“I come from a place very close to Kanyakumari. The beach is only about 10 kilometers away from my home” – Every time I tell someone about this, especially someone who isn’t from the southern part of the country, there is always a smile on their face accompanied by a glee in their eyes. I am very aware that the smile usually means “how amazing it must be to live near Kanyakumari”. Almost always this smile is followed with “Can you see Sri Lanka from Kanyakumari? “. Then it becomes my turn to smile. I had been an unsuspecting audience to a lot of conversations where newly-wed husbands on their honeymoon trip to the Cape Comorin explain to their new wives how the part of the sea behind the rock beside the shore where the water looks green is indeed the Arabian sea, the blue part the Indian ocean and the grey part, the Bay of Bengal. My smile turns into a grin when the Arabian Sea moves to east and Bay of Bengal shifts to the west.
My first trip to London and the first place I went to was Westminster Bridge of all the places. I stood there Upon the Westminster Bridge with William Wordsworth eyes shut and watched “A sight so touching in its majesty” , while “ the river glideth at its own sweet will” and I knew what he meant by “ Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep”. This time I chose to ignore the confused look on my friends face watching me stand there in a long meditation just the way those honeymooners ignored my grin. The excitement I felt standing there was the one like a child who discovered the key to a room full of magical toys. It never once felt foreign. It was as if I have always been there.
I felt the same every time I walked past the platform 9 and 10 of Kings Cross, although I knew that platform 9 ¾ never really existed except in J.K.Rowling’s books. I almost got lost trying to find the other pyramid in the Louvre Museum, thanks to Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”. While my friend was busy finding the way to the Eiffel tower, I was secretly hunting for the lanes Hemingway wrote through once. Although a coincidence, I was pleasantly surprised to find the tombs of Victor Hugo and Voltaire. I made a marathon of attempts and finally entered the Church of Notre Dame because that was the closest I could get to Joan of Arc. The St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican City, the streets of Venice, the Colosseum of Rome, Anne Frank’s hideout in Amsterdam and the list goes on.
I realize a lot of these places I would only have imagined being there and to really stand there alive in flesh and soul is a feeling beyond words of expression. It was more than a dream come true and I am sure that must have been the same for the ones coming all the way to Kanyakumari from different parts of the country. I have always been filled with a deep sense of gratitude and humility during each of these visits because I knew the significance of each of these places thanks to all the writers. I must confess I have been introduced to some of these places through fictions and there are times I might have been equally excited by fictitious items every book lover appreciates like Sherlock Holmes’s 221 B, Baker street in London or the Platform 9 ¾ from the Harry Potter Series. However a little introspection tells me I have indeed learnt to appreciate the real significance of the places I go to and look for more than what catches the eye.
I spent almost half a day at the Conciergerie where Marie Antoinette was held prisoner and later guillotined. Given all the splendid architecture across the city of Paris, this less attractive prison had more history to talk about. Standing there amidst the walls of the prison, I had two lessons to take away from the French capital. One was the amount of effort that had gone into telling the story of the place, the city and the history of the French as a whole. You keep walking through the prison only to find every possible piece of its history and the finer details of the place explained with such care through digital displays, noticeboards and simulations without tampering the historical artifacts. The second, I saw a mother walk in with her boy of around 5 years and was explaining to him everything that prison had to say.
When I came back to India I visited Devi Kanyakumari again. This time the visit was not only for the divinity of the place but also to look for the stories of the lives that have been part of this legacy. I was not surprised but was definitely pained to learn how difficult it is to find the sources to study the cultural and historical significance of the place when compared to the mythological significance of it. I remember pledging every day in school “India is my country… I am proud of its rich and varied heritage” and it is disappointing how I have been always very proud without really knowing the heritage. Especially when I have lived all my life very close to one of the most important heritage sites of my country. And this is only an example.
Every place that we pass by in this country does have a lot of tales to tell and I am convinced that each one of them is as magnificent as that of the Joan of Arc. While it might be impossible for us to know all of it, it is important we know at least the significance of the place we come from. We probably did lose 70 years in writing our history right and with much specifics, but I do not blame the previous generations. They were children of difficult times and needed the time to learn to breathe freely before they could do more. But now is the time. It is important we dive deep into the ocean of historical archives, excavate those treasures of knowledge and dig out the truth of who we are from the deepest of the graves. It is also important to acknowledge the fact that the truth we bring out need not be entirely pleasant and glorious always.We also need to learn to accept our failures and shortcomings as a nation. However the most important task that lies ahead of us is to tell our children the history of who we are and without meddling with the facts. So the next time you take your children to that park, please tell them what was there before it was a park; while you drive them to those long-winding number of classes, do tell them about who all walked through the same road.
I do know there are a lot of questions that I have left unanswered. I also know there might be questions I wouldn’t know the answer to. I say, bring them on and let us find the answers together except for one – “Can you see Sri Lanka from Kanyakumari? “.