July 30, 2020
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Detour : Places Of The Mind

Despatches from towns and villages we have all heard of but (probably) never been to

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Detour : Places Of The Mind
Not Harold Pinter, it was actually Ralph Richardson who said that the most important parts of speech are the pauses. A similar thought guided our choice of theme for this special issue of Outlook. We were looking for an idea to be wrapped around that most fascinating of human activities: journeys. A journey theme, we thought, would be particularly appropriate for this, our vast and complex nation, as the planet treks into the 21st century, for the real 21st century begins in 2001, and one-year-early millennium bashes be damned.

But when we thought of journeys, we could not help but remember the wonder we felt as children waking up in the dead of night on a train and looking out into a smoky yellow-lit bustling (or hushed) station that had a name that we knew, and often we could not recall why we knew that name. The train chugged on, and we dozed off with the wistful realisation that we would know only the name, never the place—Mughalsarai or Udupi or Rampur. But those names stayed in the attics of our brains, redolent in myth and history, famous in folklore and sometimes even for reasons that we could not fathom. For this issue of Outlook, we cancelled the journeys, we concentrated on the pauses.

These are the Places of the Mind. Towns which hardly anyone visits, yet they are famous. They are cliché (Jhoomritelaiya), history (Plassey), legend (Chitrakoot); they are words on signboards we accept without curiosity (Poompuhar), they are even jokes (Ulhasnagar). The map is not the territory; these places are India outside the guidebooks, off the highways, in the heart of a shared past and a baffling present. They are the Malgudis of our memory.

And each of these places had unique and engaging stories to tell. Poompuhar, the glorious port-capital of the mighty Cholas, is now an impoverished fishing village violated by the insidious eyesores of architecture-by-politicians. At Pokaran, the seat of either our global-power pride or misdirected hype, the Indian State has not even had the courtesy to spell the name of the hamlet correctly, ever. At Naxalbari, which gave its name to a revolutionary dream that still lurks in thousands of breasts, a new insurgency movement based on ethnicity is rearing its head. At Dandi, the salt of the earth is leaving in droves for foreign shores, a Quit India movement in full flow.

This is the India we went to explore, the India that we take for granted, like the gaps between the ruled lines of a notebook page. This is the India that we found: its forgotten people and their pride; we found dreams, anger, amazing grace, we found a treasure chest of tales till now slotted to remain in the peripheral vision of civilisations.

Are they linked by anything, is there a common human narrative that threads through all these stories? We don't know. Not James Joyce, it was actually Isaiah Berlin who said that to understand is to perceive patterns. We leave the task of that understanding to you.

Meanwhile, we can say that we found our journeys.
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