The forest was on fire. The flowering gulmohars blazed with flame, fallen petals covering the ground with a carpet of velvet embers. A family of deer grazed between thick groves of bamboo, flitting forms shy as morning mist. Blue with distance, the hills echoed the sharp cry of a peacock. We were at Bamboo Banks, a 40-acre farm-cum-guest house, 265 km from Bengaluru, nestled at the foot of the Nilgiris, adjacent to the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve on the border of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
Established in 1972 by Siasp Kothavala, an ex-tea planter, Bamboo Banks is the perfect getaway from the grit and grime and clamour and stress of urban strife. With the able assistance of his manager George, who’s been with him for 40 years, and with daughter Shahnaz playing attentive hostess, Mr K presides over his benign autocracy with a salty wit and the magisterial aplomb befitting the captain of a ship.
Apart from the main house where the family stays, there are four cottages for guests, who can take guided nature walks, or go for a ride on one of the several horses the farm has, or motor up to Ooty, 27 km away. I preferred to sit under the silent blaze of the gulmohars and daydream.
I dreamt of what it might be like to be not just a visitor here for three days, but to live here, to have this as my life, so utterly different from the city life that I’ve led, to have this place belong to me, as I belonged to it. And I thought of why it might be that people, all people, choose to travel, not just to Bamboo Banks, but to anywhere at all.
I was a traveller long before I knew I was. As a young boy in Calcutta, I would walk along the streets and bylanes of the city. I’d pass decaying mansions, elegant bungalows in shaded gardens, teeming tenements. Walking by, I’d look in through open windows, catching glimpses of what was within: a naked light bulb; a crystal chandelier; a man in a singlet sitting at a table, lost in thought and cigarette smoke; a child holding a headless doll; a beautiful woman looking at her face in the mirror.
I would invent stories about the people who lived there, and what my life would have been like if I had been one of them. No, I wasn’t a voyeur, a word I had never heard of at the time. I was just a storyteller recounting to myself the many narratives that might have been me.
Physicists say that the universe we inhabit is only one in an infinite series of universes, not out there in distant space, but only a heartbeat away from us in a different dimension. Each time we open a door, pick up a book, start a conversation, we give rise to a countless progression of alternative universes where we left the door shut, picked up not this but some other book, stayed silent instead of speaking.
The world we know is only one of an infinity of narratives of which, unaware, we are a part.
I would like to think that what we call travel is a faint echo of that never-ending story of which we are both the narrators and the subjects.Over the years, I’ve made many such journeys to myself. In the remote reaches of Tuensang, Nagaland, I’ve drunk zu rice beer out of big enamel mugs with the chief of the village, a former hunter of human heads, who was fascinated by the camera my accompanying cameraman was carrying.
At La Querbrada, Acapulco, Mexico, I’ve watched young men dive off a 140-ft cliff into a rocky inlet, timing their plunge so that an incoming wave will protect them from the rocks below. In a cobble-stoned square in San Telmo, Buenos Aires, I’ve seen them dance the tango, that sensual and sublime intertwining of love and death.
And later I’ve wondered: What would it be like? What would it be like to live in a Naga village, to be a professional diver in Mexico, a dancer in Argentina? What other journeys, to other selves, would I make?Then it was time for dinner at Bamboo Banks. And I tried to guess what there’d be for pudding.