“You can boast about anything if it’s all you have. Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast.” – John Steinbeck
It’s hard to get my head round the idea of a “struggle” whilst sitting in a comfy chair drinking tea and eating biscuits (and typing with o n eÂ f i n g e r). But out there it makes sense.
I hate the gag reflex stench of road kill, the stickiness of sweat. I hate being stared at. I hate being asked the same questions a hundred times a day. But brutal days will end, as they always have and will continue to do. A different sunset, a different resting point, a different perspective. A little less road waits for me tomorrow. A little more road lies behind me. It’s just as it always was. And I have come far enough now to begin brewing the bittersweet, cathartic feeling that comes with completing a hard task. Pride, surprise and relief.
People keep advising me to take the bus or offering rides on their motorbikes. I decline one offer, saying that I have just 15 kilometres to walk before the next village.
“15 kilometres?” replies the motorcyclist. “Oh, but the pain! Your legs…” And his head wobbles in horror.
Indians have no notion of the all-or-nothing aspect to my walk. Take one lift and the whole thing is futile. Even on the rare occasions when people understand that I am walking across India they will still say, “But I will just drop you at the next town. It is too far and too hot for walking.”
I ask for directions. A man with a large moustache, hairy ears and thick glasses gives two options. I push him for clarification. “They are both exactly the same,” he reassures me, noticing my concern at his vagueness. “One is 25 kilometres, one is 40 kilometres. No big difference. No problem.”
Anyone scoffing at an extra 15 kilometres has clearly not done much walking. I take the shorter route. It would be silly masochism not to. But I walk it. Why don’t I take a bus? It would be silly masochism not to…
Is it as simplistic as seeking pain? Why drive when I could walk? For the struggle. So why walk when I could crawl? “Seek pain, pain, pain!” cried Rumi. What are the rules? Where are the arbitrary boundaries in this search for a difficult life? They move and shift like sandbars. I’m not sure they stand up to rational scrutiny. I suppose they are defined by what feels right at the time, to me and me alone.
I want it to be hard. I want to spend most of the time dearly wishing I was not here, battling in my mind against excuses to stop. I derive a grim satisfaction from it, like sucking a lemon if you are desperately thirsty. I enjoy sticking through things that most people would not or could not endure. “You’ve got it in the neck -stick it, stick it- you’ve got it in the neck,” repeated Captain Scott over and over on his way to the South Pole, a mantra for a struggle.
Some of the attraction is retrospective, the rose-tinted memories of completing something difficult. I look back at roads I’ve pushed myself down and I smile to myself. There was no applauding welcome at the end of those quiet roads, no tangible reward, no praise from others. The struggle reassures me I can still be hard. Or is “hard” the wrong word? Perhaps “daft”? But I would walk those roads even if I was not writing about them. It has to be for myself. It can only be for me, for we all have different thresholds of “difficult”. Epic for me might be easy for you. It is my trial and my satisfaction afterwards.
Why do I value all this? Is it only to enjoy stopping? Perhaps it is to prove myself (in both meanings of the word)? To set me apart and boost my prestige because you can’t do it, or won’t do it? Because if I can do it, so can you? Because if I can do this I can do much more?
It is an old story, this one of redemption through suffering. From the Bible to King Lear and Crime and Punishment to our generation’s contribution, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. Pre-dating all that is the colourful world of Hindu myth and ritual.
I hear it before I see it. Gunshots and drumbeats! I turn to see yet another religious procession. But even by India’s high standards this one looks pretty mad. Dancing towards me are hundreds of men and women, draped with flowers and bearing large terracotta urns of burning wood on their heads. The fires light up the street. Sweat-wet drummers thrash out the rhythm for all to follow. A whirling, adolescent girl (a god, I am told) spins in a frenzy at the head of procession with crazed, unseeing eyes.
People urge me to join in. I am handed a blazing urn and I dance down the road. Hot embers rain down. The atmosphere is charged. After a few mad minutes, I hand over my jar of fire and step back into the crowd. People are more interested in me than the event itself, which does not feel right. At the rear of the procession is a lorry, moving slowly behind the dancers. An effigy hangs from a gantry on the front. With a shock, I realise that it is a man hanging there. Suddenly I see that the man is hanging from hooks skewered through the flesh of his back, pulled tight by his body weight. He is conscious but motionless. I look into his eyes for some sort of clue to how he is feeling. His face is completely expressionless and his eyes are like the windows of an empty home. At his feet other devotees have 12-foot metal spikes rammed through their cheeks. They walk gingerly, bullying themselves to keep going, step after step.
The men look drained, almost ghoulish in their pain. I try to imagine how they feel. The humid air pulsates with drumming and wild energy and the glow of fire reflects in all our eyes. I think about the searing pain as the cold metal broke their skin. The dull, nauseating ache throughout the long procession. How long will they bear these wounds?
Why are they doing this? To prove something to themselves, to their loved ones, to their god. Because they will feel proud of their devotion and commitment long after the night’s agony has subsided. No outsider can understand or share how these men feel, but that does not matter. Because, mad though their actions appear, this may be the greatest moment of their lives, a moment of lucidity and accomplishment far above anything they had ever imagined themselves capable of achieving. The moment that may define their life.