Saturday, October 23, 2004

cycling from kabul to kolkata

the crazy book proposal to end all crazy book proposals, which i wrote three months ago, and now don't know what to do with it!!!!
as in where to get fudning and other opportunities from... if anyone reads this blog, help!!!!

Book Plan

Summary –

The proposed book would use a journey (to be undertaken as part of the research/writing of the book) by cycle between Kabul and Kolkata, as the main narrative, around which the book would arrange a series of meditations/reflections/observations on transport technology and democratic empowerment, modernity and Speed, urban planning and the limitations of the nationalist imagination. And much else.

Details -

To put it simply, this book would be a travel-book, about a journey, by cycle, from Kabul to Kolkata.

The narrative framing the book would be an actual cycle journey, carried out between October and March, with the retreating monsoon behind, at a leisurely pace of no more than a hundred kilometres a day, leaving Kabul as the chill of Autumn sets in, and travelling through the Northern part of the sub-continent in the pleasant winter.

Of course, that raises the not-simple questions of –

1) Why a travel book?

The travel book, I believe is one of the most engaging formats to make research accessible to people. The journey keeps the narrative moving, while spatially, the geography that the book covers allows room, as it were, to make conceptual and historical linkages. As in William Dalrymple’s, ‘From the Holy Mountain’, where a journey through the contemporary Middle East is elegantly entwined with the history of Christianity in the region to give us a broader understanding of both.

The travel that the travel-book necessarily requires is also significant in inevitably (?) being a sustained encounter/engagement with other people’s everydays. (A traveller, particularly one cycling through, as opposed to flying over, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India is hardly likely to escape the quotidian!) The traveller’s observation of these everydays and the conversations s/he engages in should be seen as valuable research all by itself, and also as a counterpoint to the material in the archive.

As a traveller and writer, one of my more interesting projects before this has been a journey from Delhi to Daulatabad, trying to re-trace the route of march of Muhammad bin Tughlak’s alleged transfer of population in the fourteenth century, and travelling the same route in the summer of 2001. Though the archival and library research dealt with such ‘esoteric’ subjects as medieval transport and communication technology; constantly traversing the landscape (and news-scape) of the present, along with Tughlak as a peg around which ‘on the road’ conversations revolved, made my writing (partially serialised in in June and July 2001) an engaging account of the present, of ‘modern’ India uneasily haunted by the often unacknowledged spirits of its medieval past.

2) Why a cycle?

In most discourses, technologically deterministic or otherwise, it is the railways that are supposed to have ‘made’ modern India, by knitting the diverse parts of the landmass into a nation. What largely gets ignored is the role the humble and ubiquitous bicycle has played, and its claims as an equally representative vehicle of Indian modernity. The coming of the trains brought an unprecedented mobility to most, but the bicycle, along with affordable local mobility, brought a more personal liberation. Illustrated best by the sense of awe and wonder with which young men from the surrounding villages of the Punjab would cycle a couple of hours in the morning to reach pre-Partition Lahore, and gape in awe at its gracious streets, and take back to their villages in the evenings the saying, Jisne Lahore nahin dekhya vo jammeya kya? or variations thereof. Or girls on cycles passing by on the way to college being a symbol (even if sublimated) of freedom and emancipation on the streets and cinema screens of fifties India.

Cycles are late contemporaries of the development of steam-technology and slightly early contemporaries of the internal combustion engine. But by providing a non-fossil fuel resource consuming alternative and individual transportation, they occupy a unique place in the technology of modernity, which isn’t often recognised. It would be nearly twenty years after the Bombay-Thane line inaugurated train-travel in India before the velocipede, a recognisable ancestor to the modern bicycle, would be developed in England. Today, Hero Cycles, the single largest producer of cycles in India (and till a while ago, in the world), has its factory in Ludhiana, on the Grand Trunk Road, between Kabul and Kolkata. A factory and its products, which, along with Indian Railways, epitomize a certain imagination of the modern Indian state, rapidly metamorphosing into…?

What do/did cycles mean for modern India? And as (parts of )urban India move into a globalized hyper-modernity, and our city planning gets determined by automobiles and their ever-increasing numbers, and the self-fulfilling logic of the rush hour traffic jam, what alternatives do cycles open for us? Can the liberating possibilities of Michel de Certau’s theses be valid for Cycling the City?

As military strategic planning makes NH1/GT Road from Delhi to the Pakistan border a smooth tarmac four lane on which cars can thunder past at one forty kilometres per hour, leaving the scenery an unseen blur, are we not subjecting ourselves to, as in Paul Virilio’s conception, the tyranny of ‘absolute speed’, where the here and dwindles to nothingness and elsewhere is always dominating our imagination. Does cycling offer us an alternative of slowness, of the being in the here and now, of extricating ourselves from the tunnel vision of the high speed Highway into the widespread network of bylanes, both literally, and in as many ways possible, metaphorically?

3) Why Kabul?

Kabul seems to be a strange place to start a journey, when the brief is a book about modern India.

The Partition, and since 1979, the twenty five years of warfare in Afghanistan, combined with the dominant worldview of the gl/ocal mediascape have made Afghanistan seem like a country from long ago and far away, a memory from a different age.

But there are Pashto speaking Sikh shopkeepers in Lajpat Nagar, Delhi to remind us that things were very different, not so long ago. The annual journey from Kabul to Kolkata by Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwallah is symbolic of many other journeys across the north-western passes into the sub-continent. With Kabul within the ambit of the idea of ‘India’, a whole different imagination of India was possible, and a different imagination of South Asia still can be. The borderlands of our truncated north-west are hermetically sealed (at least normatively), and every breach is now considered an act of terror and violation, and received history makes it seem like that has always been the case. But the ‘north-west passage’ has been a conduit, if seen in perspective, only marginally of ‘terror’, and far more importantly, one of cultures, and trade, and technology. And not just uni-directionally.

To reclaim Kabul in the landscape of the imagination is to reclaim not just the Indo- Greeks and the Scythians and the Mughals, in the generally understood terms of ‘heritage’, but to reclaim the routes along which ideas travelled – from Bamiyan to the university at Taxila down the ancient uttarapath to Pataliputra, from Ulugh Beg’s astronomical tables in Samarkand to the Jantar Mantar in Ujjain. To reclaim Kabul in the landscape of the imagination is to bring Lahore closer to Delhi, by focusing not just on the pasts of the link between Kabul and Kolkata, but also its possibilities.

To cycle from Kabul to Kolkata is to do many things.

At the simplest, it is to reiterate the continuity, and continued relevance of a road that predates nations and should hopefully, outlast this particular method of segregating humanity.

It is to pay homage to Kim, The Lama and their dusty road.

It is the opportunity to have a sustained engagement with life ‘on the road’ in the sub-continent, and to reclaim the pleasures, and the value, of the roadside conversation as a mode of discourse.

It is the opportunity to explore the many layers of the past that are hidden under and give shape to the present of Northern South Asia.

It is to remember the many different means of transport by which humans have crossed the north-western passes, and by the act of cycling, to reclaim a mode of transport, and of being, which seems antidotal to our fractured hypermodernity.

What it is not an attempt at, as the leisurely pace of the exercise envisioned will indicate, is any great effort of human endurance.

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