SAMSARA – Journey to the East

WHAT day is it today? I wonder to myself, looking through the window of the dessert shop at Connaught Place.

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We follow the two men on their travel from Croatia, via Bosnia, Albania and Greece to Istanbul. As the story progresses, the relationship between Slaven and Felix erodes. Felix’s superstitious beliefs well to the surface and become a bone of contention between them. The result is that Slaven is thrown out of the truck in Istanbul.

Slaven Hertz is an average citizen of a city in Croatia. He has a secure job as a history teacher. He is engaged, and everything seems to be just right, in place. At the beginning of the story, we discover that Slaven is actually yearning for something bigger, something that can launch him high and make him known. In his mailbox, he finds a letter from the Explorer’s Club, and an invitation to set out on a voyage to the East. His fiancée Marina has a difficult time accepting this decision, but lets him go. He sets off with an older fellow, named Felix. They travel in a large white truck, and agree to make a fantastic travel film that will make them famous and bring them the attention they desire.

Slaven’s world begins to crumble. As time passes, his fiancée becomes increasingly intolerant of his time away. In pain and misery, Slaven turns to alcohol, and spends ten days wandering the streets of Istanbul. He is saved by Yener, a man he met on his first day in Istanbul, but never exchanged contact information with. They meet again by chance in the street. Yener takes him to his home and helps him come to his senses. He tells Slaven that he is at a crossroads and must decide what to do. He emphasises the importance of following his heart.

Slaven takes his advice. He calls his fiancée and finally tells her all that has been going on. He tells her how he’s been abandoned; but that he has decided that he must continue on to the East. She accepts this reluctantly, but tells him there is no need for him to return, that all is over between them.

The story unfolds with Slaven’s progression towards the heart of Turkey. Slaven recalls that Enis Pamuk, a man he spoke with in Sarajevo, had given him the address of his distant cousin in Cappadocia. Enis had told Slaven the story of three brothers in the early 19th century that had left their home in Istanbul to trade goods throughout the Ottoman Empire. One of the brothers traded in the Balkans and later settled there. That was Enis’ ancestor. The second brother travelled south, while the third brother, Tahir Pamuk, travelled east.

In Cappadocia, Slaven’s host Apo, Enis’ distant relative, tells a somewhat different story of the ancestor Tahir. He tells Slaven that Tahir never returned from the East. He left his wife and children in Cappadocia and no one ever saw or heard from him again.

As Slaven proceeds further towards India, he finds traces of Tahir Pamuk and his story of giving up on ordinary life. In Quetta, he finds letters by Tahir addressed to his wife that were never sent. He we discover that Tahir discovered that he felt the need to sell everything he owned, and simply head off into the unknown. He felt drawn to the East.

During his travels, the main character meets many people, some who become his friends, though the fate of the journey presses him to bid them farewell and move on. As the kilometres from home increase, he realises the mistakes he made in the beginning, seeking fame, and finally realises the pointlessness of that kind of life.

During the entire trip, he begins to fill the void he carries within him. Before entering into India, he gets rid of the only thing he still has tying him to his former life, a small camera. His fiancée writes him to tell him she has moved her things out of their apartment, while Felix writes to say he will sue him for using their joint project on his own. He ignores these messages, and throws them in the garbage. He sets off for India.

In India, already changed physically, thin and shabby, at Shiva’s temple he meets the sadhu Shankara, who leads him further. They sleep in temples. In one in Mathura, he finds a new trace of the existence of Tahir Pamuk. Pamuk wrote in the large book in the temple that he had already been travelling for a decade, that he had come to know the unbreakable circle, the association of all things in the universe, and the pointlessness of man’s attempt to understand it.

Shankara and Slaven walk and take the train to their final destination, Varanasi. They observe the people, fields and colours of India all around them. Slaven is increasingly troubled by a cough that he remembers having as a child. He becomes feverish and begins to hallucinate. In Varanasi, next to the holiest of all rivers, the Ganges, in Shankara’s arms, he realises the truth. On his deathbed, he realises that he, Shankara and Tahir are all the same person!

Story structure:

The story is written in the first person and is divided into three sections. The first section is written in the past tense, as the main character tells of his hopeless situation in Istanbul. When he finally comes to his senses and decides to move on, the story shifts to the present tense. As he moves towards the East, and particularly in India, we can feel the psychological changes in the main character. The story is interwoven with travel details and travel philosophy and Eastern beliefs of the eternal circle, the Samsara.

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