The New Backpackers

As life in metros have assumed shape of a backpack with every young person carrying their lives in it, Jayant Dasgupta looks back at what backpacking symbolised, the journey rather than the destination.

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple

                                                                                Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums.

I live in Pune. The city enjoys a reputation as what is known as an IT hub. Not a singular distinction, that. I would imagine that roughly one fourth of urban India today falls into that category. Lets just say its one of the bigger ones, roughly at par with, say, Bengaluru or Hyderabad. Big enough to attract a large number of young people from all over the country to come here in search of jobs, and for many who come here and to similar hubs, young men and women from smaller towns in search of a dream, a middle class dream.

So these young men and women can be seen in towns such as these- waiting in street corners for their company transport pickup, on their two wheelers whizzing across the city and in the evenings at various coffee shops whose number seems to grow in a direct proportion to the IT business. After having watched these young people over a period of time one realizes that apart from sharing a dream, which being an abstraction cannot be worn on the person, they also have another thing in common, something which, unlike a dream, has a corporeal presence. It is a backpack.

The last named object has come a long way, it seems. Though its identity has been appropriated by the information age and it is now commonly referred to as a laptop bag, its new avatar, even in its reduced dimensions, cannot fool me. It’s a backpack. It appears to have become a part of the new IT brigade uniform, sitting rather uncomfortably on a formal shirt and a pair of trousers, or the feminine equivalent thereof, sometimes having to bear the added indignity of having to go with a necktie.

In its new age persona, the backpack is also an indicator of pedigree and hierarchy. There are the ones that are plain or sometimes with the logo of the maker on them. These are the plebes. The aristocrats are the ones that have the name of the organization emblazoned prominently on the back and the proud owner has to master the art of casually holding the pack on one shoulder so that the name is clearly visible to others in the group or strangers nearby. Emblazoned is probably right- because it is a heraldic function that the name performs.

It could be argued, and probably will be, that fashion trends are often dictated by necessity and the backpacks, sorry, laptop bags are convenient because most young professionals of the age group that uses them , mostly have two wheelers as their preferred mode of transport, and this type of bag leaves both hands free etc. etc.. But I am not buying that. What happened to those perfectly usable panniers that all motor bikes came equipped with? I guess the bike manufacturers have stopped making them because nobody uses them any more. Just like nobody uses a briefcase any more. Satchels have been abandoned, even by students, although they could be slung across so as not to be an impediment to driving on two wheels or whatever else one may have in mind. No Sir! The new backpack is not here on account of its convenience. It is here as the consequence of a conscious act of appropriation- of an idea, of a symbol, of a dream- a different, long forgotten dream, perhaps?

If you happen to be in any of the places where these young men and women gather and chance to overhear their conversation, quite often discussions around CTC( Cost to Company, although in simpler times it used to be a kind of tea), per diem, and if downtown Chicago was really better than downtown New York, and also see the packs perched on their backs or lying by their sides, you realize that the world has changed, and wonder if it was possible any longer for one, with a pack on her back, say-“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever on the road”*, except, maybe, in the sense of career advancement?

Also, one wonders if these new backpackers knew that backpacks stood for different things in a different time. That, not so long ago, the backpack was the embodiment of a desire to give up, or at least to take a break from, the world, rather than the desire to own it? My generation, that went to school and college in the sixties and seventies of the last century, is prone to that rather useless  emotion nostalgia, and our fascination with what the backpack represented to us then and what it means to its present day users now, are both delusions. But why is one left with the feeling that even with our respective delusions, we got the better deal?

Backpacking as an activity, in those days, went beyond the idea of travel. The journey seemed more important than the destination(Goa and Kathmandu notwithstanding). It was undertaken with the more important object of finding oneself and not the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow(clichés do have their uses!) And what was it that brought home to us these earth shaking revelations? The wind that blew in from the West(read the US) in the shape of backpack toting Peace Corps volunteers, travellers along the Hippie Trail, students in their break year and vinyl long playing recordings of Woodstock (three days in August, 1969 that changed the world), and a documentary film on the same event shown in some theatres before the actual film. We began to associate the backpackers with the new found objects of desire like little round metal badges that proclaimed ‘Peace’, ‘Make Love Not War’, etc., denims and the heartbreaking voice of Joan Baez. Armed with our dog eared copies of The Outsider, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, On the Road, we set out to find meaning, or the lack of it, in life.

But the question is- did we find it, one way or the other? I don’t know. I may be wrong here but I don’t think that a large number of our generation have ever been able to figure out  the difference between idealism and naivete, between the relative merits of single minded pursuit of ones goal and just drifting along.

I think the present day backpackers are more certain, about everything. But they should know that even in this globalized world, winds of change from the West have a way of dying out here. They must know that the backpack they carry so nonchalantly once stood for things other than convenience and brand visibility. Otherwise, they would have just traded, unknowingly, one set of Americanism for another. Then, although they could be ‘upfront’ about everything, including ‘ ball park figures’, they would never really know ‘where they’re coming from’.

If all this seems a little too full of a world weary cynicism, let me try and set things right by saying that I know that a lot of people are still backpacking in the old fashioned way. And I even came across a post where the backpack has been hailed as the symbol of transformation in the lives of young girls in the developing world and I agree with every word it says.

But I wasn’t really talking about backpacks, was I?

*On the Road, Jack Kerouac

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