When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going

Sometimes it takes a journey to gain a new window to the world.  
River Nile Luxor Egypt
Hot-air balloons go up in the sky over River Nile in Luxor, Egypt. Photo: Joeri de Rocker/Alamy/Indiapicture

I don’t know Urdu. I don’t know much about ghazals. I wish I did.

Many years ago, I heard an acquaintance recite two lines from a Mirza Ghalib ghazal which immediately struck me as very beautiful. I had made him repeat it, and quickly scribbled down (in English) what I thought it said. Since then, I’ve sought out a more reliable version of that verse and translations of it. The words run:

hasad se dil agar afsurda hai, garm-e-tamasha ho,
ki chashm-e-tang shayad kasrat-e-nazzara se va ho

If you’re feeling oppressed by negative thoughts, go see the world,
The spectacle you encounter will perhaps open up your narrow vision.

While Mirza Ghalib’s poetry may have many nuances, layers, and much subtext, I find plenty of depth in the simplest translations of this ghazal.

I’ve been thinking of this verse lately, as friends and colleagues have been assailed by confusing times and a variety of not so pleasant thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it takes a journey to gain new perspective, to remind ourselves that there is plenty of awesomeness still around us.

Ghalib’s advice has stood me in good stead so often, I recommend it to others. Years ago when I was at university, I was at a crossroads, terribly conflicted about the choices I had to make. Did I want to pursue another degree? Where did I want to live? What career path did I want to follow? That’s when I took a week-long solo trip to British Columbia in Canada. While I can’t say I enjoyed the solo travel experience as much as many others I’ve met, I learned a lot about myself. Exploring a world I knew nothing of opened up my mind to possibilities I hadn’t considered. My confusion cleared. I was able to think straight and make a decision I’ve never regretted.

Over the years, I’ve seen this happen again and again. When I am at a challenging moment in my life, going away from the familiar, taking a break to somewhere new and different, often provides the clarity needed. Looking at the world with fresh eyes makes me look afresh at myself.

On a trip to Ladakh a few years ago, I was bogged down by a few narrow, negative thoughts. Sitting on the banks of Pangong Tso Lake, I watched a group of Changpa nomads walking with heavy loads, patched-up shoes on their feet, and a smile for me as they passed by. At that instant I thought of how incredibly hard their life must be in the bitter cold of the high altitude they live in. In my notebook, that night, I wrote that what struck me most was their adaptability. To live in that harsh environment requires a level of physical and spiritual flexibility and adjustment that most of us city folks would find difficult. For me that unlocked a hidden window to myself. It helped me come to the realisation that if I adapted and found the strength to change my way of thinking, I could quickly get past my negative thoughts. Just realising how lucky I was to be in that wondrous land changed my outlook that day. Maybe I didn’t learn adaptability from the Changpa people, but a chance encounter with them in their surreal landscape certainly made me examine my own shortcomings.

A few weeks ago I was in Egypt. It was a much-needed trip after a particularly rough few weeks at work. On the fourth day, I awoke at 6.30 a.m. and stepped out onto the balcony of my hotel room in Luxor, just as the faintest light was appearing in the sky. As dawn broke over the Nile and the sun lit up the Valley of the Kings in a misty orange and brown, the worries crowding my brain fell away. As I watched numerous hot-air balloons gliding through the sky, I concluded that I just hadn’t given myself the chance to take a breath. At that moment, that’s all I really needed to do.

So every once in a while, when things aren’t all that hunky-dory, I try to listen to Ghalib’s advice and my extension of what he may have meant. I open myself to embracing a new environment, to finding new perspectives on the road, or just letting old ones disappear. When the going gets tough, travelling can perhaps offer up a way to get going.

Appeared in the March 2016 issue as “Sunrise Always Listens”.

  • Niloufer Venkatraman ’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through the wilderness or the by-lanes of a city. She is obsessive about family holidays and has already instilled in her young daughter wanderlust and a love for the outdoors. She is the former Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.

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