Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Heat and Dust Project - Devapriya Roy and Saurav Jha

It's the broke couple's guide to Bharath - Devapriya and Saurav's. It's an ambitious project and a seemingly masochistic one because the challenge is to keep it under 500 bucks a day. It means one has to travel by buses, shared autos, stay in sub 400 hotels, skip meals sometimes and many times wonder why you are doing this and what's at the end of all this. It makes even less sense when you realise that the couple are all set for a comfortable life with all the right degrees and jobs and resumes - Devapriya has written two novels already and Saurav, an energy and security expert, has written a book on nuclear power and his next is due on sustainability of economic growth. But these are the things that grow you so you must give in to these ideas (and grow the broke couple certainly would have, if my growth through this reading is anything to go by). And that's pretty much enough to say that it's a book that can impact our ideas of India (and travel) considerably, and change our attitude to them in a nice earthy, down-on-the-street way.
It's the big dream come true marrying practicality. The big dream - of someday-I-will-just-go-and- travel and see all these nice places, meet interesting people and write about them. For most of us the someday never comes because we get jobs, get married and then most things are out of control. Too many constraints come into the picture - mostly now because there are two people who think differently. And with the facebooky life where everyone is heading off on swanky SUVs or waving at us from familiar foreign locales at the drop of a hat, its not cool anymore to do stuff like this. Why would you want to do this instead of hiding someplace trying to match up to the other facebooky lives? Just to prove you wrong you get two people who think they can subject themselves and their marriage to something like the Heat and Dust project.

So back to our big dream - and so many dreams which are compromised because we are not courageous enough like D and S to just up it and take the sub 500 route. But they are a practical couple too and they make a book out of it for good measure, which might well become a bestselling book and then get made into a movie. Make something out of something you'd have liked to do anyway. So in a way I find that the enterprising couple are way more practical about big dreams than most of us who max out credit cards and experience a fraction of what they did - and at the end of it all have no book, no experience, no new friends and certainly no movie deals.

It takes courage and conviction however, and that the couple show in tonnes. From their bus rides to Jaipur, Pushkar, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Barmer, Junagadh, Mathura, the little hotels, lack of loos, lack of good food, they stick through it all, meet people who turn out to be interesting - autowalla in Jaipur, hotel walla, bus walla, jugaad walla, boatwalla, 5 star walla (in the end). You cannot be the same person after so many experiences - or the same couple. But that's what they signed up for. Some review says 16,000 kms - its a lot.

Did I forget to mention the support cast - or the ones who come closest to the protagonists as support cast in this adventure - the Israeli twins Motty and Zvika? The twins are always in the background (with emails and phone calls) and step up every now and then into foreground at the unlikeliest places with interesting tales and experiences. From love (shy and rejected), army service, faith, future - they bring a nice contrast to the book. I am glad that D and S somehow chose the twins as support cast and not an Indian pair because of many reasons. For one, how is it that foreigners get better deals and are able to adjust to India faster than Indians do? (The twins seem to get better deals!) How is it that they get so comfortably under India's skin when most of us cannot? (Shantaram onwards, every single Indian experience written by a foreigner seems to show an India we do not want to walk into - starting with the slums). How is it that two random Indians cannot really seem to share an Indian experience as intensely as an Indian and a foreigner can? How does a foreigner transcend boundaries of caste and community, religion and faith, color and background, that we are so suspicious about? An Indian carpenter would not be the same as a foreign carpenter right? Nothing shows India up to Indians like foreigners travelling in India. On the bikes in Goa, the beaches they seem to own, the joy with which they immerse themselves into the festivals, the kumbh melas, the Gokarns, the Rishikeshs, they do it all in their twenties while we are still facebooking and checking out fancy hotel prices and flight deals to see the Taj Mahal. My suspicion is that we have a long way to go as a people. Unless we grow to tolerate one another, (if not the indulgence we reserve for the foreigners, at least a basic civil tolerance), I see little hope in that direction.

I am now more practical about my travels after I read the book. Buses offer me freedom. They are within means. It's also where I am comfortable. Maybe the last line is what I needed. Get that back pack or rucksack they say. It's comforting and seems within reach. It's an Indian way to travel on Indian budgets that most Indians would identify with. At least I do.

I loved one chapter that begins with a line from some book one of them is reading which goes something like - she was the type who would cut off her nose to spite her face, and to prove herself right she died on his thirty second birthday (or 33rd). How well do I identify with that? And what a line. (I am writing all this entirely from memory so forgive the approximations.)

Is travel some Bengali thing - this is a question I always asked myself because wherever I went I'd find Bengali families on tour. They love their travel, they love their family time. Its an education watching them as tourists.

D and S share their innermost fears and apprehensions, hope and aspirations, as they write of their travels. D writes from her heart, all romance and idealism, emotion and honesty, here and now. S writes from the head, all control and plan, clipped and to the point, in the past or ahead in the future. It's an interesting contrast and it came through a bit when I heard them speak at their book launch in Hyderabad. But in little ways, they reveal themselves in their observations, in what they choose to write about and what they do not, (just as batsmen reveal themselves in the strokes they play and those they do not). You realise not far into the book that its a love story disguised as a travel book. And its a fine love story too.

"The Heat and Dust Project" is unique in perspective and experience. It is written well - and one cannot say that of much travel writing which tends to get so boring that you give up after ten pages. This one keeps you glued and makes you want to come back for more - not so much for the depth of their travel and research but for the depth and transparency of their personalities - they are interesting people and they make things, events and people interesting. I have already gifted two copies to  two friends from the US and they loved the idea - they hoped they could do what D and S did sometime. They will like the book certainly.

If you are still looking for me to commit, here it is - this one is highly recommended. One of the better, more honest books to have come from Indian writers. (My problem with Indian writing is still this - we are not honest enough -yet. This one is.) No wonder it's listed as one of the 11 books to read in 2015. Thanks Chitra and Krishna for gifting me this fine book.

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