By Aditya Dev Sood
The body has its ways, and jetlag is one of them. I want to sleep and it wants to drum its fingers on the bed springs to – what is this rhythm? – a kind of bhangda-fandango. I want to go dancing but it has already clocked off, tuned out, leaving me to text out my regrets while I tuck it to sleep. In my years of managing jetlag, I’ve come to understand that I can only coax my system gently, never force it into an artificial pattern, for it will only revolt, and push back with stubborn insouciance: “You thought we could stay up late, but you know what, it’s time to wakey wakey again! Hmm-hm-hm-hm-hm-hanh-hanh, hail to the conquering heroes, hail hail to Michigan, the leaders and the best! Feeling drowsy now?” Like the flailing parent of a rebel teenager, I’ve completely given up the fight of late, allowing my body-clock to set his own times, picking up after him, hoarding midnight snacks for when he wakes up hungry and demanding, allowing him to break evening appointments without explanation. Jetlag is evidence that whether or not I feel at home in the world, my mindbody-system enjoys a home in time, where it is housed in the rhythms of sleep, the routines of rousing, the comforts of food and the movements of bowel.
I think I was six, and visiting America for the first time, with my mother, when I first experienced jetlag. I remember sitting in wait, before the snow of a silent television the early morning hours. 11 Alive, my favorite TV channel, was yet to begin its programming, which it announced with a close up of a fluttering American flag and the American national anthem, whereupon that doity wabbit would bounce in to command my rapt attention. Flights to and from America were then often punctuated with halts at random European airports, whose cool and swift attendants, gliding around their white and futuristic architecture, came forever to be mixed up in my jetlagging mind with the culture of the West.
Years later, when I first left to America for college, I was taken in that first night by a bunch of older Indian graduate students to their apartment on the edge of town, where they cooked butter chicken, watched Sholay on a VCR, and reconciled themselves to the long academic year ahead, to be lived in Michigan’s bitter cold and without the familial comforts or other habituations of home. In those years of transcontinental living, jetlag was a lingering tie to another space, time and culture, to be shrugged off quickly, the better to begin student life, where once again all the most important bonds would be spatiotemporally collocated, and the movements and overtures of institutional time would serve as the all important horizon under which personal progress would be marked, the world outside their imperative being scarcely even conceivable.
Nowadays, I travel to North America with some trepidation, for I can neither adapt to local temporalities, nor align myself to those back home in India. At three in the morning India time, I’m Hector out alone, scrolling through my phone, knowing there’s no one back home who’d like to hear from me just exactly right now. This is not loneliness, this is not culture shock nor the blues of travel, it is an infelicity of temporality, an untimelich, that disconnects the ends of my experience in the world. Hard to imagine I could have lived a decade in America, a whole decade, when now it grips me with such unzeitlichkeit.
The word jetlag, first cited in 1966, apparently began as an expression of folk-theory, invoking the technology responsible for making its experience possible, rather than physico-physiological and social-psychological dynamics that cause and comprise the condition. While the medical diagnosis of desynchronosis seems better capable of capturing the deep disalignments of consciousness, temporality, judgment and context that are involved with its experience, this term is no better at capturing the extreme existentential and psychotropic mental states that jetlag can bring about, and which merit further artistic and aesthetic elaboration.
Gus van Zandt’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho is putatively about narcolepsy, a disorder of the mindbody’s sleeping patterns, although it now reads to me as a fine cinematic treatment of contemporary time-space dysfunction. River Phoenix’s Mike cannot control the time or duration of his sleep, as a result of which, as the film would have it, he ends up camping and vogueing it up with a bunch of Germans in a hotel room. For most jetlaggers, and sundry abusers of braincells, it is usually the other way round. Accompanying the itinerant motion of Mike and Keanu Reeves’ Scott, is a slacker-hustler consciousness, the perception of the world as flat and impervious to intervention and transformation, an absence of control and consequently resignation and fatalism. Mike’s mindbody cannot serve as a reliable filter for information from the world, as it constantly threatens to switch off, leaving behind his somnolent body to serve as Scott’s luggage. But it is only when Scott settles down in Seattle, and reconciles himself to his roots and inheritance, that he becomes capable of shaping his own context, using societal and political leverage that only permanent residents can enjoy. Mike and his narcoleptic body, meanwhile remain adrift in time along the highway.
This movie comes to mind as a proleptic parable for a period in my life that has only ended recently, when I felt I had lost my home, and was not at home in my own skin or life narrative. I found myself traveling to and through remote destinations at the slightest excuse. In those years of Brownian motion through the global landscape, I was continuously overstimulated, and my senses and sensibilities soon came to be dulled to beauty, serenity, happiness. Exacerbated by multiple gins and tonic and the diverting tempos of night, arrhythmia became a permanent part of my being. main nara-e-mastana / hai shokh-e-rindana // tashna kahan jaoon? pi kar bhi kahan jana? During this feint at playing an international man of mystery, I developed a taste for drink. Looking out for a place to go, each night, sated or merely exhausted, I was still nowhere.
In these years, I am not entirely sure that I actually felt jetlag, as distinct from the spectacular visual confusion of Shibuya, the asexual lull of crystal-ade, or the pent up and roving desire with which I landed in each new city. Like Pico Iyer, and Tyler Brule, I too felt flushed and intoxicated at the spatiotemporal flux I was living and moving through. I too imagined myself to have been in perfect equipoise on a moving train, or lost amidst the crowd in a new and unfamiliar city. But it is a mistake – and more than that a shame – to confuse one's attunement with the rhythm of the road with the sense of being truly at home in the world, at rest and at peace.
I talked about these experiences with Marko Ahtisaari and Juha Huuskonen the other day, both of whom have lived peripatetic lives scattered in different parts of the globe. Marko lived his teenage years between Tanzania and New York as the son of a diplomat, and perhaps for this reason, acquired a somewhat dynamic understanding of place. Dopplr.com, the global travel networking service that he runs, allows you to broadcast your impending arrival into a city to your social network, while also tagging resources and places from around the world. This weekend, however, he was preoccupied to show me around his neighborhood in Hakkaniemi, including the local grocery and produce stores where he and his girlfriend shop everyday, which give him context and a durable sense of identity. Juha, meanwhile, shared with me stories of the years he spent living on friends couches and traveling through Europe, North and South America, frequenting cafes and looking for leaflets about local technology and art jam-sessions. In this way, he slowly built a global network of hackers and techno-artists whom he now curates through his annual Pixelache festival. He spoke of living through the heady illusion that he could live in Bogota and Paris and Stockholm at the same time. That illusion, or self-delusion, in fact, was necessary for him to be open to so many different personalities and contexts, which now anchor his worldwide network. But now that he is an expecting father and again settled in Helsinki, he once again sees the world from the perspective of his single location, albeit richly informed by those dispersed communities, partners, and colleagues worldwide. For both highly globalized individuals, local context was more essential than ever for their everyday wellbeing.
Arriving at a major international airport last week, I closed my eyes briefly, and thought I could sense the cacophonous sleep-cycles of the fellow-travelers in line with me, all of us assembled from the very ends of the earth. By contrast, the personnel behind the service counter were not only well rested, but in sync with one another and with this context and region. It is fascinating to contemplate, while still within the grips of this state, that most people sleep and wake in rhythm with those around them, a basic coordination of their minds and bodies that facilitates the social and economic intercourse of everyday human life, giving it an underlying harmonization.
Our unthinking expectation that those around us should conform to our own rhythms of everyday life can be quite severe and unbending, perhaps because it really is in the larger interests of society and societal functioning that humans effect such mutual alignments. Just as most people are insensible to the space and autonomy that alcoholics might need, they are also unaware of how their tacit social expectations can exacerbate the temporal disequilibrium of travelers. Social stigma naturally attaches to those who must withdraw, who cannot align with group processes. And we have not been taught to make the socially appropriate excuses that can preempt adverse behavior from initiating: “No thanks, I’m allergic to partying.” or “I’m hypersomnulent, I must go for my afternoon nap.”
Through the experience of jetlag one recognizes the body to be constructed of so many visible and invisible waves, palpitations, and dynamics of fluid, which comprise the background to our awareness. It is only on account of their good functioning and good alignment that a stable ego and origo can be preserved. In nyaya, the Sanskrit discipline of logic and philosophy, direct perception is said to occur when the mind is in direct contact, through the senses, with an object, and perceives it ‘without wavering,’ avyabhicarena. This is precisely what jetlag precludes, for while we are suffering it, the vibrations and harmonics of the body are no longer homeostatic, but work ever so slightly at cross-purposes from one another. They now froth up a whipped and lashed consciousness that can at the extreme fail to believe in its own illusion, much less the collective madness of any given civilization.
The experience of jetlag can also provide us insight into the fact that the alignment of the vibrations of the body with larger social and diurnal rhythms, are necessary for the illusions of subjectivity, identity and self to emerge. This is because a stable observer must be confronted with a more or less stable world-picture, in order to understand its own being, as an interweaving of personal and macrosocietal narratives. The underlying drone of everyday life behaviors across one’s macrocontext, including sleep, exercise, work, rush-hour, groceries, and the nurturing of children, provides a rhythmic structure within which our own personal variations and individual life experimentations can be essayed, compared, and appreciated.
I believe now, that for too long my conception of home has been as a maqa’am or destination without dimensionality, not as a habitus recreated everyday out of striving and effort; a place from which journeys in the wider world can once again become possible. On the other hand, I am also beginning to understand that despite and because of the travails involved, travel is a passion that we seek out, an extremis that allows us to appreciate the quietude of our everyday with greater meaning and depth.
The truth is we are all descended of nomadic pastoralists and variously settled agriculturalists, who have only recently urbanized. There seems to be evidence, moreover, that the locus of humans can be statistically described as a relatively small everyday geography, coupled with occasional long forays. We humans have always traveled, and not only for commerce and conquest, but also for pilgrimage, learning, and the expansion of the self. In the various Indian ascetic traditions, faqir-s, sant-s and sadhu-s are enjoined to continue moving peripatetically, lest they become too attached to any one rhythm of life, livelihood, husbandry and domestication. Movement itself has served as a means and mechanism for detachment and from everyday life, whose bonds and bondage these pilgrims and seekers sought to rise above, in order to recognize reality more deeply. Still operating within its grip, I perceive jetlag as a recent human innovation that can intensify such rigors, and allow access to normally hidden states of being and consciousness. And as a psychotropic, perhaps it is best used sparingly, and with some judgment.
Last week in London, I woke up to a pitch black morning, many hours in the breaking. As I roamed the city in the cool light rain, I felt again that I could become anyone at all. The mindbody, intoxicated by clusters of mistimed and misfiring neurochemical notes, released the self, to some extent, to experience life anew. Such was the anomie of mind, body and self to one another that as commuters began filling into the city, I smiled at each of them in recognition and identity.