Ocean or Mountain?


Ocean or Mountain?

The Statesman

21 Sep 2014

The Impact On Senses And Consciousness
martin kämpchen

WOULDN’T it be enjoyable and meaningful to live either in the mountains or near the ocean? India has the Himalayas inviting us to stay, and India has the longest seashore ~ but here I am spending most of my life in the flattest of flat areas, at Santiniketan. I have often wondered why Rabindranath chose this flat and, at his time, arid stretch of land to make his home. It is not enough to say that he stayed there because his father Debendranath bought it and it was ready to be used. It is not enough to say that Rabindranath wanted to get away from the city and be with nature. Before settling at Santiniketan, Rabindranath spent the major part of a decade on the river Padma. There too, the ground was flat, but he lived on the bank of a river which is a deeply symbolic act. It nourished Rabindranath’s soul. Living near a flowing stream, we get the sense of the flux of time, the flow of energy and grace. To a sensitive mind it is possibly the basic fact of life.
What symbolism exists in a flat countryside? What does the horizon stretching out all around tell you?  You get a much greater feeling of vastness when you are on the ocean. Does it convey to you the power of the earth, its solidity, its stability? How much more of that do you get viewing the Kanchenjunga!
Yet, the Santiniketan landscape “worked” well for me. When I first took the cycle out into the villages around I was amazed by its sense of pastoral harmony. The fields and the trees and the mud huts blended perfectly with each other as if composed by a master artist. The men going out to work in the fields bare-chested, the animals living with the family in a common household. All this impressed my romantic mind. The aridness that Rabindranath had seen had by then been transformed into groves and bushes and clusters of palm-trees struggling for space around the villages.
This was almost 35 years ago. Today, the uncontrolled mushrooming of farm-houses and institutions at a radius of ten and more kilometers around the Visva-Bharati University campus has vanquished that lovely harmony. You have to take your cycle (not a car) further afield to get that same sense. The landscape worked for me because it never overpowered my creative sensibilities. I could be at one with the landscape and continue to build on and around it with my imagination. Staying at Santiniketan and in its Santhal villages I was able to write my short stories, my essays, my novel, and I believe that I could not have translated Rabindranath’s poems and songs the way I did without my long and lasting experience of that flat, harmonious landscape of thirty years ago.
Could it be true that Rabindranath chose Santiniketan for similar reasons? To be at a place where the natural environment did not overpower, but rather left space for his poetic imagination to unfold? ~ I wonder. Judging from his journals written on ships and his letters sent from the mountains he did react deeply to his surroundings. The mountains exerted their fascination as much as the waves. Even then, Rabindranath chose not to live, say, near the Ganga or in Kalimpong except for short spells.
From time to time I do need those more powerful mountain-and sea-scapes in order to satisfy my mind. I wait for them to captivate my senses and my consciousness. The flow of a river is hardly visible even from close-by, the flux of time that it symbolizes therefore appears gentle, soothing. But look! Those glorious mountains which build up, layer by layer, high into the horizon, those thunderous waves crashing down! The tumult and majesty of an entire lifetime can be conveyed through the zigzag lines of the Himalayas at, say, Durpin Tibetan Monastery in Kalimpong on a super-clear day. The unpredictable boldness of the waves on the Puri beach crashing down on you and engulfing you with their froth and foam may give you an experience which shapes the rest of your life.
The mountain shades are static. Depending on the varying light of the day and the shifting mist and haze of the seasons they may appear different from one moment to the other. But the lines are what they are, gentle or bold, and always anchored to the ground. The mountains breathe solitude and silence. But the ocean waves are dynamic, forever shifting, forever moving, invigorated by their sound-scape. The rhythmic roar underscores the ocean’s ever-wakefullness. The mountain lines leave space for contemplation and reflection, while the waves suck us inside like a maelstrom and leave little breathing space to feel and think.
Yet, there are other ways of looking at the duality of ocean/mountains. It has been said that the mountains pose a challenge to man. They invite, more, they compel  you to climb and conquer the top. We know of that passionate temptation to probe and proceed beyond all reasonable caution. The ocean, by contrast, is the element which induces you to let go and renounce.
Your position is important. Are you on the beach or surrounded by the water? Albert Camus wrote from the security of standing on firm ground ~ “I have always loved the ocean. It always had a soothing effect on me.” But on a voyage from one continent to another the face of the ocean changes. He commented: “For a moment the infinite solitude suits me well, but I get the feeling that today the ocean tosses and turns the tears of all mankind.”
The infinity of water can be perilous to the psyche. Even when calm the ocean may appear malicious and treacherous, casting a spell on you. It lacks a natural direction ~ there’s no front and back, no middle. No sign-posts to find a direction. WG Sebald: “The world is behind you and in front nothing but emptiness.”
Indian philosophy views the ocean as a symbol of worldly life. Seen from afar, maybe from the beach, it is a motionless sheet of water; seen from close by it is choppy, restless, unpredictable. What do you prefer? To approach life in a contemplative frame of mind at peace with itself? Or, do you wish to be in the midst of its struggle and strive? What is more real ~ the motionless ocean or the smashing wave?
Ocean or mountain? Or, well, Santiniketan’s comforting plains?

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