There are two kinds of travellers and they seldom see eye to eye. The first kind like to wander from experience to experience, not even from place to place; they firmly believe in the expression that all those who wander are not lost; they want to soak in their surroundings, feel a place; they want to strike up conversations with strangers and learn their stories. The other kind descends on a place with a list of things to do; they have read up in great detail about every city, every site in their itinerary; they walk around with little notebooks or voice recorders, collecting detailed notes of paintings, sculptures, palaces, and temples; their photos are geotagged and cross-referenced with little notes explaining the significance.
This book is very much of the first kind, a neo-anthropological study of India that ‘S’ really wanted to avoid, yet without the accompanying theory. As a traveller of the second kind, I was quite apprehensive about Heat and Dust; its premise itself – to travel around India on ₹500 per day – struck me as flirting with the fine line between bravery and suicidal. Admittedly, India is known for its jaw-dropping monuments and rich history but it is not for the faint-hearted even when not on such a tight budget. As one officer of the British East India Company described it to his superiors back in England, India was a land of death, dirt, and disease. Two of those three descriptors might be less of an issue now, but one simply could not accuse India of being clean. How could one possibly find clean lodging and eateries for ₹250 per person per day?
However, I was pleasantly surprised – Heat and Dust has quite a few things going for it. The first is something more and more young middle class Indians are beginning to relate to nowadays – a job that either wears you down or does not pay enough, the grind of everyday life in an Indian metro, and the fleeting sensation that there is something more to life that one is missing. After all, there must be more to life than just the mortgage and groceries.
In Europe, they have the gap year – a year after high school spent travelling the world; in Israel, there is the obligatory post-military service pilgrimage either to India or to South America; in India, we have the IIT-JEE, college, job, marriage, kids, and death. ‘D’ also wants to travel, and comes up with the idea of a schlepp across India on a shoe-string budget as a respite from the life of a yuppie couple in Delhi.
The second thing that makes this book noteworthy is that it has very uneven writing. Normally, that would be considered a negative but in Heat and Dust, it gives the sensation of two people talking to you and all of a sudden, you’re the third wheel on an exciting journey across the country. One voice is sweet and charming, almost sing-songy, regaling the reader with odd anecdotes picked up on the journey, while the other is refreshingly efficient and methodically narrates histories and events. The contrast is interesting as is the content.
The third draw of this book is the sheer curiosity – how in the daylights does one travel around India on such a tight budget? This is almost like backpacking, an activity that still remains unabashedly the exclusive domain of gora students and hippies; to see an Indian couple try it out, particularly in India, is certainly novel.
In this volume, D and S travel mostly around Gujarat and Rajasthan and it is not for the entire hundred days as the idea had been sold to a publishing company; one assumes that this leaves the door open for a sequel. The different approach D and S take to this trip are quite obvious from the beginning – one contemplates carrying an iron, books, a small toaster, and Nutella (!) while the other can barely think past enough underwear and a phone charger. D’s note to carry at least one conservative outfit is educational – men rarely think of their clothes but a woman’s world is an alien experience to men. What livens up the narrative is that in the midst of a mundane activity like packing or just walking, either D or S drops an interesting nugget of information – in this case, the story of how Salomon Andrée met his death because he was over-prepared.
The journey starts on a Silver Line bus from Delhi to Jaipur – AC Volvos were definitely hurt in the writing of this book! – and the first night’s lodgings prove one of my apprehensions correct. D and S have been to Jaipur before, and perhaps that is why they gave the standard tourist attractions a miss. Instead, wandering down the town’s main street and talking to strangers at a roadside eatery was on the next morning’s agenda. The afternoon was spent in the bazaars, enjoying the crowds and sights. It is, of course, an interesting experience to see medieval India coexist seamlessly and side by side with a modern and globalised India; foreigners find it disconcerting while locals just call it home.
The duo move on to Pushkar the next morning. D wants to stay a little longer but S insists on a hurtling pace; since no one knew exactly why they were going on this trip in the first place, the budget won the battle. Pushkar is a nice village that hosts the world’s largest animal fair every November. D and S are late for that but there is still the rare Brahma temple and trekking to be done, not to mention gobbling up the local legends.
The stay in Pushkar is longer and the agenda is again skewed towards the anthropological than the historical. D and S are invited to a puja at their host’s home, where they take in the customs, rituals, and friendly curiosity of Rajasthani brahmins; on one of their treks – the first – they also meet a couple of Israeli lads just out of their mandatory three-year military service who become recurring characters in the narrative.
Such is the nature of this odyssey. It is more about people than places though geography does lend a hand in the framework. D and S hurtle through Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Barmer, Palanpur, Amdavad, Junagadh, Girnar, Somnath and via Delhi, Mathura and Barsana. The big tourist draws of Rajasthan and Gujarat – Modhera (particularly lovely around Uttarayan, when D and S were in Amdavad), Champaner, Adalaj, Mount Abu, Udaipur, Ranthambore – were passed over in favour of capturing the heat and dust, people and stories, of India.
My fears about the roads, schedules, toilets, and general tourist infrastructure seem to have been largely on the money; in Junagadh, for example, the lodge initially told D and S that they had no rooms for them despite booking in advance. Despite the myriad headaches of travel in India, it all seems worth the trouble at the end. The climb up the 10,000 or so steps of Mt. Girnar (3,630 feet) to visit Hindu and Jain temples to Lord Dattatreya, Ambaji Mata, and the tirthankaras sounded enticing, at least the view from the top did!
There are a few of aantel conversations and thoughts thrown into the mix, perhaps part of the Bengali DNA, that give the readers a glimpse into the authors’ backgrounds and states of mind. Yet what makes the mundane of Heat and Dust captivating is actually a different light shed on what readers probably already know. For example, D’s story of Madhusudan Dada is a popular story across India but each region appears to have its own flavour. These differences are curious and go a long way in being an excellent example of an old cliché Indian students are taught in their younger years – unity in diversity.
S is usually the one with the historical narratives; the dry yet informative tales are also interspersed with arresting snippets on aghoras or oddities like how Jaisalmer was sacked two and a half times! Some readers (like me) may also be surprised by how many times caste comes up in discussions along the journey. Newspapers, opinion polls, and surveys stress the importance of caste in India but there exist a few pockets where such prejudices do not penetrate; this book is a wake-up call that reveals the casual prevalence without the usual hysteria. Combined with the “anthropological” survey, Heat and Dust has the feel of a people’s micro-history.
D’s observation that Indians will always speak what pleases their listeners when it does not cost anything is quite profound. Such observations are not new but I had always dismissed my gora professors as untrained in deciphering Indian behaviour. To see it reaffirmed by D raises all sorts of questions now, and what makes a good book is not what questions it answers or how well it does so but the queries it sparks after the reader has finished reading it.
In sum, Heat and Dust is an excellent book for those who would never dare to travel in such a manner for they get to experience a different philosophy of travel; it is also a great guide for tourists and travellers who are yet to have their own gap year in that it gives them a glimpse of what to expect.
They say that writing reveals more about the author than the subject. The unapologetically unitalicised Hindi words in the text, starting from the devanagiri in the title itself, certainly says a lot about D and S. And perhaps in poetic symmetry, it says something about the land they travelled too – a wonderfully complex, colourful, temporal, and linguistic mishmash that a tourist must feel more than understand. After all, as Antoine de St Exupery says in The Little Prince, it is only with the heart that one can see clearly; the essential is invisible to the eyes.