Come to think of it, dear reader – and with the beginning of this New Year – I find by hindsight that I’ve spent many years of my life on the road: on foot, or in a car belonging to a Good Samaritan for hitching a ride, or – for God’s Sake, later on in life! – even on a camel in an Egyptian desert accompanied by my wife and help-meet of 56 years, Lolita.
Early on it was on the subcontinent of colonial British India, where I grew up and where, and whenever I got the chance, I was on my own exploring areas of that vast country in South Asia that I’d never seen or visited before: that included the foothills of the Himalayas in the North and Northeast; the Northwest provinces, most of them now in Pakistan; the fascinating island of Ceylon, now as an independent country known as Sri Lanka, in the South; and many parts in between including my old stomping ground, Bengal (now known as West Bengal) and its main city Calcutta (now known as Kolkata), as well as Madras (now known as Chenai) and Bombay (now known as Mumbai). Speaking of the latter, I offer a random thought: Shouldn’t its famed film industry now be known as Mollywood, instead of Bollywood?
Even when I embarked in my teens on higher education in England to pursue an electrical engineering degree, all my summer vacations were spent either walking and hitchhiking in the U.K. – Wales and Scotland, in particular – or in Europe, where I estimated I covered some 5,500 miles in four years of crisscrossing the Germanic and Scandinavian countries in the Northwest, as well as the French and Latin ones in the Southwest and South. Not to be outdone, when the Soviet Union still existed, I did enjoy singular forays into Moscow and Leningrad, speaking of which, it has since reverted back to the imperial St. Petersburg under a resurrected Russia.
You would’ve noticed a singular paradigm, which seems to permeate my litany of place-names: because of political upheavals, or the end of colonialism and/or regime change, they have all been re-christened by the new ruling entities in those distant lands that, from an American perspective, changed – not for better or worse, but, in some cases, newer to older – a famed city’s persona by the stroke of a pen or the no-questions-asked persuasive power of the sword – or should I say the jackboot of an invading horde?
I hate to pick favorites as each country has its own mystique, culture, language and history that help to define it for good or ill: it all depends on one’s own predetermined view based on educational background, knowledge of foreign literature, racial upbringing and – in my case – artistic proclivity and propensity toward music, dance and the visual arts.
As always, a proper place to begin one’s life on the road is at the very beginning.
I trace my wanderlust to my storied grandfather, Mirza Ziauddin Akmal, who at an early age left a comfortable leisurely life as the scion of a Mughal family in Lahore (now in Pakistan), taking with him that portion of his family inheritance due to him, and traveled the overland route from Lahore via Afghanistan, Persia (now Iran) and Turkey into Europe.
Back in independent India, years later, whenever Nanaji stayed with my family in New Delhi, I invariably spent quality time with him, often at night on our rear verandah gazing at the stars on a cloudless night whereupon he’d clue me into the various star clusters and the myriad ones in the Milky Way. I was also captivated by his tales of derring-do in foreign lands, be it in South Africa, Madagascar or – across the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean – the Caribbean isles. His philological and working knowledge of Indian and European languages was wide-ranging and held him in good stead in tricky situations. His favorite foreign countries, apart from England, were Austria (when it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian empire) and Germany, and that inspired me to visit them often many years later.
Apropos of that, as a burgeoning classical pianist, I was fascinated by my road-travels through the capital and cultural cities of Germany and Austria: they breathed the music of many great composers that were literally at my fingertips – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and Schumann. Then, one of my European summers took me to Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and I got to understand that there were others in the pantheon of composers that demanded my attention as a performing musician. Grieg, for one, comes to mind, and I still enjoy playing his piano pieces as well as his one and only piano concerto.
However, in Northern Europe, it was more the Scandinavian landscape that caught my imagination: I must assume, the likes of Sibelius must have been inspired by it, and his symphonies are some of my favorites other than all of those composed by Beethoven and Brahms.
On one memorable month-long hike I was able to encompass a demanding route that took me through both urban and rural areas in Sweden and Norway as well as a less onerous one in Denmark, which is still my Nordic choice of a relaxing and welcoming environment – especially for a hitchhiker! I even ended up babysitting a young family’s first-born when they simply had to attend a special family event in a neighboring township and daren’t expose her to the elements. (I happened to have befriended his future wife, Lisa, when she was still a student in London, and she insisted that if I ever visited her country I would pay her a visit.)
The standouts in my memory are Malmo, Orebro, Stockholm, and Uppsala in Sweden; Trondheim and Oslo in Norway; and Aalborg and Copenhagen in Denmark. An image of an old map I acquired on my exhaustive – and exhausting! – journey is seen alongside to illustrate the enormity of my aspirations that dwindled in real time and space to the actual landmarks that I was able to savor: fortunately for me, it was during the highly unusual ‘Indian Summer’ of the year that I undertook the trek, and it helped immeasurably to assuage the rigors of my self-appointed task.
I was also a Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev fan from a young age, and toward the end of my European education I was able to make it to Soviet Russia. Most of my fortnight there was spent in Leningrad, the attraction for me being the Hermitage Museum, where I spent virtually most of my vacation days viewing its artistic treasures – my favorites being the French Impressionists, many examples of which were on display. I did, however, find time to go to the Kirov Theater for two nights of inspiring and impeccable ballet. In Moscow itself, I attended several major concerts to savor my favorite Russian symphonic and orchestral music performed by the country’s top orchestras and instrumental soloists.
I never did get to the Slavic countries as a teenager: they were in thrall to the Red hegemonic power at the time, but I made up for it years later by traveling to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Rumania. As a result, I was able to revel firsthand in the music of Chopin, Dvorak, Bartok and Enesco at my leisure and with a greater understanding of the very essence of their creative output.
In the case of Chopin, I thoroughly enjoyed the journey to his birthplace, Zelazova Wola, a fairly short distance from Warsaw, where I was participating in a music festival devoted to the composer. Not much later, I traveled to Prague, where I spent a fair amount of time soaking in the music of Dvorak. A year later (1956) I was a competitor in Budapest for the first Franz Liszt International Music Festival, at which time I had the opportunity of visiting places and venues connected with Bartok and his music escorted by no less than the remarkable Zoltan Kodaly. And two years later, I was tantalized by time spent in Bucharest and its environs right up to the Carpathians, where I was mesmerized by the beauty of various places closely associated with Enesco and his band of brothers – some of whom I had never heard of before, but whose music has since inspired my own forays into folk tunes and compositions.
Note: Due to an unfortunate serious illness in the family, I was unable to complete this blog earlier to kick off the New Year. Please, therefore, treat this is as Part One of a two-part series to be continued shortly – stay tuned!
Copyright © 2016 Azim Lewis Mayadas