"It’s all openness; it’s all gift.
Run up to the Chorla Ghats to a Shouting Point
and scream out from the edge of a precipice:
Each mountain is god!
Each valley is goddess!”
—Salil Chaturvedi (from the poem 'Completion')
Few images of contemplation strike you as momentously as that of Salil Chaturvedi—his physical image and the bouyant weight of poetic inspiration that he impresses upon the world. The renowned paraplegic poet and disability activist who has also represented the nation in tennis and journeyed far and wide, lives the life most of us want for our Instagram selves, in the Goan island of Chorao, practising permaculture and taking frequent drives out into the city. Even more importantly, he espouses a life of flow and sensitive exploration of our world, a close communion with nature and a never-say-die attitude. With a semblance of recovery of sorts for a pandemicked world, we spoke to Mr Chaturvedi about travel, defying ableism and everything else. Excerpts:
Would you say that the charm of travel lies in the novelty of a place, as in the proverbial change of scene—or does it lie in exclusivity, of having reached or seen places before one's contemporaries?
To me, travel is not a competitive sport, though I guess many people have the pioneer mentality and want to go where no man has gone before. I like to travel slow, sink into one place and observe it through the seasons, to watch how the local community (not just humans) ekes out a life in that particular ecotone. I feel I am getting to know a place when I discover where the owls are residing!
Not just India, the world is still primitive when it comes to proper infrastructure and facilitation of travel for all? I often wonder how big a part our ableism had to play in our stunned, surprised state that left us fixed and indecisive about travel when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Would love to have your comments...
True, the confinement of the past year has been tough. At the same time, it was interesting to hear about animals venturing into urban areas throughout the world, and rivers improving somewhat. It’s strange that the world has a good time when we don’t, and when we have a good time the world kind of suffers. So, yes, the pandemic has given us a rare opportunity to evaluate our travel behaviours and our engagement with the planet that we live in. As for ableism and travel, I am no longer able, or willing, to undertake the ‘good life’ travel. That’s just a consumerist approach to journeying. We have to be mindful of our carbon footprint and the feedback loops of the planet. Tough times...
I read about your experiences travelling with a wheelchair in Mandu and Shirdi. This was a 2011 article—what's the most thrilling travel experience you've ever had?
I have very fond memories of journeying in the north-eastern part of India: Shillong, Cherrapunji, Kaziranga and Majuli island. The Western Ghats, though, are my favourite bio-geographical area. I could wander endlessly amongst them. But, the most thrilling travel experience has been of watching a wetland around my place over the years.
You love wheels—both on the chair and the one that steers your car. If you had to choose between the two, which one would it be?
I don’t think that’s in my hands. I go with the flow.
I genuinely wonder what life's like at Chorao, the island where you live. Our readers would love to know.
Life is slow-paced in Chorao. The tide changes twice daily, shifting with the moon each day. There is a cycle of seasons, the monsoon being the most dramatic, and also the most challenging. The winter months bring the migratory birds. Currently there is a Malabar whistling thrush that wakes us up in the mornings. There is bird call throughout the day…orioles, spotted doves, bulbuls, koels. The Spring brings on the flowering of mangoes (the Mankurad mangoes of Chorao are famous), silk cotton and glyricidia that is planted on the edge of fields. The Summer months are brown and dry, hot and humid, and one can’t wait for the Monsoon. The gulmohurs are a delight during the hot period. Once the rain arrives, there is paddy planting, it’s all green, the frogs take over and fungus rules!
You champion a way of life known as permaculture. What does the natural world mean to you specifically?
The natural world, to me, means wild processes that bring stability, surprise and joy. They bring insights, meaning and revealation. Their complexity and variety offer an endless travel adventure.
The whole world got a taste of 'armchair-travel' after the pandemic rendered physical travel an impossibility for a while. Do you think virtual travel is worth it?
Imagination has its virtues, but ultimately we live in physical bodies. We need to feel the breeze on our skin, experience the touch of water as we wade into a stream, hear the rustle of leaves and the calls of birds, feel the dew of grass on our feet, have mud on our hands. We need actual sensations…imagined ones only make you hunger for the real thing.
What's your favourite city? Why so?
Well, cities have become such an assault on the soul now, with all the noise and pollution. crowding and busy-ness. My fondest memory of a city, however, is of Delhi in the late '70s. My father was posted at an Air Force station in Gurgaon and we would go to Delhi to meet relatives or friends, or to attend cultural events. It was quite an experience to witness the old monuments, the gardens, the markets and the wide roads. Somehow one got the feeling of belonging to an old culture. But that city doesn’t exist anymore. Cities themselves are travellers!