Stagnant Waters

Travels, travelers and travelogues have influenced human literature throughout history and it is no exaggeration to say that these have contributed so much that has inevitably gone into the making of culture and civilization. So thorough has been this influence that it is ancient wisdom today to state that travel teaches man what he might not otherwise learn. The description of places, people, culture and learning, coupled with rare insights that the observant traveler is gifted with, offer a compelling view of man and society inaccessible to the lay-person. As much is in evidence in the story-essay presented hereunder: an instance of Islam’s remarkably candid admonition in favour of man’s necessarily ceaseless quest for truth and perfection.

 

The dust had to settle, of course.

For, with the dust of the restoration work hanging in the air, the strange, haunting attraction of the lake was diminished this time in the late evening.

The time of the day when Max would sometimes go walking the five kilometers that separated his office from his residential apartment.

The times when he wouldn’t take his trusted motorbike to his office simply for the pure joy of walking the distance in solitude.

The road wound around this famous lake of Bangalore: famous because Bangalore was nowhere near any sort of water body that could honestly be called a river or a sea. Thus, given the land-locked contours of Bangalore, the lake was a regular visiting spot for tourists as well.

This was the Ulsoor Lake. The lake that lies north-west to what the Britishers had once called a ‘native suburb’: the thickly populated Ulsoor region of Bangalore. It was the Ulsoor that brought back memories of ‘Old Bangalore’ and almost took one back in time with the ruins of old houses that have fallen after having seen better days, the houses that have still withstood the ravages of time and others that await the dust to settle before they themselves will eventually sit down, or will be made to sit down, in eternal slumber.

The remains of what once was a clock-tower stands in the town square symbolic of the fact that time itself has come to a standstill when one enters into this part of Bangalore: the ‘city market’ of east Bangalore where one still saw the moving bazaars on wheels or pushcarts that move from door to door; where the sight of goods and people being drawn by horse carriages are, even today, far from having faded into a distant memory, a very real sight.

The Ulsoor Lake or Tank – once called the Ulsur Lake – lies to the North-West of Ulsoor. The lake can be quite dangerous to swim in and there were many a European soldier who had drowned in the same, perhaps caught in the weeds and lotus plants. Indeed, there was once a time when the condition of the Lake was regarded as dangerous to public health because of the weed-choked and shallow waters.

In 1901, the water level came very low, and the lake was drained, and the weeds were removed before the monsoons. The entire operation of draining and rooting out the weeds took around thirty days. When full, the lake stretched across an area of one hundred and twenty five acres; its greatest depth being around twelve feet, with an average of eight feet all around.

In earlier times, when Bangalore was a stationing point of the British garrison, the water-works for supplying the European troops were situated on the side of a rock adjoining, but with the introduction of piped water supply, this was put out of use. There was a Gymkhana which ran a Boat Club. One can still go for boat rides today on this lake and there are even a few islands scattered around that can be picnicked on. There is also a small garden to the Northeast of the lake known as Kensington Park, and which runs along Kensington Road.

Fishing at the lake was licensed in the past, but Max was not sure if the practice continues, although one can find a number of sticks with string attached along the western side of the Lake. Of course, Max could not even start to imagine game-fishing with reel and tackle here.

The Red Cross Home – once St. Mary’s Home – sits just opposite the Park and the once Royal Engineers, and Sappers and Miners were located at the Meeanee Lines adjacent to it. North of Ulsoor lies Murphy Town, and the Murphy Road is now part of the Old Madras Road, and meets with Kensington Road that goes southward to meet Mahatma Gandhi Road (formerly South Parade) at the Trinity Church junction. Just at the tapering south end of the lake on Kensington Road, one finds the Sikh Gurudwara or Temple, and there are some large compounds that were once part of some old bungalows.

Then there were the tourists to the Ulsoor Lake like the one who sat next to Max now as he seated himself on one of the stone benches that faced the water. The man couldn’t have been above fifty years, from what Max gathered of his youthful features as he sat gazing at the orange disc in the sky that was sinking into the waters of the lake behind the trees of that small island in the middle.

Sunset in Bangalore during February comes sometime after six in the evening: the time when Max left his workplace. The setting sun had now cast a hue of bright crimson across the horizon beyond the lake and the whole setting had begun to assume the aura of a different world. Like himself, Max intuitively knew that the man next to him was also absorbed in this artistry of the Divine – this miracle of everyday life – that was now unfolding before their eyes in all its transient beauty.

“You have been in Bangalore before?” Max asked, hoping to start up a conversation with this fair, foreign-looking stranger who, for some reason, seemed to him as a man of interesting experiences.

The stranger turned to look at Max and then smiled. A smile that suddenly revealed hidden lines in his face. A smile that suddenly showed how much older he looked for what seemed to be his age.

“No. This is my first time here although I have been in India several times earlier.”

“And how do you find the place?” Max wished he had a better question to ask.

“Well, Bangalore must mean a lot more to me since we lived off it back in the United Kingdom while I was growing up, you know.”

“I beg your pardon?” Max wasn’t sure of what he had heard just then.

“Yes. My father was a soldier in the Bangalore garrison of the British army before the independence years.” The man seemed to be in an effort to avoid something unpleasant that had just come up.

“Oh, but that is interesting..err..Mr..?”

“Winston, friend.” The man smiled again. “And you are?”

“Maximus.”

“Maximus?” The man raised an eyebrow.

“Yes. Maximus. Max, for short.” He was blunt.

“Well, Max. My father’s an even more interesting person once you get to know him.” The man looked into the lake and seemed as if he was digging up something from memory.

“Really, Mr. Winston?” Max wondered at the speed with which a rapport was building up between the two of them.

“Yes, Max. He’s a wanderer, you know, and he’s been to all sorts of places in the world in his time.” The man’s voice was strangely sad as he glanced at the white bird that now came down and alighted on the surface of the water, a little further away into the lake.

“He’s seen people die, Max. And he’s seen them in life as well. He’s also killed people like he’s seen others kill and be killed in his life as a soldier.”

Max stopped the next question that came up to his throat just then and didn’t let it come out.

“My father used to say that four years of war gave a man more than forty years at a university in the way of education in the problems of life. And sometimes I knew he was right. But his wanderings through the Middle East war zones, however, did create a change in him that has been permanent.”

“What sort of change was that, Mr. Winston?”

“Well, for one thing, he distanced himself from the Anglican Church back home. But it proved to be not a passing phase, Max; not merely a passive rejection of Church principles. It was an active rejection: one in which he exchanged one belief and one culture with another belief, another culture.”

Max was suddenly very interested. “May I ask what he adopted, instead?”

“Well, my father became a Moslem, Max.” A faraway look came into the man’s eyes as they rested on the sagging, gentle ripples of the lake surface before him. The white bird spread out its wings, flapped excitedly, and then lifted off into the air.

Max barely managed to control the emotions and the hundred and one questions that then welled up in him. But he did control himself with a great effort that was aided, in part, by his switching the excited look in his eyes to the dying colours of red and crimson that now washed the evening sky above the serenity of the lake. His attention was momentarily distracted by the sight of the last edge of the golden disc that was the sun as it went down the horizon beyond the waters in front of him.

“Do you know what its like to be a Moslem?” The man suddenly turned in earnest towards Max.

“Well, I just might, you know. I have heard and read things about that religion.” Max was caught off guard but he balanced himself, unable at that point to recognize the direction in which this conversation was heading.

He decided to wait it out.

“It was all because of those wanderings of his which gave him the opportunity to think different. Why couldn’t he just be like these stagnant waters? Like this lake here.” Max felt the man switching track.

“Stagnant waters?”

“Yes. That’s what my father called people who refused to move from place to place; people perpetually stuck at one spot. To him, such people lived life never to the full. They never gave themselves the chance to learn the hard but resounding lessons of experience. Still, my father never could understand why his own wanderings were not over yet. He often wondered why he had to be in constant movement, without for a moment in a state of rest. Why was it that the life he had chosen of his own accord did not grant him the total satisfaction that he yearned for? What was it in that environment that still made him feel something was amiss? Not the intellectual interests of Europe, surely, for had he not left those behind him a long time ago?”

“Does your father still feel that way, Mr. Winston?” Max was pushing the conversation to a logical conclusion now.

“Well, no. That was all before he changed over to the Islamic system. Before he met that Kurdish nomad in one of his escapades into Turkey during the Second World War.”

“This is getting interesting by the minute,” Max thought to himself as he shifted his position on the bench and let the evening breeze play with his hair.

An evening that was fast turning into the darkness of night.

“A Kurdish nomad, Mr.Winston?”

“Yes, Max. There was this old Kurdish tribesman who once told him that water that remains motionless in a pool grows stale and muddy, but when it moves and flows it becomes clear. Man’s predicament, too, in his wanderings, is not any different. At this, my father found all his uncertainties disappear. He understood then that his life could not have taken a different course. For, as he would tell me later, he had, in his life of travels, in fact, set out to exchange one world for another – to gain a new world for himself in exchange for an old one which he never even possessed as his own. But, by then, he also knew that such an endeavour might, indeed, take a complete lifetime.” Mr. Winston finished, his head bowed down in the pain of some memory.

“Travelling in search of knowledge,” Max remembered Ibn Battutah’s younger North African contemporary, Ibn Khaldun, as having written, “is absolutely essential for the acquisition of useful learning and of perfection through meeting authoritative teachers and having contact with scholarly personalities.”

But, the prophet Muhammad had put it more pithily: “Travel in search of knowledge, even though the journey take you to China.”

Despite the rhetorical injunction, the East for most Maghribis (or the westerners in the then known world) meant Cairo, Damascus and Makkah. The question to ask, then, is not why Ibn Battutah set out – thought Max of a sudden – but why he went so far. Max was certain that if Ibn Battutah himself could be asked why he went so far, it is just about possible that he would have retold the story of his meeting in Alexandria with the saint Burhan al-Din, the Lame, who, seemingly gifted like many of his holy peers with knowledge of future events, asked Ibn Battutah to pass on his greetings to his spiritual brothers in Sind, India and China. “I was amazed at his prediction,” Ibn Battutah recalled, “and the idea of going to these countries having been cast into my mind, my wanderings never ceased until I had met these three.”

Predestination as an encouragement to action may seem paradoxical; but not so for Ibn Battutah, the prince of Arab travelers who in the thirteenth century after the disappearance of Christ, traversed much of the known world almost in its entirety during a period spanning more than three decades. The quest, for him, was always part of the destiny.

“But, Mr. Winston.” Max was getting to love this man’s father for the resonant chord that he seemed to touch in his own self. “Where exactly is your father now? How is he faring with his life as a Muslim?”

“Well, Max.” Mr. Winston sighed as he got up slowly from the bench, his tall frame still bowed down as he walked up a step towards the waters of the lake. “He didn’t retire from active military service as he should have a long time ago.”

“But, his age…? He didn’t retire?” Max was dumbfounded. “Is he in the United Kingdom now?” Max was eager to know.

“No, Max.” Mr.Winston sat himself on his haunches, balancing himself on his toes, by the concrete on the lakeside. “He’s not in the United Kingdom. He’s right here, in front of us.”

“What…?” For the second time that evening, Max wasn’t sure he heard right. “What did you say, Mr. Winston?”

“In the lake, Max. He drowned in this Ulsoor Lake, caught in the creepers and the vines at the bottom and got sucked into a mud-hole in the middle. His body was never recovered, though. So that’s where my father ended up with his wanderings at the age of forty-six.” The man’s voice trailed off into the night.

How many fellow travelers have I known? I cannot count.

How many corners of the earth? I cannot tell.

Now that my wanderings east and west are done,

There is but one last corner left: my grave.

That was how a wandering poet of the eleventh century had characterized his wanderings, not that it would have helped the two men on the shores of the lake just then.

Two strangers with a world of inexpressible emotion between them.

But then, as an old Arab proverb went: ‘Strangers are kin.’

Ibn Battutah would have agreed.