Title: The Heat and Dust Project
Authors: Saurav Jha and Devapriya Roy
Price: Rs 250
Two twenty-somethings decide to leave their “decent, soulless” jobs behind and set off on a wanderjahr across India.
This trek into the unknown would become The Heat and Dust Project, by the wife-and-husband team of Devapriya Roy and Saurav Jha.This impulse is not entirely unknown to all of us. You are in the departure terminal of Dubai or Frankfurt and you see the destination split-flap boards flicker and blur. What if you just took off?
The book is subtitled “The Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat” because it ostensibly recounts a Rs 500-a-day budget trip. This isn’t really one of those guides. Or rather it is a guide, but of an excursion into the territory of the Self. It is a formula once perfected by writers like Jerome K Jerome, travel stories studded with nuggets of wisdom, interspersed with anecdotes, all carried through with wit and verve. In such narratives, exterior journeys must be mirrored by interior journeys. What saves The Heat and Dust Project is the self-awareness of this trope. “You know that this is what your big project is all about — the heat and dust that the goras have written about for decades and every mention of which makes your skin crimp in rage,” Devapriya writes.
They invariably take buses, and equally invariably strike up conversations with their fellow travellers. These talks open doors into tucked-away lives. A meme calls this sensation “sonder”, “the realization that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own”. But here again the self-reflexivity kicks in: “I do not want this book to descend into these neo-anthropological studies that people turn India-books into. These long, detailed conversations with people, pegging them as interesting sociological categories, recounting their stories,” declaims Saurav.
The current volume is only the first of a trilogy. Consequently, though it says “Bharat”, you get mainly Rajasthan and Gujarat in this instalment. After a point, one dusty Rajasthan town tends to blur into another. In the end, the spinning tales provide centrifugal force, preventing the narrative from flying apart. The chapters are peppered with random trivia (jackfruit should not be carried in buses because the smell attracts demons), asides (how the phrase lakhpati got devalued, “Lakhpati was Juhi Chawla’s father in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak”) and interesting factoids (Bengal was once ruled by Andhra kings in the 11th century).
As they travel, it becomes clear that they don’t fall exactly into the backpacking gora tourists or the dharamsala-frequenting desi pilgrim crowd. They convey this inversion with deft turns of phrase, for example, a
hotel manager is described as having “an eager overfamiliarity that a few Indians adopt, particularly in places where foreign tourists come; it leaves a strange taste in the mouth”.
They are not hippies just drifting by, neither are they the 40-plus burnt-out crowd who’ve made their money and now want to get in touch with themselves.
The drama such as it is, is provided by domestic quarrels against the backdrop of the depletion of their meagre savings. These tensions are underpinned by an even bigger fear; whether the end of the journey will see them having something worth saying, something worth writing. This anxiety is always a third invisible companion in their travels, “we are but the reversed reflections of our friends and batchmates in office rooms and university labs, so though we claim we have left these lives behind, essentially except for a few details, we are as insubstantial as mirror images”. Well they don’t have to worry; this book is worth the journey.
Jaideep Unudurti is a writer in Hyderabad