Aimless Wanderings Unearth Hidden Treasures

There are no landmarks, no monuments to pose in front of, no local delicacy to sample, no mountains to climb, no spectacular view to gaze wonderstruck at, and no souvenirs to hunt for.

Fuel for the day: A village elder heads home with her firewood collection

We are not looking for anything, and don’t know where we are going; only that we are on our way.
Ha Noi being Ha Noi, we are out of the city in a very short while, and the sun is hot, so it might be close to noon, we are not sure, but that does not bother us either.

We do navigate the traffic with care as we cruise along for a while. At random, one of us nods at a street that turns right, and getting a nod in return, we turn our bikes that way.

Lines of a popular song hum in my head:

I am a traveler, friends
There is no home, no destination
I just have to keep going,
Just keep going.
When one path stops, another turns
As I turn, the path turns with me…

Soon we are in a village. Work proceeds apace on renovating a pagoda, but the sounds mingle effortlessly into a louder silence that has enveloped the village at around noon. In front of the pagoda is lake, its water green, polluted, and not very inviting if you want to jump into it, but we have no plans to do so, so it adds the right verdant touch.

The right setting: A promenade bisects a pagoda and a lake

The street between the pagoda and the lake has recently been widened as part of a “beautification” project, it seems, making it look more like a square or a promenade than a thoroughfare. A banyan tree on one corner of the lake invitingly throws out its shade, and we decide to accept the invitation.

We sit under the tree, and catch the eye of a young cowherd, watching over his herd of one cow grazing on a very small patch of land between two houses.

A few feet away, under another tree with a wide canopy on another street corner, a household has set up a sugarcane juice stall and a few village youth are seated under it. Their somewhat loud conversation and laughter does not last long as the languor of the time and place take over again.

The cowherd gazes at me with a blank curiosity, and I return the compliment. It is sugarcane juice time? It is, indeed. So we order two glasses. Just the right amount of ice, just the right amount of sweetness.

The cowherd and I resume our frank exchanges once in a while. He stands and stretches, and squats in a more comfortable position. The cow is oblivious to everything around it - even to the swishing of its own tail to wave away flies that I cannot see.

Watchful: A cowherd does his thing

From one end of the square/promenade/street, we watch a man with a slight limp walk to the other in measured, unhurried steps. He turns the corner and disappears from sight.

We continue to sit under the tree, punctuating our companionable silence with desultory conversation that ping-pongs gently between philosophy and daily life. The occasional cyclist and motorcycle pass by intent on completing some significant task, and the rare pedestrian seems to have time well in hand as she and he go by with sure confident steps.

Our reverie is strangely deepened as we watch an old woman walk by with a bundle of wood, a conical hat carefully mended on top with a piece of plastic, thrift and care in every wrinkle on her face. She cannot make it past the street in one go, and opts to rest under the banyan tree.

She stares into the distance, her gaze and her face telling a long, powerful story that needs no words.

Time passes, and before we know it, the sun is preparing its descent over a bamboo cluster. In our search for a closer look at the captivating scene, we wander into the compound of a house that stands on the edge of a rice field that looks out at the bamboo.

Another pleasant surprise awaits us. Inside is a beautiful garden of bonsai trees of various ages and size – some more than four or five decades old. That is their vocation, the family tells us as they make us welcome instantly, with typical rural hospitality.

The day holds me by the hand, and bades me sit here
The night beckons me thither
My companionship is with both day and evening
I am a traveler, friends…

By Hari Chathrattil

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