The Cloud Messengers
As I write these lines, somewhere above Southern Europe, I have not been able to sleep, nor am I able to stay fully awake — thanks to the steady clip of accumulated time differences as I travel westwards. For now, in this middle kingdom, between sleep and wakefulness, I am adrift and so are my thoughts. The early hours of dawn and the late evening sun are the most dangerous for the jet lagged when the body, like a teenager, rebels against what is expected of it. It is only during such travel that one realizes how deeply humans are in debt to the Sun’s arc. Despite having clocked thousands of miles in air travel over the past two decades, the wonder of airplane take-offs still grips me. I watch it keenly, as if it is my watchfulness that propels the plane to thrust upwards.
From up here, the world below is flattened and so lacking in all signs of life. It’s a strangely democratic vision of the life below. Hills and valleys appear as indentations and perforations. There are no cathedrals or ponds, no palaces or shantytowns. Only the mishmash of housing settlements spread out like a pizza topping, interstate highways that crisscross like varicose veins, urban forests that are like overgrown mould of green atop a piece of bread and vast expanses of snow no different than split milk on a dirty floor. Unless one flies over one’s own home, or something uniquely special say the Alps or Dubai’s Palm Islands, the scenery below in a jet plane is soon stultifying. It is an unending stream, an inchoate blur. Countries pass by. Histories that are held so dear, one country’s land that its citizens hold to be special is, alas, indistinguishable from their enemy’s. Iraq is no different than Iran. The truths we hold to be self evident for our identities, for which we bleed and kill, all seem far away in this sealed, air conditioned, tubular compartment. During day time, for hours, one can stare on without comprehension about what passes beneath. Yet, somehow intuit that what one sees below, humanity and its discontents, is grand, complex and beyond one’s reach.
Nighttime take offs adds a certain élan to the sights below: with cities lit up and each street corner a shimmering puddle. Together, the aureole of lights merges and forms a kaleidoscope. Design beyond human design. From the skies, cities at night are like an efflorescent algae. They dangerously seduce the onlooker with their promise and shimmer, while surrounded by a sea of darkness. Perhaps it is true, that each city emanates it’s own color at night: Moscow is bitter orange, New York is bottleblue, Mumbai is fiery yellow while Istanbul is purple. On different days, with a different cloud covers, like pop stars, cities reinvent themselves. During such long flights, matters more pressing come to mind. They are puerile yet portentous: did I forget my keys, are my trousers ironed for work the next day, did I leave the milk carton outside? I flit between reason and speculation, between thoughts about home and the anxiety of arrival.
As I grow older, my love for take offs has slowly given way to the experience of solitude at 35,000 feet, especially if I manage to finagle a window seat. That has not been the case today. Yet, I know that it is an oceanic view of blue at first, then even clouds concatenations that seem, from the grounds, like behemoth armies on the move, are nowhere here. Those over sized wisp-o-willows that bring us rain, those celestial sugar-candy puffs are tucked away at 10,000 feet below this plane. In a screen of immanent white, where distance is impossible to comprehend, the airplane moves like a bug slowly making past a large bedspread. Fast by its own count, but slowly, gingerly, and all too methodically. For fourteen hours, the time it takes from Dubai to New York, despite the civilized games that passengers and the flight stewards play, it is me and the vast emptiness outside - separated by three layers of acrylic plastic. Up here, it is just a diaphanous fabric that changes color as the sun travels it’s course and this airplane slips through it’s warp and weft.
Millennia of human fascination and reverence towards clouds are now upended thanks to air travel. They have become objects of curiosity, and no longer are they markers of our welfare. It is not reason per se that has led to his decline in status of the clouds or the skies in our imagination. Neither is modern science. The Sanskrit poetplaywright Kalidasa wrote more than a millennium ago that these clouds consist simply “of vapor, light, water and wind”, dhumajyotihsalilamarutam. That despite knowing this all too scientific a fact, the hero of his poem chooses to address the Clouds, asks them to carry a message to his wife, to his homeland. He has been banished to India, for a year, from the Heavenly city of Alakapuri. So, there develops camaraderie between the hero and the clouds. A feeling that may seem absurd to our urban sensibilities, but perhaps no different than that which many have towards their smart phones. Nature has been replaced by a monthly plan. In the poem, the hero speaks to the Clouds – when you pass over Varanasi (Benares), you will see this, describe this to my beloved; when you arrive over the city of Ujjaiyini, crackle your lightning so that wives may run back in the dark to their husbands from the homes of their lovers.; and so on. The Clouds become a witness to the hero’s loneliness, a narrative device in the hands of an expert poet and perhaps, most importantly, an acknowledgement that to comprehend the idea of home, one needs reason, sentiment and some irrational attachment. When homesickness awakens, even inanimate and unresponsive clouds may seem like good companions to talk to. Every time I leave home, I recognize that sense of attenuation, that quiet angst of separation. Kalidasa’s protagonist, the unnamed hero to suffers this weaning away from the teat of one’s home. Perhaps, this celestial protagonist is all too human. Prolixity is his virtue and the quest for rootedness his creed.
These days we would probably say that Kalidasa’s hero suffered from a bout of Nostalgia. As if it were a case of common cold or syphilis. It is a word we employ casually these days. Television anchors tell us, in their patois of born out of market demands and earnestness, that they are “nostalgic” for the films of yesteryears; cultural critics talk of the simpler times of the past; one-day cricketers talk of times before 20/20, test cricketers talk of times before one day cricket and so on. In face of change and uncertainty, it seems, these deep and human longings emerge in unexpected ways. But, to mistake longing for nostalgia, confuses both. In Greek, nostalgia emerges from nostos (return) + algos (suffering): the suffering caused by an impossibility of return. The key is suffering, the visceral and seemingly eternal pain that seeps into oneself. For, suffering without the idea of a return is merely pain; the idea of a return without any suffering is just a ticket back home from a vacation. The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera writes that in Iceland, one of the oldest European cultures, they distinguish between söknuour, a generic sense of longing, and heimprá, longing for home. In Malayalam, our language, there is a word for that complex of sentiments we associate with nostalgia. ‘Grihaduratvam’. It is a surprisingly precise term — the keen longing for home. Why does Malayalam have this term? Perhaps, it reveals a conscious quest to find one’s place in this world that one may call home. Or more simply, the large scale labor migration from Kerala to the Arab Gulf demands that language reflect the reality of perpetual longing to return home.
The plane I took from Kozhikode to Dubai was rife with both: suffering and longing. And the smell of perfume and sweat. Neatly coiffed young mustachioed men fiddle with their seat belts, check in-flight Malayalam movies and await the air hostess, patiently, to bring them another little plastic bottle of whisky or wine. It is an all too familiar scene. By now, we are inured to the charms and horrors of going to the Gulf. These men, and increasingly women too, head into the Gulf and Saudi Arabia to work, to live in societies with carefully constructed social hierarchies. There, wealth and access to the Arab infrastructure trumps caste and religion. It is a make-belief world with celebrations, Malayalam classes for their children, new cars, transnational love affairs, spousal abuses, poets, newspapers, cable TV, scams, political affiliations and visa problems. Like all immigrant enclaves - be it the Chinese in Singapore, the Gujaratis in East Africa, the Tamils in California, the Sikhs in Toronto, the Turks in Germany, the Puerto Ricans in New York — it is an effort to create the familiar in face of the unfamiliar. Amidst Arabian sands and spires of concrete and glass, they carefully tend to their memory of a green and moist Kerala, that they left behind.
The man sitting next to me watches me carefully as I keep responding to emails on my Blackberry. I smile at him, and he responds with a grateful grin. Later, when we got talking, he told me he was hesitant to say hello, because he had seen me read a book in English, and had inferred that such reading habits naturally means that I was unlikely to speak Malayalam. He is happily surprised to learn otherwise. He works at the Lulu Hypermarket in Abu Dhabi, where he is a odd-jobs-man — responsible for stocking up the racks with soaps, sanitary pads, lipsticks and shoes, cleaning up the floors in case someone spills something, as the person who brings out change from the manager’s offices when the cashiers request it. In his early forties, it was hard work and the psychic trauma - to be at the beck and call of everybody — would have accreted by now. Visiting Kerala, undoubtedly, was his reprieve. I was curious to know about the big questions: how was life in Abu Dhabi, how was the justice system there, did the Arabs treat Indians as equals? It was a silly and stupid line of thinking. I treated him as ends to confirm or deny my own worldview, as an informer into the mores of a different world; in a sense I wasn’t interested in him as a human being, but only as a validator of my own perceptions. In a sense, no matter what he would have said, I wouldn’t have known him or his world. He was, however, more interested in telling me about his home in Tirurangadi in Malabar region, in northern Kerala. It is a place I have often driven by. In my mind, I associate it with the faint salty smell of an early morning haul of fish from the Arabian Sea, the azaan from the mosque that still echoes, the torn and bleached out posters of Malayalam’s film industry heroes, the school children who stream dutifully in lines and young girls who wait patiently for the bus on the roads. In short, it is no different than a thousand other overgrown villages in Malabar. But, from him, I learn it is also a place of family, of expectations, of marriages, of disappointments, of expenses, of lack of employment and and mounting frustrations. Dubai may glitter ahead, Abu Dhabi may tantalize, but to him, few places are interesting than that unremarkable town in northern Kerala. His could have been a tale from the Maghreb in North Africa to the Eastern ends of Indonesia — of movements away from home in search of economic security.
This plane’s travelers who head to toil away in obscure shopping complexes and small establishments in the Arabian sands, long for their homes but they too must put in their time in a distant land. In a way, they are the children of Kalidasa’s heroes. One can see their scramble to be done away with this flight, to start their other life as migrant labor, as fast as they can, so that they may return home soon. Only to leave again. For me, there is another 10,000 odd kilometers to travel; and suddenly I am hungry. Nostalgia, supposedly said Che Guevara, begins from the stomach. I cannot but think about dosai and coconut chutney. Unfortunately now, we have hit some turbulence, and airhostess walks the aisle to check if the seat belts are fastened. They remind me of my primary school teachers, inspecting homework, with a smile that quickly into a disapproving smirk. I try to stare out — perhaps, I might see something interesting. Every so often, a plume of white leftovers from what was once a cloud drifts by. I watch it, endlessly. The only visual sense of motion is this flurry of whiteness that staggers by. I cannot but wonder how desolate it must be to go further upwards. It is at 120 kilometers above the sea level that spacecrafts typically last feel the remains of the earth’s atmosphere.
Already the evidence of life is frail and fragile. The higher one goes, the more spectacular is the view. The earth may seem like a ‘pale blue dot. But there is a cost — it is lonely up there. In outer space, said Stanley Kubrick the filmmaker, motion is harder to detect — for the only reference points are the stars that are millions of light years away. To shoot films with any fidelity to the real experience is difficult. The blackness of space is cinematically quite tedious. Suddenly, I realize, how fundamentally important clouds are to human cognition of space, motion and change. As humans have seemingly outgrown Nature, we may dismiss these fluffs as well understood and thus banal. But it is their drifts and capricious flights that originally inspired wonder and our ideas of Godhead, their arrivals and departures marked time and seasons, their traits gave us our metaphors. They were crucial to our understanding of our selves. It is only in their absence one realizes what an unmoored and bleak world it can be. As if one had left home, never to return.