There are moments when the therapeutic benefits of travel can hit home harder than any of the dispassionate advice received on a shrink’s couch. Displacement, in a strictly physical sense, clarifies both mind and body. For Kalki Koechlin, that breakthrough came during a trip to Karuna Farm, a nature retreat near Kodaikanal.
Although she can’t quite trace the timeline—it was two-three years ago, she says—the circumstances that accelerated her existential crisis are still vivid. “I was in a state of transition with my divorce and a lot of changes in my personal life,” recalls the actor, alluding to her 2015 parting with filmmaker Anurag Kashyap. “Other things were happening at the time too like illnesses in my family and financial pressures.”
Kalki and a girlfriend plotted a quick getaway to the south. “During our time at the farm, we went to the top of a mountain nearby and we did mushrooms. I remember feeling like the universe was breathing with me and that I wasn’t alone. And that everyone was connected.”
By the end of her journey, Koechlin had arrived at “practical solutions” to many of her problems. If this flash of satori, Zen-speak for enlightenment, has a Kerouac-ian ring to it, that’s because stripped of her glamorous facade, the 33-year-old exudes the air of a happy beatnik.
We meet at her down-to-earth but artsy apartment in Versova, Mumbai. Dressed in a long-sleeved striped tee and jeans, shorn of make-up and her hair in a loose post-shower tangle, she answers the door and casually waves me in.
Koechlin is about to eat so she settles down in a chair, a plate of food in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. Between mouthfuls, she starts to talk travel. “For me, a trip has to fall into my lap. By planning too much, you are forcing yourself to have a good time instead of approaching it like you are going to learn from this experience.”
(Excerpts from the interview)
What is your primary motivation to travel?
It happens when I am saturated creatively. I can’t read. I can’t concentrate or even learn my lines. When it gets to that, I know I need to travel. It’s kind of like emptying the cup so that you can fill it up again. Before, I used to work like a headless chicken for a year-and-a-half and then suddenly feel like I am a failure. Then I would take four months off. Now I am trying to take shorter breaks but more often.
Where did you go on your last break?
I went back to my hometown Pondicherry almost two to three weeks ago. I am learning surfing at the Kallialay Surf School on Serenity Beach. I also go horseback riding when I am there, riding horses without saddles and a grip. There’s no way of controlling the horse except communicating with it. I used to ride as a child but stopped completely as an adult. Now I am back on a horse, after almost 12 years.
What sort of travel did you do as a child?
My dad (Joel Koechlin) hitch-hiked from France to India in his 20s through places like Afghanistan and Varanasi. Travel was a way of life for him, like it was for many people in the 1960s and ’70s. He used to make paragliders, hand gliders and small aircrafts. So my childhood was filled with, you know, jumping off cliffs in a hand glider from the top of the mountain. And then a little later on, I was the one who had to drop him to the top of the mountain in a car and drive down by myself.
With my parents, I remember some distinct trips. One was to the Himalayas. That was the first time I ever saw snow. I think I was eight or nine. We used to do a lot of treks in and around Mudumalai near Ooty, where I went to school. Then when I was older, I made my first trip to France to visit my grandparents. They lived near the Vosges Mountains in eastern France and there I learnt to ski. So yeah, I had a country bumpkin upbringing of sorts.
When did you start travelling alone?
When I was 18, I travelled with my then boyfriend, an English literature student, to Bodh Gaya and Manali among other places. We were both these young boho wanderers in love, going everywhere by train. We had just read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and would write poetry together. Then when I was at university in London (Goldsmiths), I travelled alone across Europe to many places. Spain, Amsterdam—of course (smiles knowingly).
How do you like solo travel?
Initially, I was not good at it. I was socially awkward. I wouldn’t know how to make friends. So my early trips were all about going to museums or reading my book at the beach… being a quiet and a good girl. Now I am better at travelling by myself. Two years ago, I accidentally ended up on a solo trip to Sicily. On the short flight there I made friends with this troupe of classical musicians. They were amazing. They took me to their concerts. Then from there, I went to some of the smaller beach towns near Sicily.
Do you plan your travel at all?
I always go with the intention of wanting my own space. It’s never about what am I going to do there. I am a nature person so I would much rather go to the mountains and go trekking. But if I am in a place like New York (her favourite city in the world), I want to be watching plays, going to museums, seeing stand-up comedy routines and music festivals. It’s about jumping on the bandwagon of whatever’s going on that week. There’s always someone who connects you to something else. And you find your way. During my recent trip to New York last month, I rode bicycles everywhere. I got to stop where I wanted and see the neighbourhoods properly.
In Sicily, for instance, I was at a restaurant and seeing me by myself, the restaurateur began to chat with me. After a while, I was with his family—there were about 20 of them—with a grand matriarch sitting on a table. Somebody was playing the piano and there was all this food. It felt like a scene from The Godfather. I like it when a trip builds on its own organically.
You also go on regular road trips.
I love it because you have no control over what’s going to happen—you may have a puncture one day or you may not reach a place on time. Then sometimes, you end up in a Kafkaesque situation where some uncle tells you that the rubber for your flat tyre is available somewhere else and you are wheeling the tyre on the road with three kids and a chicken runs across the street from you.
In all of this, you are just reminded of life and humanity. You realise that life exists outside your own bubble. And that it’s not the same but it’s equally difficult. People may think that just because someone lives in the mountains they must be so happy but that’s not the case, they have their own struggles. Travel is never about escapism for me.
Speaking of the mountains, what do you like about them?
Once a year, I try to go to the mountains… Kashmir, the Himalayas, the Northeast or in the south. It’s about the quietude and the vast expanse. My favourite place are the mountains near Karuna Farm, a place I find the spiritual. Whenever I am in the mountains, I am more meditative. If I am there long enough, I start writing. I also like going to Pondicherry to isolate myself and study my scripts closely.
What was the most significant trip of your life?
It was the visit to Karuna Farm I mentioned earlier. I was in a vulnerable place physically and mentally. At the farm, my friend and I met a guy named Hart, who was an out-and-out hippie, living in a thatched hut and everything. We ended up spending a lot of time with him. He went through a whole bunch of healing experiences with me. I returned to Mumbai with a clear idea of what I needed to do.
Going to the mountains might have seemed like I was escaping but at the time, through all the conversations and experiences I had had, I came back with most of the solutions. That was when I decided that from here on, I would travel when I was saturated. It’s like that Buddhist tale about the turtle who yearns to be a dragon. But in order to be one, he has to leave his shell first.
So does travel make for a more interesting person?
Yeah sure, but not resort or package travel—that makes a person boring. It should be about making yourself available to the world around you rather than taking your world with you. The idea is to step out of your comfort zone and realise that there is something else happening in this world.
Lakshmi Sankaran fantasizes about a bucket-list journey to witness the aurora borealis someday. Editor in Chief at National Geographic Traveller India, she will also gladly follow a captivating tune to the end of this world.