Paul Theroux has said that, “Travel had to do with movement and truth, offering yourself to experience, and then reporting on it”. The terrains we trod, the communities we interact with, the cultures that captivate, in no small way, enrich our understanding and knowledge of human life per se. That said about physical travel, I would like to talk about another way of travelling, a vicarious one. Travelling via your imagination through travel books is equally enthralling, what’s more, it’s easy on the pocket!
In recent times, I have been hooked on travel literature, and find it an attractive option to real travel, which requires planning and involves constraints. Paradoxically, the fallout of reading travel books is that you crave to visit those places you have read about! You realise what little you know about your own country! Two books which have been gathering dust on my book shelf, beseeching me to pick them up, are taken out, dusted and read! One is Holy Cow! An Indian Adventure (2002) by Sarah Macdonald, and the other, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (1995) by Pankaj Mishra. The selection actually was based on quick availability, but then a certain rationale for the choice presented itself – the different nationalities of the authors and east and west encounters with India! So here goes!
These narratives are more than regular scenic sightseeing. They try to prise open the underbelly of the country, laying bare its convoluted, tangled, composite culture, which, for a foreigner at least, is incredibly mystifying. Much water has flown under the bridge since these journeys were undertaken, but they mark certain crucial periods in the country’s embattled journey through modernity.
Holy cow! This is India!
India is so kaleidescopic, panoramic, almost bursting at the seams with its multilayered cultures, that somebody alien to its culture would have to go through a whole gamut of emotions – from bewildered bemusement through loathing, to understanding, and finally to a kind of transcendental love, a sublime union. The narrator of Holy Cow ,who describes herself as an Alice in Wonderland that is India, does exactly this. From an outsider in an alien culture bothered by, the “hurricane fence” of taxi drivers at the airport, “death knocks” from beggars at traffic signals, “the roaring sea of traffic”, whole families on two wheelers, early morning wake up calls of a symphony of spitting, the morning bum salute, fly-infested restaurants, maddening driving, to an individual “warming to Indian exuberance”, and then to seeking transcendence through a spiritual experience, Sarah Macdonald goes through a transformational journey.
From Delhi, she takes off to Dharamkot in her quest for inner peace to the Vipasana meditation centre there, where she realises that brain enema is very difficult. Her brush with Sikhism in Amritsar exposes her to community cooking and warm camaraderie. Kashmir comes across as a paradise only in ancient poetry. Barricaded chalets with windows that are boarded up reveal the stark truth of militancy. The ubiquitous mutton dished up in various forms is to Kashmir what beer is to Australia. The Kumbhmela acquaints her with the idea of Karma and reincarnation. The sheer scale of the spectacle of mass bathing has a sobering effect, and Sarah becomes a vegetarian. Her next stop is Dharamsala, and Tibetan Buddhism enthrals, as does the Dalai Lama. However, realisation dawns later that the Tibetans are just a population of refugees facing problems of displacement, desperately resorting to tactics for survival. An encounter with Judaism through the Israelis in Dharamkot, and later with Parsees in Mumbai, and Velankanni and Mata Amritanandamayi in Kerala, rounds off the spiritual journey in India. She learns different things from all religions, from Buddhism on how to control the mind, from Hinduism to respect other paths, from Islam the power to surrender, Jainism to make peace with all aspects of life, Sikhs, the importance of spiritual strength, and from Parsees, to touch nature lightly.
Discovery of the real India
Pankaj Mishra’s is a journey through the small towns of India crisscrossing the length and breadth of India. He seems to subscribe to the view of Paul Theroux that, “Being alone, self sufficient and anonymous was necessary to the trip”. Travelling by trains, buses and cabs, with an organised itinerary, with contacts in many places, he eavesdrops in on conversations to get the feel of the places firsthand. He seems disenchanted with the way modernity has slowly but surely crept in swamping heritage and a creative, indigenous way of life. The new rich have embraced Bollywood, Hollywood, and Western styles.
When not observing the people around, he is taken up by the stench, the grime, and the noise. He feels “like an imposter”, amongst a crowd at a wedding in Muzaffarnagar, where the young men wore “silk Hawaiian shirts, gold chains worn over sacred threads, diamond rings, and pseudo Italian shoes”. Here was a place which had not “a single bookshop or garden or park”, and just a cheap tabloid for a newspaper. The “sudden plenitude of money” has trailed in its wake an aggressive individualism, and a sad lack of civic responsibility. All this in a nutshell spoke of “an untroubled confidence to deal with the larger world on its own terms”.
The new provincial middleclass is dissected. It was from here that the idea of travelling around the small towns and cities of India germinated. Starting with Simla, where the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, which in colonial times had been the Viceregal Lodge, maintained its pure pedigree in the face of the architectural miscegenation of “new and ugly” Indian architecture, he takes us through Mandi, spread over two steep hillsides separated by the River Beas which had the largest concentration of pre-Muslim temples of India. The timidity of the people of Mandi is a fallout of the fact that it had been untouched by foreign invasions, and of the reality that no one other than natives of Himachal are allowed to own land in the state. The Gaddis, a nomadic pastoral population who shuttle between Kangra valley and the elevated Mandi, are the vestiges of a bygone culture which may soon be overtaken by the urban zeal for change.
Narrowly escaping an attempt to get him hooked to a rich local business man’s daughter at Ambala, Mishra reaches Rajasthan, another example of prosperity lowering living standards. The narrator idealises an India of yesteryears, passing judgement on present urbanisation everywhere. For him all changes are symbols of India’s “shabby modernity” which jarred. There was even a thought to complain to higher authorities about such “aesthetic crimes”. City Palace had a dish antenna and shabby kiosks in the courtyard. Pushkar introduced Mishra to two young hoteliers desperately trying to cash in on tourism to stay afloat. They didn’t allow Indians to their guest house as they had filthy habits. The sweetshops there had an upmarket look. The age-old corpulent halwai, churning some sweet concoction in full view of the public, had disappeared. The kitsch Muslim culture outside the Chishti Dargah in Ajmer catches his eye where tourists are conned into buying caps under threat of dire consequences if head is not covered.
South of Ajmer, the pathetic conditions of haveli owners in Ghanerao, an old frontier outpost of the kingdom of Mewar, are revealed in the way they are forced to convert portions of their homes into hotels, selling their jaded ancestry to foreigners. The foreigners he saw elsewhere had the eager satisfaction of having encountered the ‘real’ India – “broken roads, wandering cows, open gutters, low ramshackle shops, ground littered with garbage, the pressing crowd, the dust”. The complacency of these tourists at having been proven right about India and its “poor, filthy, backward” state was evident. At Udaipur, the usual tourist haunts were visited – the City Palace, Jagdish Temple, Saheliyon Ki Bari, Lake Pichola — an encounter with Munna Yadav, a migrant labourer from UP throws up the hardships faced by those who venture out from their villages to eke out a living in modern India.
Down South, Bangalore is morphing into Los Angeles with its malls, American accents, and multicuisine restaurants. Trichur brings him in contact with an erudite medical representative who had read Borges, Calvino and Gide, and the best of European poetry. Backward Kottayam, touristy Kovalam, and Kanyakumari, “where India begins”, are traversed. Travelling to Shimoga in Karnataka at the behest of U.R. Anandamurthy, Mishra is fascinated by the story of how the peasant revolution in the mid 1950s shaped the destiny of the then youth there in their twenties, breeding a swarm of writers and artists who achieved national fame. Benares Hindu University, corrupted by the rich upper castes and the new rich lower castes, has lost its earlier fame. Murshidabad in Calcutta (now Kolkata), the capital of Mughal ruled Bengal, has faded into insignificance. Bihar, the land of Buddha and Mahavira with an ambitious crop of youth hell bent on entering the Civil Services has deteriorated into a state of disorder.
Peppered with stereotypes of Indian delays, sexual assaults on white women and corruption, Mishra’s narrative has an insider’s matter-of- factness that fails to surprise. Sarah as a perplexed outsider, is harassed by the ordeals of travelling in India, but is fascinated by its religions and cultures. India transforms into a lotus from all that “muck”.