Among the smells that stream in, the most prominent is a stench of urine. Over the months, we will recognise this as the unifying trait of bus stands across the country.” The line by Saurav Jha in The Heat and Dust Project (HarperCollins, Rs199) aptly captures the essence of a trip — taken aboard rickety buses — that him and his wife Devapriya Roy embarked upon in 2010, on a strict budget of Rs 500 a day. The Heat and Dust Project, launched in Kolkata last week, is a travelogue of the first phase of the couple’s dauntless seven-month journey.
For Delhi-based Jha and Roy, the idea for the journey was not the result of a mid-life crisis or the need to “opt out”. Roy was 26 and Jha was 28 then, their savings were limited and the duo had just finished writing their first books, The Vague Woman’s Handbook and The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power, respectively. “This wasn’t a holiday but a leap of faith and a chance to discover India from the ground up,” explains Roy. To retain a sense of the unpredictable, even the itinerary was decided on-the-fly. The couple left Delhi on a cold January night and traipsed their way through Rajasthan, Gujarat, Western UP and Himachal Pradesh. “Places like Rajasthan are safe for backpackers, there are many budget hotels and interesting dining options too,” says Jha.
The shoestring budget and long distances covered in packed buses allowed the couple to experience the idiosyncrasies of different cultures. For instance, on a bus to Jaisalmer from Jodhpur, Jha intervened in an argument that broke out because a young girl was carrying a sack full of jackfruit on the bus, a food item forbidden on board. In Junagadh, they had a delicious meal of bajra rotis and desert brinjals at their autorickshaw driver’s residence. At a cafe in McLeod Ganj, they had a detailed conversation on China-Tibet politics with a server, who had left behind his family in Tibet at the age of 20. “We never wanted to show a dichotomy between India and Bharat. Therefore, unlike other travelogues, we did not plan any meetings, and embraced everything that came our way,” says Roy.
While the couple terms the journey the ‘ultimate relationship test’, co-authoring the book was time-consuming, with each having their individual style. Roy’s narration is loaded with her own musings of certain incidents, many of which connect with her upbringing in Kolkata. While describing the jackfruit incident, for instance, she recounts the time her parents were travelling to Asansol to attend a wedding, carrying with them a sealed package. When they missed the train, her mother discovered the package contained jars of pickled jackfruit after the oil had leaked through and ruined the saris she was to wear for the wedding.
In contrast, Jha laces his writing with local history and folklore. For example, while talking about their trek to Ratnagiri Hill in Pushkar, he dwells on a folklore about Aurangzeb, who had come to wreak destruction in the city, his grandfather Jahangir’s favourite retreat. Aurangzeb’s face, which he had washed in the waters of one of the lakes, had suddenly aged, and the lake began to be called Buddha (old) Pushkar. “Simple diary entries wouldn’t make a book. Writing this way put the book in the Indian storytelling tradition,” says Jha.
Roy and Jha are now working on Man. Woman. Road, the sequel that captures the rest of their trip, covering Khajuraho, Kolhapur, Kozhikode and Kanyakumari, among other places. It was on this journey that they built a virtual family — The Heat and Dust Project: A Book in Motion page on Facebook where members chipped in with food, stay and sightseeing suggestions. “The reader became an inseparable part of our writing process,” says Jha.
Left with Rs 167 in their joint account at the end of the trip in July, the couple assert that travel has become their natural state and they now find it difficult to spend too much time in the trappings of city life. “The trip was not a holiday. It was life,” says Roy.
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