When Prince Gautama _ before he became Lord Buddha _ was seeking Enlightenment, a mara (demon) appeared in human form and attempted to dissuade him from continuing his dharma practice. Withstanding the enticements of the mara, as the Buddha successfully managed to do, has become synonymous with triumphing over obstructions in one's life. It is seen as a form of penance as one struggles to overcome the seductions of worldly pleasure. This discipline also suggests the idea of a crossing in which one travels from the superficial plane to deeper spiritual territory, a place only the person involved is able to understand and traverse.
In The Mara Crossing, Ruth Padel describes this crossing symbolically. The title of this experimental book, a cross between poetry and prose, was suggested to the author after she observed the annual wildebeest migration in East Africa, watching as hordes of these herbivores struggled across the River Mara in Kenya. Some of the wildebeest died along the way, many survived but would have to retrace their steps a few months later and repeat the same journey the following year. The will to go, to stay or return, but mostly to survive is at the heart of this book on migration.
A great-great granddaughter of Charles Darwin, Padel seems perfectly at home with the themes of evolution. Her book is arranged into sections, each prefaced with a passage of prose, on subjects as diverse but interconnected as how the cells of living organisms mutate in order to survive and reproduce, how plants migrate by hitching a ride on journeys taken by people and how both animals and human beings are driven to migrate by conflicts, colonisation and the search for better opportunities. "Migration makes the world" is the overarching concept that binds the various segments together.
The Mara Crossing By Ruth Padel Chatto & Windus, 2012, 254pp
Padel's prose is direct and sometimes painfully beautiful. The poems that follows are evocative; they tell stories and history. While the first serves as the foundation for a subject, the latter, which is voiced by individual migrants or their families, records movements like an oral rendering of "how migration shaped, and carries on re-shaping, the world", allowing us almost to hear the sound of migrants crossing the sea ("left eye socket empty and the other eye veiny crimson glass like a rosy marble lost"). Migrants are always on the move, they are "children of the storm" and their migrations, Padel muses, are the "mirror of nature". Padel is familiar with this scenario from personal experience: "I have both migration and rootedness in my background," she writes. "My daughter has fitted her stuff into her tiny new room and left for work in Colombia... but with me, as with many people, talk of roots and 'Where are you from?' leads to questions, not answers."
The Mara Crossing is about the search for and the meaning of "home" and "away". Padel categorises journeys into two types: "Go and stay" and "Go and come back". Animals tend to fare well by adopting the latter strategy whereas humans tend to migrate for the first reason: never to return. The better life in which "You go because you must" is central to modern human migrations in the 19th and subsequent centuries. The birds and other animals on which Padel focuses, act almost like old poetic images of migration. They, to Padel, serve as the symbol of hope. Migration "evolved as animals and birds adapted to terrain that was difficult to live in for part of the year and even, for some species, part of the day. It is a response to changes in the surrounding world outside and its evolutionary point is survival." Birds' journeys, their flights and survival, can be viewed as a parable for human migration.
While Padel's geographical scope is wide, covering whole regions of the world, the East is largely overlooked. The territory she covers ranges from the human body and the depths of the sea, from the North Pole to the South Pole, from China's Tien Shan to a garden in Cambridge. However, it is the history, rather than the geography or biology, that makes for the most impressive reading here. A section entitled "History Push and Pull" is crisp and metaphorical. One of her poems in this chapter talks of a painting of Clio by Vermeer (which the painter never sold). Song or Euterpe is another muse rendered in this soul-wandering book. It has become fashionable to write about Euterpe in reference to the haunting music of "home", especially after Clio departed and left a mess in which Euterpe, the apple of Mnemosyne's eye, has to step in. Song acts as identity mostly. And Padel is also one who uses Song or Euterpe in this tradition (as a "A Letter Home"). Here, Padel seems to forget that Euterpe is kind and mesmerising. She listens and borrows. Hybridised music acts not as identity but as "hybridity"; it has transformed the life and culture of both immigrants and stay-at-home types for centuries. It points to a shortcoming of this book: the dynamism of migration. Immigrants not only made the world, but they make culture _ new culture. And life is transformed afterwards. This is less touched upon in this fascinating book.