A travel book that is anything but ‘wrist-slittingly’ dull…
Paul Theroux famously said “Travel magazines are just one cupcake after another.” But inventive travel writers — even when they start out by writing for magazines — discover a way of breaking the pretty cupcake mould and serving up unanticipated flavours of people and places.
Srinath Perur’s If It’s Monday, It Must Be Madurai (Penguin Viking) is a book that turns the idea of travel writing on its head in many ways. For one, it does not offer a series of exotic, adjective-laden location and food descriptions. Second and more importantly, it breaks the Therouxesque idea that a travel writer worth his salt is essentially a lone traveller.
If It’s Monday… is a travelogue woven around 10 conducted tours in India and abroad. The traveller here is always in cacophonous company and the experience of travel is a “composite of place and one’s fellow travellers.” And the writing is “from a vantage point from where both people and places reveal themselves in the others’ light.”
Perur’s first conducted tour of Tamil Nadu happened quite by accident and he initially found the company of temple-hoppers on his bus “wrist-slittingly dull”.
Soon, he not only developed a tolerance for the assorted group, but also came to discover “a serendipity and an adventure” in conducted tours. Perur says it also offered him a great “formal challenge” as a travel writer to put together an “India book” of sorts from a random sampling of people and places.
The book jacket promises an account that is “deeply felt, ironic and often comic”. The writer in these narratives is part of the crowd but distant. He is the faithless in a bunch of people who never tire of temples or footloose among pilgrims travelling to Pandarapur on foot, or the Indian among foreigners on a slum tour of Dharavi.
This distance, however, does not come with a sense of disdain even when the company appears downright distasteful, like a bunch of old men seeking sexual adventures in Uzbekistan. The trick of not being judgemental, says Perur, is in understanding what motivates people to set out on these travels. The Uzbek travellers, for instance, are from highly repressed societies who are revelling in the anonymity provided by a foreign location.
Perur quotes a line from a Daler Mehndi song that sums up the right attitude for a travel writer: ‘Duniya yaara rang birangi/Naal bhairi na ye changi’ (Life is colourful/Neither good nor bad).
By default, the book ends up as a sociological study of a people who are slowly beginning to explore a larger world from within the safety of a herd. The narratives show people travelling for starkly different reasons, ranging from young corporate workers hoping to find the meaning of life on the hanging bridge of Cherrapunji to retired people who travel out of a sheer sense of relief after “settling” their children.
They also reveal a changing society in which a conducted foreign tour becomes a “conquest of the exalted foreign without much effort or discomfort” and an ancient pilgrimage route offers mobile charging facilities along the way.
Interestingly, Perur often turns his gaze inwards . In one place, he describes himself as someone who is “vaguely at home no matter where” and as “something of a tourist everywhere”, with his cultural roots running “wider than they run deep”.
Though he has a Ph.D. in computer science from IIT-Bombay, Perur chose to be a full-time travel and science writer.
He opted for the “financially disastrous but fun” path of an independent writer over the comfort of a salaried job and is “managing to figure out how not to be destitute”.
With If It’s Monday… behind him, the writer is getting ready to follow a one-legged bicyclist in Cambodia for an article for a British magazine. The cyclist travels around to help people who have lost their limbs to the landmines that dot the countryside. Perur has bought a bicycle and is trying to get used to it before he sets out to Cambodia.