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Indian travel writers are a rare breed. We don’t have a Paul Theroux or Pico Iyer among us, though we like to claim British-born Iyer as one of our own. The problem is the Indian traveller. Our idea of fun in London is a visit to Marks and Spencer’s on Oxford Street. We tend to hunt down the nearest daal-and-chawal joint as soon as we land on foreign shores.
This collection of essays, finely edited by Namita Gokhale, is not a travel book in the conventional sense. Some write about their explorations while others sit back in the comfort of their homes and write about others’ adventures. Here are bits and pieces that caught my attention, with apologies to those who have been left out due to space constraints.
Navtej Sarna explores the lanes of Jerusalem where Jesus once walked. To his delight, he discovers an Indian hospice in the walled city that has accommodated our Muslim pilgrims for centuries. Mishi Saran tracks down the home of a branch of the Tata clan from Shanghai—their business had to be abandoned when the Communists took over China. The ageing heirs, now settled in San Francisco, pine for the good old days.
Nainital is the subject of Mayank Austen Soofi, who laments the loss of a beloved small town—the one that existed before the advent of the Maruti that enabled the nris—Newly Rich Indians—to arrive in droves from the plains. “While walking on Mall Road, these visitors look at the shops, not the lake.”
Advaita Kala is surprisingly good-humoured about the time she is pulled out of the line at JFK airport for a search. “Why me?” she asks. Perhaps her nervousness from fear of flying attracted the attention of security. The body search is in an airport storeroom and it’s very intimate. Ouch!
Jerry Pinto crosses the street from Mahim to Dharavi, while Aman Nath draws attention to the humble lota in our toilets.
These are some of our more intrepid travellers. Jerry Pinto’s idea of a journey is crossing the street from his home in Mahim to Dharavi, where slum-dwellers watch Bollywood films with a passion. If what he hears is true, they once sold blood by the pint to pay for a cinema ticket. Aman Nath goes nowhere in particular, but draws our attention to the humble lota in our toilets. “The aesthetic of a lota, a simple brass water pot, will find place in the design museums of the West, both for its simple form and its functionality, its rim turned out so well that nothing spills as you pour out of it.”
The hero of Namita Gokhale’s story is Nain Singh, who was a pawn in the Great Game played by the Russians and the British for the control of Central Asia in the nineteenth century. He disguised himself as a pilgrim and mapped out the uncharted Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. He was suitably rewarded by his colonial masters.
Two pieces stand out in the anthology. Aakar Patel writes a moving ode to Mumbai, where he arrived penniless and degree-less from provincial Surat twenty years ago. People he hardly knew housed and fed him. No one asked about his background. Talent was the only requirement. Today he is one of India’s most respected journalists. Ali Sethi tells us of the first Pakistani to settle in Copenhagen. He was educated, he married white and despised the peasants who turned up later from his country. Now old and lonely, he craves for their company and the culture he had abandoned.