Frugal travellers

Frugal travellers

Frugal travellers

The Heat and Dust Project: The broke couple’s guide to Bharat
Devapriya Roy & Saurav Jha
Harper Collins
2015, pp 280, Rs 250

It seems strange that the book that I reviewed before this was written by a man who decided to go on a long walk, with his recently remarried wife, across France, after chucking up his bank job.

It is a theme that has gained currency today. Bored of having it all, the very concept of ambition and job expectations have undergone a sea change among those who seem to have achieved their conventional dreams. Moving away from their comfort zone, this young couple embark on a journey which takes them from Delhi to Jaipur, Pushkar, Sabarmati, and innocuous sounding towns such as Merta, Barmer, Palanpur and Barsana before finding themselves in Paharganj with its recommended “Paharganj posture”.

Despite being a “rollicking” account laced with philosophy and humour, The Heat and Dust Project is not easy to read. It is complex, weaving back and forth by the couple, each with his or her own sometimes convoluted but fascinating opinions.

They set interesting parameters for themselves: a limited budget of Rs 500 a day for bed and board, the Buddhist principle of not settling in any place for more than three days for fear of sprouting roots, and not having specific plans. This necessitates travelling by bus with all its attendant troubles and discomforts. This epic 167-day journey covering 30 cities and towns was born “like other insane ventures, in a moment of fake lucidity”. What was their intention? To discover themselves and India through their journey which has an inner parallel as well. They stick to their plan despite a dramatic fight which has Roy storming out in a paroxysm of tears: reconciliation takes place, evident in an empathic and tender attendant yet no-holds-barred description of his face. In a “clear pool within herself”, she sees the reflection of his face which seems “greyer, marked with tired lines, dark circles under the eyes”.

They bring to it their individual energies: Roy being casual, impulsive and sensitive, drawing out stories from visitors and locals alike, a counter foil to the practical Jha who manages to strike up conversations and friendships. They keep copious notes: descriptions are sensitive, humorous, casual yet full of minute details which can derail and overwhelm. I found myself rereading the lines, discovering new nuggets of lyrical worlds and sensitive perceptions. Roy is partial to descriptions of light: “the lanes of shimmery darkness through which shapes of balconies with lace-like jharokas loom” (Jaisalmer). They contribute a dance of difference steps, D (they identify themselves by initials) with impressions and S with facts.

Their humour is sly, subtle and sensitive. When talking about themselves before the trip and linking it to globalisation: “We could spend our lives pursuing happiness since the American Constitution had asked us to.” Or the graphic description of co-passengers on the bus who spit incessantly from the windows. “Sometimes they clear their throats in elaborate fugues before spitting. In between the spitting and the  chatting, they find time to shell the groundnuts briskly and pop them into their mouths.”

And there is a plethora of stories; about the history of forts in Rajasthan, origin of names such as Kathiawar, Pushkar famous for its fair with its sublime and the banal, also its 5,000 tailors who export top quality garments, explanation of the interesting origin of superstitions such as forbidding of the carrying of pickles, ripe bananas or jackfruit as their fecund rotting smell invites mischievous spirits, and stepwells which are beautiful manifestations of the social obligations of nobility. They say that if you take three steps with a person, he becomes your friend. So they collect people along the way, enhancing interest and experiences alike.

And like travel books from days of yore, it is replete with descriptions of food — not the complex taste of the epicure, but simple homely flavour more befitting of their budget but full of a fugue of tastes and flavours, of baja rotis and desert brinjals and dessert of chocolate bomb divided up.

They learn to trust their gut when it comes to making friends and their intuition pays off for they invite a rich mosaic of conversation and experiences. And in the process, it become s not your usual travelogue, for blended in somehow, mirroring the hurly burly of life in unnamed streets and mohallas it takes the colours and flavour of the external terrain they hurtle through, mostly in rickety buses. Along the way the reader becomes a part  of their landscape and a fascinating participant in their lives as well.
A must-read for any travel writer.