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Friday, December 06, 2019

Heads in the Pictures

Hop aboard with the unseeing Indian traveller.

Written by Jaideep Unudurti | Published: January 4, 2014 3:41:53 am

If It’s Monday,It Must be Madurai : A Conducted Tour of India

Author: Srinath Perur

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 296

Price: Rs 499

To go somewhere,and then write about it for people back home is as old as humanity. One of the first travelogues was Coryat’s Crudities by one Thomas Coryat whom Wikipedia defines as a “mild eccentric”. Subtitled Hastily gobled up in Five Moneth’s Travels”,it described a jaunt through Europe and was a smash hit with the paying public in 1611.

A lot of travel writing in the start was just landscape porn,drawing up elaborate word pictures. But even in 1900,Jerome K Jerome in his Three Men on the Bummel said “in this book there will be no scenery. This is not laziness on my part; it is self-control. Nothing is easier to write than scenery; nothing more difficult and unnecessary to read”.

Since just descriptions won’t work,either the location is right at the world’s edge,that the mere fact of going there is enough; or there is a gimmick,some unique lens through which we see the place. In a world where even Antarctica gets around 40,000 tourists every year,the first option is increasingly harder to do.

For the second option,the wackier the gimmick,the more the masala. For example,Stupid Guy Goes to India has Yukichi Yamamatsu trying to translate Japanese manga into Hindi and then sell it on the footpaths of Delhi.

Srinath Perur’s If It’s Monday,It Must Be Madurai is not about remote places and locales. Perur beats a path down beaten-to-death paths like Dharavi,Jaisalmer and Interlaken. What is his angle? Perur picks conducted tours,what he calls a “travel experience with a fixed itinerary,orchestrated by someone else,and undertaken in a group”.

It sounded like a snoozefest. What on earth could he do with the material,I wondered? Certainly,no serious travel writer would contemplate not going alone. Critic Brian Phillips goes as far to say,“the spy movie is a fantasy about tourism”. This is the essential glamour of making your way through a foreign land. A glamour utterly negated by travelling indiscriminately in a herd. Group tours imply no control,an enforced passivity,to dance like bears to the cracked tune of the tour guide.

Perur gets around this deftly. Group travel,but what groups! They range from Indian sex tourists in Uzbekistan,a yatra through villages of Madhya Pradesh looking for rustic geniuses,a pilgrimage to Pandharpur and a travelling festival of Kabir singers. The pious,the profane and everything in between.

Right from the start,he displays a flair for sharp observation. On a mad dash through Europe,seen primarily through bus windows,he says,“The purpose of this tour is to generate evidence that we have been to Europe”. The monkey cap pops up too,in the Lido cabaret of Paris of all places.

As the members get photographed next to whatever is the defining monument of that place,Perur says,“We go not so much to see them as to confirm their existence,to reassure ourselves that we are after all in the place we aspired to be. We see nothing in Europe. We come here with pictures in our heads,and we leave with our heads in those pictures”.

A common trap for travel writers is that you are constantly hoovering up information and incidents for possible use. You are meeting people and seeing places and simultaneously constructing a narrative in your head. Travel is reduced to trawling through the ore of half-events for those nuggets of anecdote. Perur does not fall into this pit. He succeeds in validating the premise of the entire project.

Unudurti is a writer in Hyderabad

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