Travel has been primarily on my mind since a couple of days. For one, there is a short planned trip and then the last couple of days, I have had to run to Delhi to get a set number of errands done. Gurgaon (where I live) is a part of NCR and thousands of people commute from GGN to Delhi and vice versa on a daily basis for work. Physically it is just 40 mins from certain parts of South Delhi. But mentally for me and most other people I know (who live in Delhi or Gurgaon), the commute is like an expedition. An expedition to another city in another state!
The errand expedition turned out to be a disaster though. I was passing by Aurobindo Place Market and stopped there on a complete impulse and went to my favourite book store – the Midland Bookstore. (The excuse to my rational mind was – my son wanted to read that Dr Seuss book – it should be available here!) Bookstores are a weakness, a terrible terrible weakness and due to the long pile of unread books, and the knowledge of how difficult it is to cart books from one city and house to another, I try to avoid bookshops in general. But fail miserably. Hell, I even got myself a Kindle thinking that it will stop me from buying too many physical books – all that has resulted is that I now own two copies of a book – physical and electronic!
During my time in the bookstore – looking, feeling and smelling those books and asking the genial owner about his latest recommendations – a quaint cover caught my attention. (Okay, this is probably weird, I pick up books sometimes purely on how drawn I am by the cover. I know I know…)
“Travelling In, Travelling Out: A Book on Unexpected Journeys” edited by Namita Gokhale is an eclectic collection of twenty-five essays on travel by many known writers – Devdutt Patnaik, M.J. Akbar, Bulbul Sharma, Mayank Austen Soofi, and Urvashi Butalia, to name a few.
As Namita Gokhale mentions in her introduction, this is not a typical travel book – a descriptive guide on what to do and what to eat or what to see. Instead it is about journeys taken – in the past or present – physically and mentally.
The essays tell varied tales and paint myriad portraits of people and places far away (either in terms of distance or time.) On one hand, one gets a taste of the “five star holy India” of the exotic spas inhabited by the rich and famous in Marie Brenner’s entertaining essay titled “A Retreat to Holy India” and the world of the oppressed tribals of Bastar in Rahul Pandita’s short but powerful take, “Hello, Bastar!”
The past plays an important role in “A House for Mr Tata.” Jehangir Bejan Tata was constantly travelling to Avan Villa, the house in Shanghai that he grew up in and had to leave in 1952. He had appointed a Chinese man, C.L. Tang to manage the estate in 1954. Till 1966, he received information about the status of his estate. In that year, correspondence with this Chinese man ceased. It was also the year of the terrible Cultural Revolution in China and they feared that this Chinese man may have lost his life due to his connection to foreigners. (They managed to track him down later – Tang had been arrested and put in a labour camp that year.) Since then, Mr Tata had been trying to gather some information – he did manage to visit Shanghai in 2001 and the property was still there – on the verge of renovation. In 2004, they got to know Avan Villa had been torn down and that it belonged to the government. Mr Tata tried his level best, pulling strings, contacting authorities, to see that one legal document that proved the government’s claim over the Villa – but this endeavour was in vain. What remained with Mr Tata (he died in November, 2013) were the memories of a childhood spent in a magnificent villa in a multicultural city (as Shanghai was back then) and some old pictures – the last of which was from 1941.
Another heart-rending story was that of Bir Bahadur Singh who had to leave his home during the bloody partition which turned friends and neighbours into enemies and had since longed to go back just one time. In 2000, he does make the trip back to Saintha, his home town in Pakistan, as described evocatively by his travel companion, Urvashi Butalia in “The Persistence of Memory.” Navtej Sarna writes about a quaint little Indian corner in the city of Jerusalem and an old Sufi saint in the interesting “The Door to His Hospice was never closed.”
The book was worth every penny I spent on it. I enjoyed reading most of the essays. Indian History has been a topic I have been interested in and there is so much in this book! The essay by Devdutt Patnaik talks of the concept of travel in ancient India. The history of the Konkan region is touched upon briefly by Wendell Rodericks in his essay. Saba Naqvi’s delightful essay on Bonbibi, a Muslim goddess in Sunderbans, explores this strange myth (“A Muslim Goddess“); while Kota Neelima writes about the Tirupati temple in “Tirupati.”
One of my favourite essays was by Ali Sethi. “The Foreigner’s Situation” is about the life of a Pakistani kiosk owner in Denmark. I lived in Europe for a decade and in the course met several Pakistanis. So this brought back several heartwarming personal memories – the nameless Pakistani kiosk owner in Frankfurt, who spoke to me in Hindi/ Urdu seeing me look lost in a strange city and (then) not knowing a single word of German. Or the friendly and kind Uncle who owned the grocery store opposite my house in Amsterdam who cheered me up once by getting me the DVD of an old Hindi movie with much glee!
This book reminded me of my own memories of travel and of that quote by Anita Desai -“Wherever you go, somehow becomes a part of you.” As the world celebrates the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, I am amazed at how momentous the last two decades have been. The world is so much more connected and travel is so much easier. I remember reading about the fall of the wall in the newspapers and Frontline magazine back then. And today, as my friends post excited pictures of them in Berlin on Facebook, it feels like I am there! Yes, Germany has become a part of me.
Personal digression over – this book is a a great collection of essays and is a must, if topics like history and travel interest you!