On a conducted tour

Writers have been predicting the death of travel writing because of the accessibility of the world through technology, and to an extent, the removal of restrictions and taboos, particularly in India. However, we have had the likes of Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron, Pico Iyer, Bill Bryson and now, to gauge from a perusal of this book, a new travel author, Srinath Perur.

And he has chosen a different perspective, which is both challenging and stimulating, going on group tours. He has debunked the legend that most travellers and travel writers have, that travelling in groups is to be looked down upon and may be “wrist-slittingly dull”. In the reviewer’s thinking, Perur has, somewhere along the travel with motley groups of people, discovered that the destination is not that important, but the company on the journey is interesting and challenging, and gives a totally different colour to the proceedings. This is definitely something that solitary travel cannot bestow.

He gives various well thought out rational reasons for the recent trend in and popularity of group tours. It is, as he calls it, “the new vanaprasthashrama”; something that one can get absorbed in after retirement. It is a symbol of leisure and economic sufficiency, and there are endless albums with telling and unoriginal photographs that the traveller brings back to prove it. It is more affordable than solitary travel, and in cases of joint families, it is more freeing in terms of behaviour and dress, of creating a space for oneself, at least for a while. Of course, it can also be about spending time with a spouse or family without taking responsibility for strange airports, immigration, money matters; someone else decides what to do and how to do it, which may be stressful and time consuming .

So, Perur cashes in on the plethora of tours that are now being offered to cater to an equal amount of tastes and preferences. Thus, the idea of a book was born after the first conducted trip that he went on in 2011 — a week -long bus tour of Tamil Nadu. Apart from that first path breaking one, he went on to Europe, a camel trip to Jaisalmer about which he writes under a catchy title: “Desert Knowledge, Camel College”; Fort Kochi with a backwaters cruise; Delhi-Tashkent, which turned out to be for men looking for sexual adventures and capers; slum tourism with Dharavi slums; Assam and Meghalaya for wild life and adventure and looking for insights into the region’s society, culture and ecology; a Rajasthan Kabir yatra; a shodh yatra, which was a week-long walking tour of villages in search of traditional knowledge and local innovations, and lastly with warkaris or pilgrims, who walk from their respective locations to Pandharpur in Madhya Pradesh. 

On each of these tours, Perur has pithy comments to make: the serial temple visits or devotional pub hopping as he calls it, the tour to Europe where “we come with pictures in our heads, but leave with heads in those pictures” referring to the ruthless documentation in the form of the omnipresent cameras, the “two-shot boom boom sessions” in Tashkent the title of which is self-explanatory — “Memorial to the Victims of Repression”. Along the way, he discovers himself and his place among his fellow roamers. 

Meghalaya reminds him of the delicate balance between nature and man. The darker side of competitive tourism in Jaisalmer comes back to haunt him, when he reads stories of robbery and assault after Uttarakhand. Both the darker side of life and people and the humanity and humaneness reveal themselves to him. The judgementalness that is perhaps there at the beginning erodes, as Perur goes along and discovers the kinder, gentler, sometimes humorous side of people. In doing so, he has changed, subtly and deeply.

He realises the irony of being an Indian in a largely foreign group to Dharavi and being the only seemingly agnostic on a pilgrimage. He learns to accept himself and others after the initial discomfort, as he realises his response to the world around him. He becomes conscious of the way in which he looks at things for instance, his concept of rain after traversing the arid Madhya Pradesh villages; he learns that writing about group tours is “to write from somewhere in between, a vantage from where both people and place reveal themselves in the others’ light.”

The only quarrel I have with the author is the title. Given his sense of humour — ironical and whimsical — I would have expected something less banal and more rib-tickling.In the meantime, I hope he is writing another book.

If It’s Monday It Must be MaduraiSrinath PerurPenguin2013, pp 284499

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