The fourth and last book in the ‘Intriguing India’ series by Hugh and Colleen Gantzer is a meandering meditative portrait of Eastern India. Having won the National Award for two of their earlier books – ‘The Alluring North’ and ‘The Vibrant West’, the duo starts its eastward journey from Puri experiencing the celebration of Lord Jagannath’s Rath Yatra.
Along with a million others, they witness the Lord being drawn in his towering 16-wheeled chariot on a cloud-wracked day in Puri. During the 12-hour encounter with the gods, not just the ‘Nandigosha’ the enormous chariot but the cultural assimilation of pilgrims holds them in disciplined awe. The snatches of Hindi and Oriya, assertive Punjabi to mellifluous Bengali, the staccato of Tamil to the lilting credence of Garhwali charges them with the epiphany of Puri’s Rath Yatra, which is more than a spiritual symbol.
While travelling, Hugh and Colleen are drawn by landscapes and monuments as much as they are by the people and their cultural roots. In this volume, they seek out non-descript places like Raghurajpur, a heritage crafts village in Puri, where the murals first catch their eyes and then their creators. They see an unusual ballet and learn about the Gotipua culture where only pre-pubescent boys are trained at the gurukul. The perfect Odissi performance by pre-teen boys draped in saris and made up skilfully with carefully chosen ornaments help to soften their immature masculine features.
The erotic art of Konarak rivets their attention. Immensely engaging raconteurs that they are, Hugh and Colleen beautifully describe the enigmas in the monument. Writing with elegance, erudition and journalistic ease, their personalised accounts of places and people not only makes the reading enjoyable but also showers enough attention on some neglected places.
In the pages of this anthology one also visits Chilika from where the writers return reassured that the “over-hyped war between Man and Nature…global warming, over-population, nuclear holocaust…will not destroy the planet.”
“The enormous lake that stretches on and on to a glittering horizon is the source of annual rejuvenation and in the secret shallow fringes of Chilika, humans and nature are reversing the battle,” they write.
Hugh and Colleen travel to peripheral corners and get wiser. Their delightful descriptions of a beautiful roadside hut, the Mardum haat that spreads vibrant and colourful, the cockfight, the metal casting by tribesmen in Bastar, the lifestyle and culture of the eco-conscious Murias – the young men and women in revealing clothes, drinking, dancing, gambling and living together, the tingling taste of mahua described as red ants chutney that first tastes like lemon drops and surges through the taste buds zestfully leaving a pleasant sensation at the end — the Gantzers are very evocative about the “other experiences”.
They trek into wilder and woollier environments to identify the ethical and pure Kosa silk and have an eldritch encounter in the ruins of an abandoned Church haunted by a fearful memory in Ross Islands also called the Isle of Illusions.
In Bodh Gaya the couple walks the reader past noisy station and pavements, cacophonic cycle-rickshaws and tongas, emaciated dogs and whining beggars. In the commercial bustle of a pilgrim town and wayside eateries, one meets weird and wonderfully ordinary polyglot people – from trinket sellers and tourists to hoteliers and pilgrims, monks and nuns before entering the great Maha Bodhi Temple.
With a breezy narrative, the writers enrich the sensory enjoyment of reading. The vivid colour photographs ranging from portraiture to street snapshots enhance the presentation.
Their journey from Andamans to Bihar, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Sikkim is refreshing. The fiery red temples of Bishnupur, a hands-on lesson with sola pith artisans, the nostalgic ride on the toy train from the steaming plains of Bengal to the cool of Kurseong, the sound of the bells of the monasteries in Gangtok and the jagged edges of the Nathula all find enduring expressions in the couple’s nature-cum-travel writing.
The book sings a beautiful tune of its own as the Gantzers live their dreams. They touch on beauty and love and take the reader through some wonderful spectacles like the little green-walled Himalayan settlement scattered over the long rising valley of the Lachung Chu river with steep and wooded slopes, silvered with waterfalls rising on both sides of the valley.
In the last lap of their journey, they arrive at the celestial power base Kamakhya. Cruising down the mighty Brahmaputra, they visit the Majoli Island famed for its monasteries, dancing monks and mask makers before reaching Sibsagarm the intriguing capital of vanished Ahoms, who had ruled Assam for longer than the combined dominance of the Mughals and British. The remains of the dynasty are explored with a gentle curiosity.
From the moment they drive into Kaziranga National Park, there is always something to grab attention. A pair of nesting eagles or the hog deer, the monitor lizard or the wild buffalo, jungle cocks and swamp deer, dowdy hen and turtles or the pair of Indian rhinoceros that crosses their path.
Crisscrossing through Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, as they mull over their eastern sojourn, they realise India’s unconquerable charm is more than everything else.
The beguiling travelogue makes for an excellent introduction for all those planning to visit these places.