We drove down to the beach to expose my poor parents to some camping experience. We hyped up the trip, expounded on the ‘fun’ aspect of camping on the beach. The sun, the sand, the water, the blue sky, the roasting hot dogs on the fire, the camp fire songs and stories. My parents come from the congested city of Kolkata. In Kolkata, we don’t go camping – generally. In the pleasant winter, we go to the botanical gardens or the zoo for a picnic, at least we used to when I was little. So camping was going to be a completely new experience for my mom and dad. We conveniently forgot to mention the uncomfortable sleeping conditions, the bugs, the darkness, and the other negative stuff that non camping lovers highlight and true campers pooh pooh. I am somewhere in the middle. But this post is not about our camping experience. This post is about the stream of thoughts that I had on our way to the State park for our camping trip.
The back roads that led to the beach flashed some images of rural Bengal in my mind and how different the two settings are. What different emotions these two very different scenes evoke in me. Last year, Sean and I took a road trip to Shantiniketan, famous for the Viswa Bharati University that was founded by Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore envisioned a different kind of education for the young, malleable, open minds that children have. The minds with endless possibilities that can achieve great things only if they were set free to think outside the box. He created open air class rooms where classes were held under chateem trees, the teachers taught in the open air, under the sky, amidst nature. I had seen the university a few times but I wanted to show my American husband what my favorite poet, visionary and educator, Rabindranath Tagore had envisioned and created.
Our car sped through the controlled chaos – unplanned, haphazard greenery, chaos even amidst the resplendent green, mud huts, small plots of land being ploughed by man and oxen, brown-skinned people, scantily dressed children looking on at the passing cars, collecting water, playing marbles. Little ponds in between, women drawing water for household chores, the earthy smell mixed with the smell of cow dung and manure. Thin cows and water buffaloes grazing, stray, mangy dogs, squawking chicken, songs of Rabindranath Tagore playing in my mind – the familiar, soothing feeling of a scene from home, a feeling of belonging. It will be presumptuous of me to assume that the people that we saw in those surroundings were happy. I realize that thought would be naive and idealistic. But the aura was one of simplicity. I will also say this, it was easy for us to feel that way sitting in our air-conditioned car, looking out at the hard-working men and women and enjoying this feeling of being relaxed and carefree.
The contrast to here is stark. The planned stretches of farmland, picturesque houses far in between with white picket fences, healthy looking lonely, dappled horse flicking its tail, fattened cow grazing. An Amish gentleman trotting steadily on his horse-drawn buggy in his traditional Amish clothes; tall, shiny silos raising their proud heads high up proclaiming the prosperity of their owner, automatic, giant pivot irrigation systems irrigating the farmland, a farmer on a tractor – occasionally spotted. Images of apple pies and fried chicken flood my mind’s eye and make me desperate to taste some. It is neat, orderly, slightly clinical but a sense of peace and quiet, a sense of calm.
As I said earlier, the two scenes in two very different countries evoke two very different feelings in me, both positive, both peaceful in different ways.
Since I was already in a mood for comparing, the beaches brought out different feelings as well. The beaches here mostly have clean yellow sand, relatively less polluted water, lots of skin, umbrellas, beach chairs, sun lotions, beach toys and sand castles. Bathrooms and concession stands to make one’s beach experience pleasurable. I love to just get up and go for a long walk by the ocean feeling the spray on my face, the sand under my feet and the sun on my shoulders. People generally bring surf boards, go surfing, swim, eat their food, put more sunblock on, read or sleep. When I go to a beach in this country, I mainly look out at the horizon and try to fathom the expanse of the sea, and expand with it in my mind. I notice the changing colors of water more, I notice the blushing red sky at sunset, I look up at the full moon up in the sky, I notice the sand dunes and the shadows they cast as the sun changes position, I am more in tune with nature.
In India, nature for me takes a back seat since there is so much entertainment and people watching on the beach. Girls in their full traditional outfit, salwar kameezes, giggling at the edge of the water, daring each other to go in. Men in their underwear, a little deeper, in the water, maybe up to their knees, urging their respective wives to come to him. The young couple gets some sweet moments of shared intimacy in the water as the waves crash them against each other. The newly wed bride holds on to her young husband and laughs a happy, content laugh. The elders in the family, if present, look on with a bemused, indulgent smile on their faces, happy that the man is taking care of his woman. All this touching will be frowned upon as soon as they leave the safety of the water. A married woman of mature age wears a salwar kameez instead of her regular wear – a saree and revels in the guilty pleasure. The pictures will be her only memories of this change once she goes back to her regular life. She will never wear anything but a saree there. The hawkers sell their ware, photographers try to take pictures of you and make you buy them. Food sellers cook food right by the beach making the air aromatic with the heavenly smells from their smoky woks. People buy cheap shell jewellery, eat road side food, it is a carnival every night by the beach. In the midst of all this, the sun rises with the same splendor and casts brilliant light on the sea, the sea changes different hues of blue and aquamarine, the sun sets with resplendence. I sometimes get a glimpse, often times don’t, since my eyes are glued to the mass of humanity.
I am at a good place. I find my sense of balance by belonging to both these countries. I need my simplicity, and I need by orderliness, the beauty of nature refreshes my soul and my fellow humans make me feel a part of a huge plan. I need it all and lucky me, I get it all.