Name: Loitering with Intent
Author: Ritu Menon
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Inured to operating on annual budgets no bigger than entertainment allowances in London and New York, Indian publishers have evolved into clever international travellers. They have a prehensile grip on the layover and the side trip, which they use to joyride away from trips to book fairs and the festival circuit and visit tourist destinations on the cheap. But it appears that Ritu Menon, a founder of the trailblazing Kali for Women, is an honest traveller. She has indeed loitered with intent as advertised, and the journeys which she reports appear to have been undertaken for the specific purpose of getting there.
Menon has a wicked sense of humour and a keen eye for the absurd, and one had expected travelogues more on the lines of Laurence Sterne than Lonely Planet. Travel writing by the literary set reports journeys into the human condition, illuminating, entertaining and of no practical value. You will learn immersively about the latest political angsts of your destination, but probably have no idea how to get a potable coffee there. But if you are travelling to any of Menon’s destinations, from the Lake District to Cambodia, pack this book. It reveals all in the manner of Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree — the most interesting places to stay in, the names of owners and handholders, what to see that the tourist brochures neglect to tell you about. Who would have thought that Java has a hotel named the Ministry of Coffee? Promoting the island’s brew is one of its functions, and Menon figures out why a Bangalore coffee shop is named Java City. That’s half the joke, of course, the rest being provided by Sun Microsystems.
The sparklingly pessimistic Menon that one meets socially is sometimes visible, as in her initial impression of the Lake District: “Grey, drippy, pissing wet rain.” Despite the classic British weather, she is enthusiastic about English gardens, tea rooms and Wordsworth, the gloomiest being to ever stalk that region. But generations of schoolchildren know him as the poet of quiet joy. It is passing strange.
Travel expands the mind, but your mileage will vary. I have suffered an excess of daffodils and abbeys in school. But, on a visit to the Lake District, the Windermere mists showed me why the Celts dreamt of ships of glass from the other world. And I had an overpowering interest in Coniston Water (where Menon stayed), which served as the arena for numerous attempts at the water speed record in the 20th century. Here, Donald Campbell did 515 kmph in the Bluebird K7 hydroplane in 1967, but lost control and the boat tore him apart. The deceptively calm waters remain a shrine to humanity’s sublime and insane need for speed.
Travel writing is usually a solitary pursuit but in the very first sentence of her preface, Menon declares, “I never travel alone when I travel for pleasure.” Her journeys are shared with friends and family, some of whom readers may recognise, such as Bunny Page, one of the founders of Dastkar, and the abstract artist Vishwanadhan. There’s the journalist Madhu Jain, who inadvertently changed Salman Rushdie’s life when her copy was allegedly spiced up by the India Today rewrite desk, to the ire of a distant Ayatollah. And there’s war writer and former magazine editor Raghu Karnad, currently infamous for recreating the prime minister’s Twitter feeds, with sobering effect. And there’s always the author’s husband AGK ‘Pogey’ Menon, architect and conservation guru, who has pitched in with excellent sketches of the local sights, such as the Israeli West Bank Barrier, which the Palestinians call Apartheid Wall.
They follow numerous tourist trails, from Sicily, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the French wine circuit to nations and regions now in permanent ferment: Turkey, Syria, Egypt and Palestine, the oldest oppressed territory in the modern world. If you’re venturing to those parts, carry this book. God willing, it will be more useful than your insurance.