I am currently on vacation in the US. Well, it’s not completely a vacation given I will be working for the first half, attending a conference, and giving a talk. But it has been a really long time where the sole aim of travel was to travel. Apart from a few trips of 2 or 3 days to places like Sri Lanka or Hampi or Pondicherry, my travel for the past ten years or so has been entirely for work. It’s mostly fieldwork, conferences or various meetings. A few months ago, I traveled to Rajasthan for the first time. The people I worked with in Rajasthan were very surprised that I had never visited Rajasthan before, given it is such a tourist destination. Even the 7-year old daughter of my colleague had been to Rajasthan at least 3 times. But as I said before, I hadn’t worked in Rajasthan, so I never had the occasion to go to Rajasthan. Similarly, the reason I haven’t gone to Goa yet, another tourist trap, is because I have never worked in Goa. I work a lot in in Bihar, so Patna is as familiar to me as Bangalore. Essentially, I go to places where work sends me. And while this might not always be great for some people, given you do miss out on a few luxuries like sitting back and reading a book, or even just sleep, it has its own benefits.
When you travel to a new city or a village, the people you work with are no longer strangers who inhabit a different geography. More importantly, you stop being a stranger inhabiting a different geography. You become automatically an insider who is assumed to be part of the scenery. You become privy to secrets that visitors are blind to. So, when people take you to their favourite spots to eat their favourite cuisine, or show you the hidden vistas not visible through the thickness of tourist brochures and the tall tales of the tourist guide, it feels like a small sacrifice to work when you are traveling. But really, one of the most important elements for me when I travel for work are the people that I meet during the course of my work.
So, in Rajasthan, I met this person, L. Initially, we were a bit wary of each other, but as the day went on, we realized that not only did we share the same ethos about work, we also enjoyed the same songs. So, our trips across the dry lands of Rajasthan was heavily tinged with an odd mixture of our voices singing songs from films that had not yet captured colour. In one of these trips to a village, we finished conducting interviews in a remote village and realised it was too late to travel to the next village to continue the work. So, we decided to call it a day and given we had some time before we made the trek back to the city, we decided to climb a small sand dune.
The sand dune by itself was not very high. In fact, when the young people who were accompanying us climbed it ahead of me, it looked as though it was as easy as walking on level ground. But when I tried to achieve the same feat, I was huffing and puffing and had lost my shoes in the sand at least three times by the time I reached the top of the sand dune. When I got to the top, though, I realised the aggravation of the slipping and sliding were well worth the view on the top. From the top, you could see in the clear moonlight, more sand dunes, interrupted by clumps of dry brush. The vista around is not the stark desert that we have come to imagine when we hear the word ‘desert’. Instead, here, the sand dunes co-exist with dry arid land where some vegetation grows. It’s a desert, but a hard rocky one. As you climb up, the thing that arrests one’s eyes is not the stark landscape but the view above. As far as the eye can see, the entire sky – without any obstruction, without any reflected lights of the city – filled with countless twinkling stars. The air was cool and the night was almost silent, except for the “ hello-hello” of another colleague, P, who was trying to coordinate our dinners amidst bad connectivity.
After a while, in the distance, the slight echo of chatter from little children. The children from the village who had heard that P and L were in town, were scrambling over the sand dunes to meet us. They rushed to us in delight, and after the many hugs were completed, P sat them down in a circle and asked them to sing a song. All of them hesitated, and then, one of them started to sing a nursery rhyme. L interrupted and said that we should sing a song about stars, given we were sitting under them. He suggested a popular song from a Bollywood movie, and started the first lines in his rich baritone voice. The children enthusiastically joined him, and their loud voices echoed through the sandy night.
Sitting there, looking out to the vast blackness of the desert and up toward the endless shimmering sky, and listening to the children and L, I felt happy – the simple uncomplicated variety. My voice joined their song without me intending to, and we all sang together, out of the sheer enjoyment of that moment. After that song was over, we sang another one. So, we sang and we sang – in enjoyment of the vastness of space, and to match the endless joy within. So, I suppose that’s why I don’t mind traveling for work – because, for a few moments, under the stars and in the cool dark breeze of the desert sky, I can find delight in a different kind of harmony.