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View from the window seat: How a couple left everything to explore India

Travelling through India shows that the country is animated by a singular force of life.

travel, india travel, Devapriya Roy, quit job and travel, travel philosophy, ladakh, kerala, The Heat and Dust Project All bus stations smell of pee; if they say five hours to go from point A to point B, it’ll take over seven hours; on a strict budget, you will always be able to fill your stomach with a samosa or two. (Source: Devyani Oniyal)

Six years ago, my husband and I traded in our dull but decent jobs for the drama and poverty of becoming full-time writers. With the unassailable optimism — and arrogance — of our mid-twenties, we gave up our regular pay cheques for a slender book contract and a minuscule advance. It was to be an account of our (hopefully) transformational journey across India, to be undertaken on a tight budget: Rs 500 a day for bed and board, for both of us.

I fancied myself a liberal; he was an energy and security geek. I grasped at the poetic in matters of revolution; he liked to ask annoying questions about what would replace the present system the morning after the revolution. Though over the years we had allowed the other’s perspective to smoothen the serrated teeth of our own positions, we were the sort of travel partners who could kill each other in shady hotel rooms. We managed to travel over 16,000 km in local buses, dreaming of the routes not taken and food we could not afford, and yet, desist from murder.

The old adage about India is that every 15 km, the taste of the water changes ever so slightly, and every 30 km, local flavours colour language. We attempted continuous hurtling journeys through the countryside, sampling the differences, trying not to stay on for more than three nights in one place. In the course of long bus journeys, we chatted with co-passengers to fill the hours.

Over weeks and months, we cast away our old selves. Our abstract ideas crumpled when they met their confounding, far-more-interesting flesh-and-blood selves. We saw people, with differing degrees of agency, going about their lives. Some were having good days, some bad; some were having good years, some bad. Some were victims of violence; others perpetrators. Few were conscious about the theories that defined their identity, choosing, instead, to live that identity rather than finger the contusions on its surface.

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At some point, we would stop taking notes, exhale happily, and simply be.

eye 2016 travel_759minus_Devyani Oniyal Across Bharat, the young were full of questions, the old were full of advice. The middle-aged asked us our caste. (Source: Devyani Oniyal)

Everywhere we went, we spotted the march of development in three-lettered acronyms that shone on billboards against glittering skies: 2 BHK, 3 BHK, IIT-JEE, IAS, CAT. We monitored the march of labour, leaving villages and heading to small towns in packed buses, with spouse and children beside them, bicycle and worldly rations firmly secured to the luggage carrier on top. My husband would then subject me to lectures. Sometimes, he would take notes feverishly.

Across Bharat, the young were full of questions, the old were full of advice. The middle-aged asked us our caste.

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There were always a few in each state who wondered if writing a book came with monetary certainties — like a salary. Some asked us to convey specific messages to ‘the public’ through our book. For instance, in Kerala, an amma in a leopard-print burkha urged us to advocate drinking a glass of lukewarm water after one’s meal for speedy digestion. Everyone should know this, she said.

We became aware of certain metronomic tropes: all bus stations smell of pee; if they say five hours to go from point A to point B, it’ll take over seven hours; on a strict budget, you will always be able to fill your stomach with a samosa or two; sunlight on a bird’s wing will unaccountably make you tearful about something you miss from your city life; children seem to return from school around one pm; young adults return from school around four; forts in the distance are best viewed through the broken windows of a bus; smug travellers litter the country with peanut shells, Lay’s packets and empty bottles; a glorious sunset wipes out, for half an hour, the memory of the morning, leaving the barest hint of a blurry connectedness behind — sunset to sunset, the passing of time.

In the court of the mighty Pala kings of eastern India, specifically, adorning the courts of Mahendrapala and Mahipala, the resident poet-critic-dramaturge was Rajashekhara. In the early years of the 10th century AD, he composed an extensive treatise on poetics, the Kavyamimamsa. In the third chapter, following the legendary-symbolic method of exposition, Rajashekhara tells of the birth of Kavya.

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eye 2016 travel 3_759_Devyani Oniyal At some point, we would stop taking notes, exhale happily, and simply be. (Source: Devyani Oniyal)

Saraswati prays for a child, and is blessed with Kavya-purusha, the physical embodiment of poetry. He wanders across the Indian landmass — Cakravartti Kshetra (described as the area bound between the seas in the south and the Himalayas in the north.) In every province, every janapada (which are all named), each separate within the four large areas of the land — the east, the west, the north and the south, Kavya-purusha and his lover, Sahitya-vidya Vadhu, practise different vrttis (physical action), pravrttis (dress and other accessories) and reeti (speech). These practices go on to become the local clothes, the local languages and the specific anima of the place and time.

The celebration of diversity by the travelling artist-pair demonstrates beautifully the unique paradox that is the modern Indian nation: it is deeply plural, yet animated by a singular force of life. Many contained in one — or one blossoming into many. (This has often been misunderstood by those who suggest that the idea of India itself is an imposition.) My travel partner would stop me right there and give me many important reasons about the importance of nationalism in the context of contemporary world economics — a rabid financialisation that needs to be vigilantly guarded against.

Perhaps, after 16,000 km of travelling together, it is possible to meet in the middle. Given the contemporary world of instability and geopolitical strategising, the prudent Indian answer to address the cacophony of the moment, should be, perhaps, to be many within, and one without.

First published on: 28-02-2016 at 12:01:40 am
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