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Travels with Charlie

How far do you have to travel from the backwaters of residential Barbican to learn something new? Revisiting John Steinbeck’s travels with his poodle and Carson’s watershed book on pesticides, Sreela Banerjee muses some more whilst cooking dinner. What is the true measure of travel? What makes us learn these days? The internet? So, is teaching defunct? And how does ‘Slumdog Millionnaire’ fit into all this ?

I Sreela Banerjee

Ma Durga celebrations in the Camden Centre, Kings Cross, this October

Steinbeck's Camper Van. Rocinante – now in a Californian museum

n 1962 John Steinbeck, (Remember him? ‘Grapes of Wrath’ made him famous) became ill and made his list of things to do: he got into a camper van, chose a canine companion, and decided to travel around America, to take a last look at the country about which he had been writing. What followed was a marvellous piece of travel writing and social commentary. His book ‘Travels with Charley’ is worth reading. It hit the New York Times best seller (non-fiction) list that October, and stayed there for a week. The next week it was pushed aside by Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ – I will come to that. But first, let me clear up a small point: Those familiar with Steinbeck’s book may well ask ‘so, is your companion also a French poodle’? Some twenty odd years ago I thought that Charlie was so far from a poodle, French or otherwise, that it was prudent to collect him before embarking on the rest of my own life, in case I needed his acerbic, but usually accurate comments on anything about which I was inclined to be romantic. He remains at my side, antennae up, nose ostensibly in a book or newspaper, ready to deflate

me at every opportunity. I seldom thank him for this service. He goes with me to places near

and far. Less than three miles from the Barbican, I found out that we share the streets with people with very different lives and expectations. For four days in early October this year Bengalis all over the world celebrated the arrival of the Mother Goddess. I gathered up my family and joined them one evening,

street corner, found them gone, and with bowed heads and mutters, sauntered off, brushing shoulders with those coming out of the Camden Centre. The latter carried ‘offered’ bread and sweets, and were touching it to their foreheads, before eating it with reverence: Prayer and deadly pursuit, in the blink of an eye. Charlie got us into the car quickly and drove us away. Perhaps the Goddess would

parking the car in a road in Kings Cross and entering the Camden Centre, where my fellow Bengalis had gathered, in front of the image of The Perfect Woman – the capitals, they would argue, are warranted. (Let me refer you to the Markandeya Purana, for an exhaustive list of her beauty, her versatility, and her sheer rage in the ultimate War against Evil.) We were on our way back to the

car, when two fourteen year olds rushed past us. A beer bottle rolled on the street, a moped rounded the corner and screeched to a stop - they climbed on, and were rushed off as if pursued by the Devil. Their fear was palpable. Seconds later, three lanky sixteen year olds (no hoodies, please note Mr Cameron) rushed up to that


address this potential source of Evil in her own way – She is also known for Her compassion, Her knowledge, Her grace. I felt a pang of regret on behalf of the American journalist who was still inside taking pictures of the Goddess and her retinue – he had missed a ‘scoop’.

How far the mind travels, is of course the true measure of all travel. As our car moved out of Kings Cross I noticed that I had indeed travelled a long way. Like most LSE students I had spent the 1970’s making fun of Americans – like so many of us in British universities I was an intellectual ‘fashion victim’. The odd Wharton School student was impressive, but on the whole, I thought, they missed the point.

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