This colourfully-illustrated and warmly-narrated travelogue about Eastern India sparkles with life like Lord Jagannath’s crowded rath, pictured in rich detail through two full pages.
This book is the fourth and last in an aptly titled series — Intriguing India; for the gentle Gantzer gaze falls and rests on those parts of the country that have intrigued, puzzled, aroused their curiosity and propelled them in the direction of probable answers explainable through available scientific or historical arguments. Chatty, informative, light, and yet fairly deep, this is a highly readable and entertaining book that can interest both the potential tourist and the general reader.
The tour starts at Puri, Odisha and concludes at India’s easternmost, ‘breaking dawn’ state of Arunachal Pradesh — described as nestling fitfully on the ‘abrasive edge of India’, bang next to bristling China. Between the book’s covers, one is witness to a variety of experiences that range from cathartic (Puri’s Jagannath Yatra) to serene (Chilika Lake, Odisha’s well-run ecological wonderland) to exciting and literally breathless (the high altitude ‘seven sister’ states of the Northeast).
But at the start, the Gantzers do dwell awhile on Odisha. So, among other things, one learns about 900-year-old Raghurajpur, the well-planned artisans’ village (“seemed to have been designed by a rural Le Corbusier”); interesting too that the famed Odissi dance form’s precursor is in fact Gotipua, an ancient ballet tradition, still being performed by young pre-adolescent boys. Next stop is Chhattisgarh and the eco-metalsmiths of Bastar, where the Gantzers get adventurous and taste red ant chutney at a Bastar haat (weekly market). Apparently, this chutney tastes initially like lemon drops and gradually unleashes the fiery heat.
But what is praise-worthy is the fact that the Gantzers are not simply feisty travel-writers with a yen for the unusual. Like most sociologically responsible and respectful visitors, they also try and understand the psyche of the locals; consequently refrain from going on voyeuristic visits to co-ed Ghotul dormitories, but do observe young Bastariyas at the local haat and understand that these free-spirited people are truly liberal, compared to middle class urbanites. While in Chhattisgarh — “one of our greatest reservoirs of a tribal culture dating to Dravidian and Proto-Austric times” — the writers are made aware of the science behind the concept of ethical silk/Tussar/Tussah/Kosa/non-violent silk.
The authors next set their sights offshore on the union territory of the Andaman Islands, and end up having a surreal experience. Perhaps it is the sad history of the Andamans that acts as a catalyst to the writers’ stirred emotions, but a startling and momentary ghostly vision highlights their visit to Ross Island, once a rest and recreation enclave for pre-Independence British officers, now a rain-swamped ruin, choked with swaying palms, abandoned churches and tale-telling tombstones. It’s an eerie intrusion into a supposedly simple travel guide, raising it to a higher, more intriguing plane.
Back in mainland India, the Gantzers visit Bodh Gaya, “an island of serenity in tired, dusty, over-exploited Bihar”. They meditate on Buddhism, make relevant comparisons, and observe that “Buddhism seems to be almost anarchically simple.”
As they traverse the variety of eastern India, the Gantzers watch, note, research, understand and deduce. Historical links and scientific theories emerge, oddities are explained — the terracotta temples of Bishnupur in West Bengal.
Bengal’s old and charming Darjeeling Hill Railway provides a change of pace and mood. One learns about the hill railway’s famed Batasia Loop where “the track resembles a jalebi winding back on itself”. Lovely and colourful photographs enliven this chapter; and then it’s back to the Buddha motif through most of the book’s second half, which basically covers the northeast. In fact, five of the seven northeastern states are spotlighted. Perhaps, it is the Gantzers’ way of informing India’s general citizenry about their isolated and seemingly neglected northeastern compatriots.
Sikkim is presented as a fairytale land laced with myth, history and Buddhist legends. Its craggy, misty mountains supply the second surreal experience. Was that a dragon high up there or just clouds-cum-fevered imagination?
In Assam, the Gantzers encounter the massive Brahmaputra river that has continuously nurtured a great civilisation, provided livelihood to many, helped create the famed Kaziranga Reserve, and contributed rich material for a chapter full of description, analysis, photographs and wit — at Kaziranga they spotted a wild buffalo, with “a look of frowning anger on its bovine face”.
There’s more that matters, but a quibble or two here — why no maps? And doesn’t Bihar’s Madhubani folk art deserve a mention? Still, one has to hand it to the Gantzers, India’s earliest travel writers, travelling, reporting, analysing with style and substance, 30 years on. Bravo.