably the most important activity in human society. Teaching is an integral part of the learning process. Learning and teaching are the processes that ensure our survival, and they do not rely on specialists. Instead, the reliance is on the relationship between the teacher and the child, upon the very essence that nurtures our lives which is love, care, affection. Our modern society does not recognise this, in fact it would state that our survival is dependent almost solely upon wealth, earning money to support ourselves, working hard to realise our material aspirations.

 

In the inaugural talk given at the Kanchipuram Nai Talim conference by Vinobe Bhave (Nai Talim is considered to mean ‘education for life’). He was a philosopher, teacher, advocate for non-violence and human rights, considered a National Teacher of India and successor to Gandhi. He stated that:

 

 ‘It is the egocentricity of the teacher that he thinks that he can teach. As long as we cherish this pride we’ll never be able to understand the essence of education.

 

To me this statement elicits two questions: What is teaching? and What is education? These questions must be asked when considering the relationship between the teacher and the taught. When Vinobe Bhave uses the word egocentricity he is defining the separation that exists in the process of teaching that creates the gulf between the one who knows and the one who is ignorant, that sense of superiority that can easily merge into arrogance. When this occurs, learning is almost always reduced to the mechanical activity of instruction and memorising.

 

Here I would suggest that the essence of education is dialogue, the meeting of minds. 

 

‘The relation in education is one of pure dialogue. I have referred to the child, lying with half-closed eyes waiting for his mother to speak to him. But many children do not need to wait, for they do know that they are unceasingly addressed in a dialogue which never breaks off. In the face of the lonely night which threatens to invade they lie preserved and guarded, invulnerable, clad in the silver mail of trust.

 

Trust, trust in the world, because this human being exists – that is the most inward achievement of the relation in education. Because this human exists, meaninglessness, however hard pressed you are by it, cannot be real truth. Because this human being exists, in the darkness the light lies hidden, in fear salvation, and in the callousness of one’s fellow men the great Love.’

 

This extract is from Between Man and Man by the philosopher Martin Buber published in 1948.

 

Before I continue, I want to point out that what we are exploring in the teacher-student relationship is not based on any sense of treating the student in some sentimental, romantic, or indulgent way. Instead, the reality is of awareness, understanding, and trust that acknowledges the existence of another, unique human being. In this relationship there is constant movement in limitless space because the focus is not on outcomes, not on conclusions.

 

This dialogue between beings unconstrained by time, not limited to words, and, therefore, free from fear is that of the meeting of friends. When there is trust there are no expectations and there is no manipulation, which gives rise to learning that spills over through boundaries of subject, content, and capacity.

 

 I would like to finish this piece with a quotation from ‘Education in a Time Between Two Worlds’ by Zachary Stein and published in 2019 in the USA –

 

School systems as we have known them have exhausted themselves and are becoming a dysfunctional part of the social system. It has now reached the point where schools have started to have the opposite of their intended effect. Even by the reductive standards of the human capital theory, most school systems are failing insofar as they are not equipping upcoming generations with the skills and dispositions needed to maintain key functions in economic and governmental institutions.’

 

This sets the context in which we now live, and will lead on to the next piece of writing in which I will dig more deeply into the teacher-student relationship and just how significant it is in meeting the world crisis.

 

 

 

 

Thursday, 27 January 2022

What do we need to change? A response.

Ten years ago, in April, I started writing this blog really to explore certain interests, and work on the quality of writing with the sense of a possible audience.  In that time it appears that I have written 70 blogs which neatly corresponds to the age I reached at the beginning of this month. The posts have been seen, not necessarily read, 25,500 times, and there have been a few comments. 


So I am beginning this year with the first in a series of essays on learning. This one is in response to question I received from a friend who lives in Udaipur, India.


The role of the guru (teacher) in the old Indian system of teaching in modern day parlance. Is there a difference, what were the views of people like Krishnamurti, Bohm and Tagore? If it is there what serves learning better? As we come from a system that was created to run factories and businesses to one which caters to services, or one that needs more thinkers, what do we need to change?

 

I think it is quite helpful to have a view of where education is now. It seems to me that modern education in terms of schools, colleges and universities is based on teaching rather than learning. Essentially the process is one where content, curriculum, is delivered to the learners by teachers. The prime manner of delivery is formal and increasingly authoritarian, requiring students to produce mostly prescribed outcomes. The overwhelming mode of learning is passive, and is measured through short-term performance, usually written. Consequently, good academic achievement is based on having a sound memory and the ability to write quickly and effectively, which leads to a somewhat limited learning process.

 

It seems to me worth considering the role of the guru in pre-British approach to learning in India as it highlights the effects of the industrialised and utilitarian worldview of the colonising power and gives the opportunity to reflect on the present context from a different background.

 

Here is a piece from Krishnamurti’s book ‘Unconditioning and Education’ published by Krishnamurti Foundation of America in 2015. The book is a collection of dialogues with parents and teachers at the Oak grove School in California.

 

‘The ancients, both Egypt and India, and China, of course, thought of education not in terms of society, nor in terms of merely conforming to the edicts of society; they were concerned with the culture of the mind, with the culture of the mind that is capable of intelligent action in society, not merely performing to the pattern of society.’

 

This indicates a fundamental difference in viewing the question of, what is education for. And, therefore, offers the opportunity of exploring learning. If, as the case is now, education is dictated by society in the form of political and economic expediency, then learning is all about acquiring knowledge, about content. 

 

However, if we are concerned with the culture of the mind, then the limits that society has put on education are broken and it is possible to experience learning as an inquiry into the whole of life, free of the external and internal shackles created by generations of assumptions and conditioning. This is, I feel, particularly relevant in our time of instant communication, information and opinion dressed up as fact. A mind ‘that is capable of intelligent action’ is unlikely to be prey to misinformation, having the ability to see what is false and what is true; whilst being wary of conclusions.

 

There is a book titled ‘Changing Consciousness: exploring the hidden source of the social, political and environmental crisis facing our world’ which is a result of dialogues between David Bohm and Mark Edwards in 1991. In this Bohm asks the question –

 

‘Can we learn to become more learning-orientated individually and collectively, rather than ‘I know’ oriented?’

 

So that the processes of learning are held to be of intrinsic value that are not solely determined by outcome, by result. Again, I see this as having the potential of contributing to a profound shift in approach to education away from the military/factory base in which we find ourselves.

 

If I can take this further through some comments from a book by Kathleen M O’Connell entitled ‘Rabindranath Tagore: The Poet as Educator’ published in 2002, which look at the qualities of the teacher.

 

‘He (Tagore) felt that a teacher’s ability to recognise the unique personality of each child and guide each accordingly to his/her capacities was far more important than facility for a particular teaching method.’

 

‘A born teacher is the man in whom the primal child responds readily to the call of children…

 

…the ideal teacher realises that to teach is to learn.’

 

 

There are I would say, echoes of the ancient view of the role of the guru in education in what Krishnamurti, Bohm and Tagore are saying here, and that the relevance to where we are now is that relationship between the guru as the teacher and the students forms the foundation of education. Presently, most conversations concerning education and learning seem to be around policy, improvement of standards and examination of data: shifting change on a superficial level without questioning the status quo. 

 

What particularly interests me arising from my experience, conversations and reading, is this extraordinary significance of that relationship between educator and the learner; and that we should be examining that relationship and holding this exploration as a major step in making the changes needed to our approach to learning.

 

 

 

Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Standing on The Edge...


 

 

I cannot do it. I know I want to…

 

So often I have imagined this feeling of being poised, toes just behind the edge, keeping perfect balance. I’m in harmony with the earth beneath my feet, the wind on my body and that vast expanse in front of me. How glorious!

 

But I know I cannot do it. Because, if I crept to the cliff’s edge and stood like some courageous and remarkable creature on the crumbling white chalk, I would not be able to stop myself from launching into the air to fly between the blue of the sea and the blue of the sky, soaring, gliding over the waves in an ecstasy of freedom.

 

Instead, I stand some three metres back from that place which is calling to me. My mind is possessed by panic, my stomach somersaults, whirling around like the sails of a windmill in grinding anxiety. I must turn and leave, but I am held by the light cascading to and from the heaving water. The shifting sound of the sea is filling my head with such infinite delight, so hypnotic. White frothing water mixes with the chalk that towers out of the sea. Towers that have been separated from the land by the unceasing power of the waves.

 

I am held, imprisoned by thoughts of fear, of blind terror, of unconditional love for the sea. I need to escape. I need to walk back down to safety. 

 

Then up from under the cliff rises a seagull, the white feathers of its body are teased by the breeze that sustains it. Once it is level with my envious gaze it holds its course; effortlessly still. I am mesmerised. My mind is emptying, flowing out over the precipice. The gull’s black tipped wings are open, stretched in a delicate balance until it shifts sideways to hold me with its pale amber/ grey eye The sharp black point of its pupil becomes the focus of deep connection.

 

Still watching me, it’s lifted way up and out. Until it closes its wings and falls, skimming over the boiling salty white rocks, leaving behind the echo of its cry and the ghost of its presence.

 

 

From the stillness a memory emerges of a previous encounter with a seagull. I had just been to the hospital café and purchased the most delicious of fruit flapjacks to eat outside in the sunshine. Suddenly, it was as if a white sheet had been thrown over me and I felt the deft removal of the flapjack from my hand. I looked down to see a gull standing on the tarmac looking straight at me. If it wasn’t for the crumb that fell from its beak, there would have been no evidence with which I could have held it to account.

 

 

Slowly I come back to the sound of the sea. And, as words return, I realise there is no hope - there is only understanding. What exists beyond that I don’t know… Instead I watch, and I listen.

Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Learning in the time of Coronavirus: Part Three - a way forward?

  

There is no going back: the Covid 19 virus has exposed our fragility and we cannot continue with such a level of disrespect for the planet and its inhabitants. Change is being forced upon us, and the education system that has been built upon mechanical, measurement and outcomes approach is crumbling. We are living in a time of climate breakdown, species extinction, social inequality, unrestrained technological advancement, deep religious and ideological separation. The way we educate ourselves and our young must respond to this situation and to those fractures in the fabric of our lives that are being fully exposed.

 

The modern education system is built on human greed founded upon comparison and competition. This leads to the destruction and exploitation of our fellow human beings and the planet, creating separation through age, gender, race, class, caste, religion, intellectual ability and economic well-being. The system is run on commercial lines with learning being a commodity serviced by teachers and schools; parents are the customers and young people are the raw material to be shaped to the desires of the school, parents and society. 

 

Education is dominated by the language and values of the marketplace, arising from the exploitation and destruction of the industrial age, and resulting in the climate breakdown and species extinction that we are witnessing. The coming generations are going to be engaged in finding their way through this mess, and the worst thing we can do is present them with the illusion of a future rooted in how things have always been. Tests and exams leading to qualifications that will find the ‘good job’ are irrelevant in a world that is under threat.

 

I would, therefore, suggest that we do not begin with the mass, not replacing one system with another, but with the individual. 

 

A child is full of wonder, intelligence and the capacity to learn. They have their own particular interests, abilities and ways of being. The process of education as it is now, is more attuned to the ideology of individualism. This ideology is expressed through the exploitation of the individual for commercial gain, creating division and separation through conformity, comparison and competition. However, humanity is made up of individuals who are indivisible from each other, from other living beings and the world of nature that sustains all life.

 

A process of education, exploration and learning that has the individual in mind also acknowledges the relationship of that individual to the world as a whole. Therefore, this process does not concentrate on separating into categories, but is always looking for connections, looking for the whole picture. 

 

 

Listen to the young:

 

Pressure… I must be motivated.  The click and grind and motion of the wheel in my head; the treadmill of the brain.  Cannot, must not stand still… must move on.

 

Success… I must be inspired.  Please inspire me; inside I am empty.  Please fill me with your wise words, positive statements, your exhortations to achievement.  Without them I am nothing, another statistic in the data bank of human misery.  You tell me I am nothing and then you tell me to be something – thin, beautiful, clever.  And you say: don’t talk so much; then, don’t be so silent.  So I cannot tell what you are thinking.

 

Anxiety… close cropped and bare as barbed wire.  What is going to become of me?  You exhort me not to be a failure and urge me to follow my passion. You talk to me of the global race and the part I have to play in it.  So I am looking for the finishing line and thinking about what will happen when I get there.  Will I then be spat out, chewed over and over until all outward form is lost?  Will I be digested then excreted in some unrecognisable form that once was me?  What do you think of me?  Do you like me?  If you don’t, then I won’t like you.

 

I can no longer do this on my own.  Absorb me in your cleverness, your silky long words are like hypnotic snakes, and maybe, just maybe I could be like you.  Tell me what to do; don’t ask me questions; don’t make me think.  Reflection takes place in a darkening mirror, and these days the dark frightens me.  Comfort me.  I am frozen in time, like a mammoth in ice…

But I want to be alive!  For I am young, and confusion is the state of all humanity.  I am young, please don’t ignore me.

 

 

 

Humanity cannot exist without children, cannot exist without the natural world and neither are resources for exploitation; the world is a living entity. The time has come for a coordinated framework outlining an approach to living which values the young, their education and the Earth that nurtures them. Over the years there have been ideas, insights, books, schools, universities that have pointed the way to educate as if people and planet matter. Experiments have come and gone, and some continue. 

 

The urgency for change is imperative, but it is also obvious that we must proceed slowly, with care, kindness and sensitivity.

 

There is fertile ground for a global conversation, for dialogue, where through exploring this question of education and its purpose, it will be possible to address the accumulation of crises that face us. A group of people talking together openly with attention on process rather than outcome, allows for real change to emerge. This is a situation where learning takes place – this is education.

 

I would suggest that there is no barrier to who might participate in this conversation, because we never cease to learn. Nevertheless, it is how this conversation is conducted that will inevitably define its outcome. Conflict will create division and anger; however, cooperation and collaboration will create understanding and agreement. There can be no hierarchy, no leaders, no ideology, only listening and observing with respect, and a mind that understands that we are working for the good of all that lives and dies – towards survival.

 

Let us return to the individual, but this time not define who we are talking about by age and let us explore the conditions under which they might thrive. It is possible to create an atmosphere of learning that steps out of the restrictions of punishment and reward and a rigid hierarchy of knowledge, to one where learning is essentially a collaborative process of discovery. This implies an informality of relationship, after all, education is a supremely human activity involving many subtle relationships which are unable to be explored in an atmosphere constricted by formality. 

 

The relationship between teacher and student is fundamental to the process of education, being a complex flow of communication that requires humility, sensitivity and humour. Teachers being referred to by their first names, dropping the use of uniforms, and by having small, human-scale institutions, relationships in learning can flourish. Also there must be an acknowledgement of the importance of the use of questions, how they are framed, how they are asked, and the quality of listening that receives them. Underpinning this is understanding the destructive nature of violence, exploitation and separation. Instead of outlining a set of values to which the individual must adhere, there is the possibility of developing insight into the consequences of human behaviour.

 

Listening and observing are the bedrock of understanding and exist deep within our relationship with the natural world. In order to understand ourselves we need exposure to the sky, winds, birds, insects, trees; all the living things that share the Earth. By observing and listening to ourselves through our relationship with the rest of the world, then we can create a world that is not based on greed and violence.

 

Our industrialised thinking must be challenged fundamentally for a new approach to education to come about. Ideas concerning the number of people involved in different learning situations, the nature of the learning process, different environments in which learning takes place, what the meaning of discipline is when it comes to learning, and how time is used, need to be examined. The exploration into the process of the socialisation of the individual within diverse cultures at differing stages of life has been sorely neglected and has led to serious and continuing conflict around race, gender, religion and age. Key aspects of human life are becoming devalued, notably parenting, teaching and generally caring for others. 

 

For humanity to flourish, its connection with the Earth cannot be lost, and the careful exploration of this relationship must inform all aspects of a new approach to education.

 

The ground is right for conversations to flow, understanding to develop and a clarity to emerge within the contradictions and paradoxes that are an integral part of human relationships. Education is a collaborative exploration into what it means to be alive.

 

Let these conversations take place in open spaces, without fear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, 11 October 2021

Overland to India 50 years ago: Postscript

 

 

 

Four of us, two girls two boys, travelled by train to the Indian-Nepalese border and took the local bus to Kathmandu. Half sleeping along the narrow roads, I watched the rhododendron covered hills loom toward us and woke up again to find that those hills had slipped away and the magnificence of the Himalayas lay almost in snow-capped touching distance.

The city had just one tarmac covered road. From our basic, but clean hostel we would wake to the regular dawn chorus of throat clearing and the olympic level spitting out of congealed phlegm built up from the night. Side streets held the sweet acerbic aroma of fresh urine, and little children happily defaecated where they played. The mountains, snow-topped and majestic beyond the petty wanderings of humankind, surrounded this ancient city; forests below them.  Large painted eyes looked out from Buddhist stupas with their ragged flags fluttering in spiritual disarray. There were very few cars. 

We walked to a nearby monkey temple high on a hill.

‘Bloody hell! What was that?’

My friends looked pale and shaken. I was pale and shaken.

The Nepalese Army appeared to be indulging in target practice below, and either by design or sheer incompetence a stray bullet passed between us as we looked from the temple over the vast space of green trees, grey rock, and snow-covered peaks. The scarlet robed monks around us appeared unperturbed, and as we climbed further the gentle salute of a tiny novice in his fledgling attire calmed spirits and fears. A couple of days later we hired bicycles and rode into the forest. We cycled through squares that seemed to have only young tourists there.

‘You want acid? Weed? Hash?’

Long haired men and smiling faces of young women proclaimed a narcotic nirvana. What would become of them?

However, other things were taking over. We ate in dimly lit restaurants that played music by Cat Stevens and Carol King, an alternative universe imported by young westerners, the creeping tentacles of global culture. At one restaurant, dark, noisy and friendly, a young Nepalese man came up to me and looked intently into my eyes. My full English reserve was put into play, and I stepped back.

‘It’s OK, man, all cool. But you’d better get to see a doctor quick. Look at your eyes in the mirror. Look at the colour. You’ve got hepatitis.’

I got back to the hotel, and, sure enough the whites of my eyes were a deep, dirty yellow.

That night I woke up with intense stomach pains and only just made it to the toilet to deposit that evening’s meal into the appropriate place. I felt dreadful, all I wanted to do was stay in bed and sleep.

 It was time to visit to the local hospital. I was weak and helpless. The doctor, probably driven by experiences of treating young travellers in various states of ill-health, was keen that I should return to whence I came. The war was taking place mostly in what was East Pakistan and hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi refugees were streaming across the border into Northern India. Commercial flights were still taking place, and I wanted to go home. 

Was that weakness, a lack of courage? If I had taken some time to get better and carried on with my travels, what would have happened? My parents had insisted I take out an expensive insurance before I left, and this was to take me home.

An emaciated, yellow tinged body took the train back to Delhi with one of the girls I had been travelling with. The other two friends flew out from Kathmandu to travel further eastward as there were fewer and fewer flights. We shared a four-bunk compartment with two Indian Army officers – their servants would appear from time to time to make sure that they had everything they wanted. My companion was frightened that we were going to be caught up in the war.

‘This will be very short, but there will be much suffering’

The officers sensed our concern.

‘East Pakistan will be no more. And Bangladesh will exist, but there will be many refugees and many deaths’

There was a hint of compassion in the voices of these military men.

‘This war is not necessary.’

My companion was crying quietly, she wanted to go home.

A day later she flew from Delhi. Then it was my turn.

 

 The war lasted under a fortnight, but the cost to Bangladesh was devastating, with an estimated 300,000 to 3,000,000 civilians killed and a further eight to ten million refugees entering India. 

This insignificant individual arrived  into Heathrow to be greeted by the dank cold of a December day. I was met by a taxi driver who must have seen my condition and offered to take me to Liverpool Street Station. Once in the taxi the driver announced that it would cost twenty pounds (around the value of £100 today). I had £10 and insisted he drop me at the nearest underground station. He did and took £5 from me. I was very ill and disorientated. I took the three-hour ride sitting on the floor of a crowded train full of Christmas shoppers.

I was wearing my Afghan coat, Afghan boots, a shirt I had bought in India and a not so clean pair of trousers.

 

‘I shall never forget meeting you off the train,’ said my mother. ‘You had hair all over the place, your skin was yellow, and you smelt terrible… I wondered what I was meeting.’

 

I had been to lands that no longer exist under that name. I had walked in streets which have since been obliterated by bombs and bullets. I had passed along roads where a long look at the beauty of the surroundings was to be imbued with peace. Only for a few years later those very same roads were to be too dangerous to travel.  Aleppo is rubble, Baghdad is rubble, much of Afghanistan is also rubble. There has been so much destruction, so much human blood spilt and so much suffering. Kashmir has since been the centre of brutality and cruelty for its inhabitants – a descent from heaven to hell on earth. Kathmandu has suffered a devastating earthquake. 

Like many, I question deeply the notion of human progress. I had witnessed such beauty in nature that completely dispossessed me of myself and I was lost in eternity, immortality, for even a few seconds. So often I received the smiles and kindness of strangers. 


I was home by Christmas.

 

Thursday, 23 September 2021

Overland to India 50 Years ago: Part 4 (an ending)

 We came upon Srinagar in the Himalayas, through a winding mid-November ride from the Punjab to Kashmir stretching up towards the snow, yet another world. When would war come? Would Kashmir be the focal point? Anxiety about travelling onwards and worry about what war would mean to us had dragged our spirits down since leaving Amritsar. There were some on the bus who wanted to get to Delhi as soon as possible and push on to destinations beyond India. 

 

However, Srinagar was on the itinerary and that was where we found ourselves. We left the vehicle with our luggage and peered into the autumn night air and the enveloping scent of woodsmoke. We passed by pale, soft lights, and a distant tide of murmuring voices as we approached the Dal Lake to take up residence in one of the houseboats moored upon the banks. It was a night where time had no meaning, where the distance between humanity, water and the cold breeze disappeared and merged into an ecstatic strange dream. Even now the smell of woodsmoke in the dark of night when I am out in the cold returns me to that place and that time.

 

Please burn my body on a pile of wood and throw my ashes into water. 

 

The lake revealed itself in the morning with autumn trees mirrored in stillness; sellers of fruit, vegetables, and stuff for tourists, slid by like ghosts on the glassy water on their shallow, narrow boats, and their voices echoing beyond the trees up to the vast snow-capped mountains beyond. On the houseboat we were shown the visitors’ book signed by George Harrison just five years before, when he stayed by the Lake to learn from the guru of the sitar, Ravi Shankar. I was also delighted to see, lying enticingly on an uncluttered table, the spectacular album cover of the Incredible String Band’s ‘The 5000 Sprits or the Layers of the Onion’. 

 

We rode on scrawny, tough mules up into the snow lapped mountains. Later we took a slow rowed boat journey along the lake fringed with golden brown leaved trees; all sound absorbed and subsumed into the surroundings. No engines, no drills, no aeroplanes, no cars, nothing but people, birds, the wind, the cold – another time, another life. It is so easy to vaunt the progress of man, and to dismiss as sentimental rubbish and nostalgic musings of a romantic the questioning of modernity – our brave new world. 


It is indeed impossible to recreate the past, for the past is a dead land full of misconstruction. However, to deny the past and its play in the present is to enter a fool’s paradise shorn of complexity and housed in mirrors of distortion. Can you see what is? Are your perceptions real? Are you aware of how your actions of today create the path to tomorrow? How can you be so sure?

 

As the rumbles of war took us from this place so close to the Pakistan border and essential focus point for conflict resulting from that archetypal bureaucratic blunder by the British in partitioning India, we moved to the blackouts of Delhi. Occasionally, a siren would wail as preparations for the experience of attacks by warplanes and bombers was becoming more of a reality. There were anti-aircraft guns surrounded by sandbags and operated by helmeted men in camouflage uniforms placed strategically around the city.

 

 

How is it that I, like so many people in the past and the future, fell in love with India? Was it that naïve, romantic streak trying to escape cruel reality? It couldn’t be for there is more daily evidence of ‘cruel reality’ as you travel round India than in many other places in the world. It is there in front of you; on the streets; in the villages; in the fields; not much is hidden, but when this ‘reality’ is revealed, there can be horrors that shock to the core.

 

Delhi is where we parted company; at the YMCA in the centre of the city where taxi drivers sidled up to us to offer a variety of services one of which was a ride in the car. An early morning city of tennis players on the nearby courts and the sad, silent ragged creatures that stirred from their nocturnal homes on the street. We had been together for almost three months, finding a closeness, a travelling community. But then, once we had stopped, the communal ceased and individual purpose took over. 

 

Accident of birth is all that is needed in this stiff framework of inequality. To be male instead of female; to be white  instead of black, brown, or yellow; to have a home; to have food; to have a good chance of survival. We were the lucky ones, the privilege afforded by where and to whom we were born. We knew that in this there was held a responsibility. 

 

We had arrived in a country so totally different from the one we had left. But, because we had come overland and had experienced gradual culture and environmental change, we had been able to assimilate this transformation and connect with both land and humanity. To travel like this is the very antithesis to air-travel – to be picked up in one country and dumped in another. It takes a while to catch up with yourself. 

 

My only connection with my family was through letters. The company running the trip set up designated Post Restante places, which were post offices that held any post for us to pick up on the way. Generally, we were able to get post about every two weeks. My mother had written weekly to my brothers and me when we were at boarding school. She kept this up so that there was always a letter for me to collect – I wrote home more sporadically. We never communicated by phone.

 

As a parent, I have been incredibly grateful for the ability to communicate with my children as they have travelled to many places, and lived for a lengthy time in other parts of the world. However, when the communication ceases for a time, anxiety can so easily surface. When I made this trip to India it was really a case of there being ‘no news is good news’.

 

Our ancestors walked, went by horseback, camel, oxcart, open to the elements, in discomfort, slow, but in deep connection with their surroundings. Even travelling by bus, we had to stop frequently; we had to interact with the people we met on the way; the roads were often poorly maintained, narrow and winding; mostly we travelled slowly. 

 

Maybe the wheel will turn, and we will have to travel slowly again.