The sky, adorned with stars and sun
The world, full of so many lives
Within this glorious vast expanse
Here I am, with a place to be, a role to play
I am amazed and wondering,
I see my song find itself here…
∼ Rabindranath Tagore
This particular song of Tagore has entered my soul. Yet, I know that my modern/urban existence or my obsessive preoccupation with what we regard as ‘work’ takes me away from the poet’s revealed truth. Possibly, I too pass through what Georg Simmel, the distinguished sociologist, wrote in his classic essay The Metropolis and Mental Life – a sense of ‘heartless indifference’. From Monday to Friday, from 9 am to 5 pm, from the traffic signal to the continual performance anxiety – many of us live only to survive; there is no enchantment in such existence.
However, right now, as I find myself in a Himalayan hamlet far away from the metropolis, my existence becomes musical, a song that Tagore wrote and composed. Indeed, amid the fold of the mountains and the mystery of silence I experience a sense of gratitude: I am part of this amazing universe; I am not separated from those sky-touching deodar trees, the snow-clad peaks and the infinity of stars in the vast sky that illumine me as the sun sets and darkness descends.
Melting of modernist agency
I know I carry within myself a burden caused by my accumulated ‘ego’, my modernist ‘agency’ and my techno-scientific urge to possess and conquer. But then, as distant peaks emerge from the mist and call me, I begin to dissolve. Or for that matter, when the clouds embrace the folds of the range of mountains, and in a curved road passing through a dreamy village trees begin to whisper, my pride disappears. What remains is only an enchanting feeling of gratitude – I have got an opportunity to watch the extraordinary play of a great artist.
I submit, I surrender, I become an empty bamboo, and nature – with its sunrise and sunset, Newton and Blake, physics and aesthetics, lightning and rains, light and shadow, peaks and valleys – transforms it into a flute. I become free from ‘knowledge’, and in that innocence, I find my music, my religiosity, my prayers. I rediscover the eyes (the eyes otherwise tired of seeing the computer screen, the traffic light and the faceless crowd) that can see a tiny bird flying in the sky, a colourful butterfly dancing in tune with the gentle breeze, the clouds disappearing and the peaks emerging as the great witness – eternal amidst historical transformations, stable amidst the temporality of pleasure and pain, and meditative amidst the fluctuations of the noisy world.
Yes, at this moment I do not wish to conquer in the name of science and ‘progress’; ‘knowledge is power’ – the Baconian mantra of domination sanctified through modern science loses its meaning; the urge to remain continually ‘updated’ and ‘relevant’ through Twitter and Facebook looks superficial, and even the vibrations of the mobile phone become noisy. I find shelter in the womb of nature. Living becomes an art of dying – death of the feeling of being ‘somebody’.
‘Having’ and ‘being’
I feel I am lucky because I have saved myself from the trap of the tourism industry. This industry, despite its economic vibrancy, distorts our ways of seeing and relating. One is no longer a wanderer. Instead, one is a consumer-tourist seeking thrill, pleasure, special cuisine and bits of ‘esoteric’ feelings in the much-advertised declared ‘spots’: a temple, a fall, a fountain, a sunset point. With ‘packaged tour’, instrumental use of time and constant urge to ‘cover’ and possess everything into a video or a ‘Facebook share’, one misses out on experiencing what Tagore would have regarded as the ‘surplus’ of man: calmness, surrender and the awakened sensitivity to merge with the play of creation.
No, I visit no declared ‘spot’. Everything for me becomes a miracle: the mountains altering their mood and colour with the movement of the sun, the peaks with sublime whiteness observing the cycle of birth and death, the warmth of the sun as I begin to walk quite early in the morning, the magic of darkness and the intensity of silence as the sun sets, and the stars that, as Jibanananda Das wrote in one of his amazing poems, remind me of all my past lives. Each fold of the mountain has its own epic; I begin to receive its vibrations.
And I realise that unlike a typical tourist – distant and separated, I am becoming one of them – ordinary people living, struggling, suffering, smiling and celebrating. Furthermore, there is no anthropological gaze of objectifying the ‘other’. No wonder, I forget the lessons of ‘fieldwork’ that social sciences have taught me. There is no ‘field’ separating the knower from the known. Hence, unlike Jürgen Habermas, I do not feel the need for theorising ‘communicative interaction’. The spirit of communication flows naturally – as beautifully as a mountain river flows.
A local woman begins to tell her stories – the meaning of living with two children in the absence of her husband who is posted in Assam. She offers me a cup of tea as she sees me walking quite early in the morning. She speaks of her fascination with the peaks, and without the slightest hesitation advises me: “Uncle, you must change your city habit. Begin your day from 4 am, and go to bed at 9 pm. You would feel what nature can offer you.” I meet an old man. “I am so happy. You have come. You are living with us. This connectivity breaks insulation. Imagine Adi Shankaracharya walking from down South to the Himalayas…” In his words, I find a living book – not something dead and frozen kept on the dusty shelf of the university library.
When you seek to conquer, you miss it. When you surrender, you find it. I have possibly begun to surrender. What else can I do in the presence of the infinite and its manifestations in the life-energy of local children climbing the mountain to reach their school, and women finding their own space despite tremendous work in the forest and the agricultural land? As I walk and see the rays of the sun illuminating the snow-clad peak, I ask myself: Who am I? A professor who thinks that he is ‘big’ because of what he writes in his CV? A city-dweller with credit cards and the latest gadgets? This self-definition loses its meaning. I become nothing, and in that nothingness, I find what Yagnavalakya called the ‘Self’ which has no beginning, no end.
Avijit Pathak is a professor of sociology at JNU.