Book Review | Blinded by Faith? The Difference Between Pilgrims and Tourists

Koi nahi bata sakta kidhar gayi sadak, kahan gaya raasta!.. No one can tell you where the road leads to?” 

Samaresh Bose’s (Kalkut) travelogue Amrita Kumbher Sadhnaney (In Search of the Pitcher of Nectar) translated into English language was originally published in 1954. The writer travels to Allahabad (now known as Prayagraj) to be a part of the Kumbh Mela that is held every 12 years in the month of Magh.

Interestingly, the publication year of the book coincides with the first Kumbh Mela held in Allahabad post-Independence. The travelogue immerses itself in a sea of people where some gather to find answers for the vagaries that life has surrounded them with; to people who have turned up at this place to release themselves from the never-ending circle of questions and answers. 

“Sometimes I feel our mind is a dangerous machine.” 

There are several characters scattered throughout the narrative who add richness and depth to this travelogue. Although the journey of the self remains individualistic; it is amongst people that at times one receives the answers that otherwise remain elusive. The self evolves/changes as time passes and there are several factors that come together to shape the thought process and the overall psychological make up of a person. 

“Look, our life is spent in a confined space. With the limited scope of living, we repeat our daily habits and argue about big things. How much do we know of our own country? How much have we seen it?…” 

One of the strands that contribute to this shaping and reshaping process are the myths, the stories and the narratives that have helped create as well as build the world around us. The travelogue is filled with narratives around the creation and the importance of Kumbh Mela. The world of the gods and the demons is recalled and resurrected with every narrative that is woven around it. 

“ …Haven’t you heard that the gods hid the bowl of nectar at the Prayag-Sangam, to deceive the demons?” 

But it is not just this nectar that makes this space an important one. The writer delves into the poison that a mind is capable of creating and holding on to and through his interactions with other people hopes that one will be able to empty the mind of the poison and dip oneself in the pitcher of nectar. There is a holding on to this faith that nectar will emerge from the poison. One realises as one goes further inside the book that the thematic concern is not just on the journey that happens within an actual physical space but it is about the journeys of the mind where at times one steps out to breathe and at times that very act of stepping out makes one uneasy, and one returns back to the confines of the mind. It is that back and forth energy that has been captured through this work. Even the waters of the city reflect this energy that seems to run through the place.

With Ganga and Jamuna flowing side by side, the writer searches for Saraswati who is said to remain hidden. The physical description of the city has not been limited to the architecture but it brings in people, the sounds, the vibrance that creates a city. The city becomes a story itself – getting recreated as generations pass through its doors. 

“My son, there is no peace of mind at home. So I come rushing out. But I see more restlessness in the outside world. Then I again run back home. For me, the inside and the outside have become the same. I don’t know where I would find some peace.” 

Sociologist Erik Cohen in his essay “Pilgrimage and Tourism: Convergence and Divergence”, has observed that the difference between pilgrims and tourists lies in this idea that the pilgrims move towards the centre of their idea of a conceptual universe whereas a tourist moves away from their centre in search of the Other. But the book blurs this distinction in many ways and fuses them together. Initially in the book, the writer seems to be entering this space as a modern man whose ideas have been shaped by the rational side of thinking, that it turns difficult to look with faith and belief through an emotional lens. There is a discovery of the self that occurs and by the end of the travelogue, a new perspective emerges.

Caught between the nexus of the familiar and the unfamiliar world, the writer moves into a third space that allows for the free movement of ideas and beliefs. The confluence here is of an India that has not been affected by the ideas of the West and of an India that inhales the air of modernity. It is this confluence that breathes life into this book. The travelogue reminds one of an essay by one of the pioneers of the Nai Kahani literary movement in Hindi literature, Nirmal Verma. His essay on Kumbh Mela post his visit in 1976, The Burning Bough can be considered an essential read if one wants to understand this nexus that has been discussed by Kalkut in this book.  

A friend asked with a touch of sarcasm, ‘Why are you going to the Kumbh Mela? For religious purpose?’

I replied, ‘Just to see’…

The friend persisted,  ‘To see what? Lakhs of people blinded by faith?’

Blinded by faith! If lakhs of people are blinded by faith, why not search for the reason?…” 

Semeen Ali has four books of poetry to her credit. Her works have featured in several national and international journals as well as anthologies. She has been invited to literary festivals to read from her works. She has co-edited three anthologies of poetry that have been published nationally and internationally. Her new anthology on women’s writings will be published this year. Apart from reviewing books for prestigious journals, she is also the Fiction and the Poetry editor for the literary journal Muse India.

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