I woke up and realized that there were still a few hours until dawn. But instead of trying to get back to sleep, I decided to take a journey. In those wee hours, I flew over hills, rivers, and cities. I did not need to leave my bedroom; what I did instead was use the wondrous aerial maps available digitally on Google Earth.
Traveling through online maps is a hobby of mine. Sometimes, I visit wondrous locations like the Grand Canyon, the Great Pyramid of Giza, or Angkor Wat. But more often than not, I roam through West Bengal, the state I call my own. In the morning, I navigate meandering rivulets of the lower Sundarbans. In the evening, I take a leisurely stroll along the Hooghly River, from the Gwalior Monument to Prinsep Ghat. Sometimes, I walk down familiar roads to check up on the homes I’ve lived in and on friends and relatives. I stop by uninvited to say “hello” and often stay for tea and snacks. At those times, looking at the screen of a computer, tablet, or smartphone becomes a way to connect, and I willfully overlook the fact that online maps are not updated simultaneously.
That particular night, however, I did not walk through Kolkata or boat down the Sundarbans. Instead, I took my rusty bicycle out from the space underneath the stairs of my old home, wiped the dust off, and began pedaling down a road a friend and I had first taken twenty years ago. Both of us were in college then. On afternoons, we would ride past the boundaries of our hometown to the bank of the river. Feeling adventurous one day,we decided that we would not stop there, but that would keep pedaling as far as we could go. The beauty of it was that neither of us had the foggiest idea where we were going. Purposely getting lost is an audacious folly of youth, but we were young at the time.
As the sun began to dip, we passed paddy fields, hills, and dense forests of saal. And so, we pushed ourselves for miles though the beautiful terrain of rural Bengal. Finally, when we were exhausted, we stopped at a tea stall in a village, asked for two glasses of tea and lero biscuits from a glass jar. We dipped the biscuits and slurped the tea greedily. Having had our fill, we asked the proprietor, “dada, where does this road lead?”
“There are more forests, fields, and then you will reach a river-crossing.”
My friend and I looked at each other, at our watches, and the darkening surroundings and decided to call it a day. Thick clouds had formed overhead. By the time we reached our town, we were drenched to the bone like soggy crows. That day, both of us promised that we would later find out where the road went.
Twenty years later, I know that it has gone in a different direction for me. It has taken me away from the town of my youth to a new life in another country. It had taken me far from my friend, who I had not seen or spoken to in more than a decade. But I had not forgotten my town, it people, or these serene surroundings. All these thoughts went through my mind as I traced the road on the digital aerial map on my screen.
Quite recently, I had started to look at buying a modest plot of land between the river and the hills- on the same road that my friend and I had first traversed in our youth. I honestly cannot say if I will live near my former home again, or how often I will be able to visit. But if for nothing else, one day I want to be able to drop a red pin on a map. In times of despair, if physically I cannot reach it, I can say in my mind “This land is mine. I am made of this soil.”
Even wanderers need to find their bearings.
(From an invited column previously published here).