I have a thing for the past. And the ‘paster’, the better. Events, buildings, houses, towns, things, people, stories….anything. In my travels, I often visit places that have a strong hangover of the past. In a country like India especially, it is easy to find such places because they are practically everywhere. There, I find myself spending hours browsing antiquities, looking up old bookstores, gazing at old mansions and forts…even seeking out old people with faces crinkled like walnuts to chat with.
Why is this so? For one, because there is simply so much beauty, grandeur and harmony in things from the past. Most things from the olden days have an exquisite design aesthetic, a robustness and a caliber of craftsmanship that is difficult to find these days. But also, the past reminds us of our roots, our beginnings and the paths we have trodden to come this far. The living remnants and accounts of the past tell us of another way of life, another worldview altogether. They tell us about how we had thought, spoken, acted at one point of time. And if you aggregate these remnants and accounts, you get a cumulative view of the history of mankind. After all, all that we have today has been built on the past (often, on the debris of the past).
But, of all things that embody another time, the one that moves me the most is the lighthouse (again, the older, the better). No curio, no fort, no ancient temple or mosque comes even close to it. From the minute I clap my eyes on a lighthouse, I itch to explore it – even touch and feel it. Even if I spot one from afar (say, from a bus or train), my gaze remains locked on it till it fades out of view.
The lighthouse instantly calls to mind the several generations of seafarers, for whom the sea was the only way to travel to far-flung places. These were the bravest travelers of all time, foraying into uncharted waters and finding unmapped lands. Braving extreme weather conditions, illness and frequent paucity of resources, they managed to go where nobody else had gone before them.
For them, lighthouses were crucial navigational guides, like lamp posts in the sea. And often, the presence of a lighthouse made the difference between life and death to them. In that sense, they were one of the earliest friends of travelers.
All these thoughts rush through my mind whenever I see a lighthouse. I have seen several of them over the years – in Daman, Kannur, Vypeen, Vizhinjam, Chennai, Galle (Sri Lanka) and other places. And the effect they have on me hasn’t changed over the years – if anything, it has only intensified.
As soon as I arrive at a seaside town, I enquire about lighthouses. And, if I find that there is one in those parts, I invariably end up visiting it. I enjoy rooting about their base, looking for identification marks (like inscriptions and metal plates) that can help me anchor them in a specific time period. I then sit down on a rampart or rocky coastline next to it for a while, gazing into the sea. If I find the caretaker of the lighthouse, I spend a few minutes with him in delightful conversation.
But what exactly I see in a lighthouse also depends upon my mood-of-the-moment. When I am in a deeply reflective mood, I think of what would have happened, had there never been lighthouses in history. That would surely have set back our progress and our understanding of the world by a few centuries. When I feel buoyant, I see it as a beacon of hope and safety – a pathfinder and a sanctuary. When I am feeling a little low, I can’t help thinking of it as an extremely desolate place, eyes eternally cast over an equally desolate sea that is vast and unchanging over millions of years.
At those moments, I am invariably reminded of a short story called ‘The Foghorn’, that I read in school. ‘The great deep cry of our foghorn shuddering through the rags of mist…’ and the answering call of the creature of the sea, deep-throated in its loneliness are forever etched in my memory.
No matter what my mood, lighthouses have left an indelible impression on me. In my book of travels, they occupy a very special place.
What effect does a lighthouse have on you?