I’m not proud to confess this, but flying thousands of miles and then lining up to visit a museum doesn’t do much for me. To your right, ladies and gentlemen, is the house in which Charles Dickens lived. Okay – and? This is the desk at which he hammered out The Pickwick Papers. Okay – and? I mean, unless Dickens’s ghost is still hovering around, possessing visitors so they’ll write like him, I don’t quite see the point. Wouldn’t you rather re-read the books to get a sense of the man? But most tourists go, “Please sir, I want some more.” And there’s more, all over the world. This is the first car Ford built. Okay – and? Something must be wrong with my circuitry. Others see history. I see four wheels, a seat. A friend once laughed when I suggested a museum visit. “It’ll be full of dust,” he said. I smiled at what I thought was ignorance, but now I see what he meant.
I’m not proud to confess this, but flying thousands of miles and then lining up to see paintings doesn’t do much for me. At home, yes. But I’m talking about public spaces, where paintings reside behind velvet ropes, crowned by bald spots from artfully placed lamps. People save up and go to these places just to see Mona Lisa smile, the last supper being supped, time persist. But I’d feel self-conscious. I know I could rearrange my face to suggest serious contemplation, and people would think I really know art, but I don’t, not much anyway, and I’d rather have a browser window open with the painting, another window with an analysis of the painting, and spend two hours understanding why some secretary from Shillong would sacrifice a month’s salary to stand near it.
Palaeolithic rocks. Moon dust. Knives from the Sepoy Mutiny. Rare stamps from Monrovia. These too I can resist. I’ll peek into the glass cage. Spend a second or five waiting for the wow to kick in, and if it doesn’t I’ll move on to whatever’s next, an urn from Mesopotamia, a god from Thebes. But put me inside a pyramid, and the same god might be worth the air ticket. Communion, I think, is the point, and that’s hard to achieve when you are amidst throngs. Once in Vietnam, in the Mekong Delta, I went into one of the narrow tunnels used by the Viet Cong. There were people in front, people behind, but for once, they added to the experience. I was sweating – from the heat, from the claustrophobia. The person in front who’s just the back of a head, the person behind who is just hot breath – they could be the Viet Cong. This is the communion I’m talking about, a time capsule. (How funny that sounds, a little pill filled with minutes and seconds, to be taken every hour.)
That is what a vacation should be. No velvet rope. No glass cage. No docents – though I have nothing against docents. I’m sure they’re very nice to have a cup of coffee with, when your flight is delayed. They’ll never run out of interesting things to say. “You know, Nefertiri did not add milk and sugar?” That sort of thing. And I’ll nod, grateful that I don’t have to talk. Do they have docents in India? But I’m not going to think about that now, not while my head is filled with vacation thoughts.
There’s so much to do. Maybe I’ll people-watch (definitely some form of communion). Or, when in a less sociable mood, maybe I’ll do Brontë-ish things like walk the moors with Bill Sikes’s bull terrier racing ahead. Ahead lies a cliff, a sheer drop, and when I look down, I’ll see an umbrella bouncing on the waves. The outside is black, the inside has a plaid pattern. I don’t know whose it is, but somebody must have had a black-and-plaid umbrella snatched away by these wild winds. And oh, a Cornish sunset. I don’t know what that’s like, but I imagine that will go well with this scenario. Think about it, this is a museum too. It’s Heathcliff’s museum. This is where he walked, that is where he spied on Cathy. What do you mean he’s not real? I first met him when I was in school, when no one knew what it meant to wuther.
A few years later, there was a chap called Howard Roark I hung about with quite a bit. Every time I remember him, I recall the taste of soya nuggets, which is what I used to have with Maggi as I worked through those 1000-something pages, in a little room I was sharing with a friend who was working in New Bombay. Nutrela, the brand was called. I wasn’t working then (that explains the dirt-cheap diet), or maybe I was supposed to be looking for a job, I can’t remember. But I do remember roadside booksellers, long bus rides to watch movies, and wrestling with life decisions that often ended with the question: “What would Roark do?” Then there was the time I was crushing on Tess, the poor thing. Someone could make a tour of her “three-mile walk, along a dry white road, made whiter by the light of the moon.”
But not like that Harry Potter theme park, where you’ll be able to take selfies with Moaning Myrtle at Hogwarts. This should be something else, vacation meets fan fiction. Hey enterprising person, I’m giving you an idea. Run with it. But keep it clean. I don’t want to stumble into Constance Chatterley doing it with the gamekeeper. Though I’d like to chat with her later. I imagine she’d have things to say about life that I could come home and write gender-themed op-ed pieces on. Who said vacation memories should survive only in photographs?
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