Do you have a vagabond in your family? I think every Indian family has one. You know the type. Those aunties and uncles who seem to be ubiquitous at every family event. Come wedding or birth and this maasi or mama is there, enjoying the festivities, entertaining guests with stories and songs and taking advantage of the free room and board for a few days before departing for the next event in the next location.
Our family’s vagabond was an uncle who everybody called Gopal mama. His forte was his ability to travel at whim to wherever he felt like going. He would breakfast in Pune with his daughter before taking the public bus to Matunga for lunch at another relative’s house. Dinner could be anywhere—Khandala, Goa or even Belgaum. With Gopal mama, one never knew. I’ll never forget the time he showed up at our doorstep in Chennai carrying a young peacock on his shoulder as a gift for my startled mother. Wherever he went, this uncle ate and drank. In exchange, he provided conversation, gossip and, I dare say, therapy. He was a favourite among the ladies because he would compliment their cooking liberally, listen to their household woes with a sympathetic silent ear and always had a home- made remedy for everything, from colic to migraines. “Just fry some jeera in black salt and make a decoction,” he would say. “Your cold will disappear in a jiffy.”
Come to think of it, Gopal mama was a rather demanding guest. He never physically helped with anything in the house. He was too old. He had pretty traditional dietary requirements. No Maggi noodles for dinner when he was around. He occupied the best bed in the house and snored loudly during his afternoon nap. Yet, he was welcomed wherever he went. He was a blithe spirit—free and unencumbered by family or routine. And he was a character.
Paul Erdos during a visit to Arizona State University in 1989
One of the pleasures—or pain, depending on your point of view—of being part of a large Indian family is the host of characters who end up being your relatives. In this Politically Correct age that we live in, it is refreshing to encounter old-timers who wear their heart, political views and quirks on their sleeves. Gopal mama, for instance, believed in the prophecies of Nostradamus, numerology and the dalliances of Jawaharlal Nehru with Edwina (now revealed to be true). Through his travels, news and stories, he connected our far-flung family.
One of the most famous connectors in recent times was a vagabond named Paul Erdos. Erdos also happens to be one of the, if not the most, important mathematicians of this century. He owned no home, had no property or address. He went around the world from one maths conference to another. He would show up at the door of a fellow- mathematician with a suitcase and the statement, “My brain is open.” His colleagues were usually delighted to take him in because he would teach them theorems, solve maths problems and pose hundreds of questions before leaving one exhausted crew and moving on to the next. In the Western maths world, having an Erdos number is a badge of honour. You had an Erdos number of 1 if you worked directly with Erdos; your Erdos number was 2 if you worked with someone who worked with Erdos. You get the drift.
Unlike Picasso or Gauguin, Erdos was not a mean-spirited genius. In contrast, he was generous, gentle and soft for one so gifted. He gave away every award he got. In India, he gave away the proceeds he got from a few lectures to Ramanujan’s impoverished widow.
Being a vagabond is a cult, albeit a marginal one. As Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding, says: “As much as anything, vagabonding is about time—our only real commodity—and how we choose to use it.”
Bogged down with the responsibilities and possessions of middle age, I often dream of being a vagabond; of travelling the globe with nothing more than a backpack. Like Paul Erdos, Rolf Potts and, to a certain extent, like Gandhi. Our material goods have their uses but, oh, the incomparable lightness of being that comes from being possession-less. To have a comfortable bank account and nothing tangible to show for it. That, in my mind, is true freedom. It is like floating in a parachute, only upwards.
Shoba is shedding, ever so slowly, her mountain of material goods. Write to her at email@example.com. Read her previous columns on www.livemint.com/shoba-narayan