Under my byline

There and back again and again

Posted in Living, Profiles by Rrishi on 28 December 2008

At the Leshan Giant Buddha in China (c) Ravi BhoothalingamStarting late, Ravi Bhoothalingam caught the travel bug particularly badly. He’s been to China 16 times, and always goes well prepared

Above the desk where Ravi Bhoothalingam’s correspondence lies stacked neatly in plastic folders, various rectangles of paper are taped to the cabinet doors. They display cherished quotes from different corners of the literary universe. Hilaire Belloc (“From quiet homes and first beginnings / Out to the undiscovered ends…”) and Mark Twain (“So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor…”), both writers and travellers of contemporary renown, rub shoulders with the ever-practical Confucius (“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do everything that you can.”).

Here’s another one, apt but not among their number: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” That’s from Lao-tzu, the 6th century BCE Chinese founder of Taoism. It may be an old chestnut, but the first steps in Bhoothalingam’s journeys in recent years have been taken in this room.

It’s his study, a quiet, sunny room in an apartment high above the dry wastes of Gurgaon. Here he reads, researches and plans his travels. Since 1996, when he was part of the very first CII mission to China, Bhoothalingam has been to China 15 times. Not all of those visits were for work — he also goes in search of adventure.

“Tibet 2000, 2002, eastern Tibet 2004, Xinjiang and Silk Route 1998,” he reels off the list, “Inner Mongolia twice — 2005, 2008 — Yunnan, Sichuan, 2003-2004, the main cities several times, the Yangtze and the coastal cities a few times.” His latest trip, to the ruins of Kublai Khan’s capital Xanadu in Inner Mongolia, ended a few weeks ago.

But all these journeys and Bhoothalingam’s China fascination itself began in Cambridge — where the master of his college, Joseph Needham, produced the magisterial Science and Civilisation in China. “It is a masterwork in the Gibbon class,” says Bhoothalingam today, with awe in his voice.

Confucius' tumulus (c) Ravi Bhoothalingam“It was he who encouraged my interest in China” in the most practical way, by ordering him to take care of four students newly arrived from Mao’s China, in 1967. “I said to him: ‘You’re aware that that we fought a war?’ and he said, ‘Ravi, you must learn to take the long view.’”

Between college and his first China visit, however, came a long hiatus. “I went into industry and spent the next 32 years in corporate life,” Bhoothalingam says. He worked in the Oberoi group for six years, leaving it in 2001 as president.

“I started work in 1969 when I was 23,” he says, and “up to 1989 I must have been abroad maybe four-five times, not more. Until the mid-’80s India had exchange control, so it wasn’t easy to travel, and then of course one was in a work situation… your travel is not totally at your command.”

As an example, he shows me a letter he wrote on the eve of his 2000 Kailash-Mansarovar trip, asking for leave. He reads aloud: “I’m leading a small expedition [through Tibet for two weeks], I do not think it will be practical to give any contact numbers,” and shows me his boss Bikki Oberoi’s scribbled remarks, to the effect, “I doubt it will be practical!” “He wished me good wishes,” says Bhoothalingam with a chuckle, “so I’ve kept this.”

The “small expedition” is “really a group of friends with common interests”, he explains. Bhoothalingam is the research team and unofficial guide (not to mention interpreter, because he knows a little Mandarin) for such collective trips which, he says, cost $3,000-5,000 each. He also travels alone, for instance on his recent trip to Xanadu.

The Oberoi letter came out of a plastic folder, one of many piled on a high shelf in a little storeroom adjoining the study. Each folder is labelled with a destination — Yangon, Southeast Asia, India Mountains, Nepal, Kailash, Tibet — and stuffed with notes, photocopies and dozens of maps.

He pulls one map out of his Kailash folder: “This is a trekking map we actually used, you can see it’s [crumpled],” he says. “Look at the extent of detail! All the peaks, elevations, contours.” Also in the folder are trek notes he and his group kept — but they are nothing to compare with the notes of Swami Pranavananda, photocopied out of a book located with great difficulty in a small bookshop in Chennai.

“This man has been to Mansarovar-Kailash 32 times [from the 1930s to the 1950s]. He’s been up every one of the 12 historic India-Tibet routes,” Bhoothalingam says. “The knowledge level is fantastic! Every 2.5 metres the man is logging it.” It’s true: every boulder and stream on the holy circuit of Mount Kailash appears to be recorded. “So this was an indispensable book.”

In Xanadu, the blue banners of Kublai Khan's tribe (c) Ravi Bhoothalingam“I started my little consulting firm after my third journey to Tibet,” Bhoothalingam says. He named it, resonantly, Manas Advisory, and its logo shows the M and A aligned like mountain peaks, with a green circle below. “This is Gauri Kund nestled in the middle of the mountains,” he says with pride. Gauri Kund, in myth, is the lake in which Parvati was bathing while her son Ganesh stood guard, and stopped Shiva from approaching — which is why Ganesh lost his head.

Where Ganesh lost his head, Ravi Bhoothalingam left his heart. He may have started travelling for adventure only in his 50s, but he’s made the most of it. “The journey is of course very exciting, but I find the prep time equally exciting,” he says, surrounded by his painstakingly assembled collection of books, maps, Tibetan bells and so on. This kind of learned amateur enthusiast is almost a 19th-century phenomenon — and, true to type, Bhoothalingam is an active fellow of the UK’s Royal Geographical Society. Joseph Needham should know that his pupil did learn to take the long view.

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