Manuscript help, book reviews and author interviews
One evening in an auto in Delhi, as Devapriya chats up the driver, she has a moment of epiphany. That nothing was enough anymore – not the shopping, not the investments, not the busy hours doing unimportant things. That it was time to think up another alternative, and go on a pilgrimage. Luckily for her and her husband, the universe conspired to make it a reality, and as her auto driver said, “When you are supposed to go, you will.”
On a shoestring budget, and a book advance on the to-be-written book, Devapriya Roy and her husband Saurav Jha set out on their ‘gap’ time. When I began reading the book I thought it was one of those run of the mill books on discovering yourself as you discover India. Truth be told, The Heat and Dust is that – and then some more. The places the authors visit are to be found in most foreigners’ books on India but the Indian perspective makes for an interesting read.
Interspersed with history and descriptions of the places they visit, the book is full of charming details that anyone who has indulged in a bit of travel in India will be familiar with. The heat, dust, the small towns and their railway stations and bus stops, the billboards promising a better career, future and home, the food ,the clothes, the people – all are unfamiliar, and yet familiar in the inimitable Indian way. The young fast talking stock broker, the diamond merchant in Palanpur who feels the heat of global economic slowdown,the young women who cannot (or seem to not) harbor any personal space or ambition, and the burly man who bullies a young woman carrying jackfruit on the bus. There is plenty that resonates – the difference between us and them, and things that you can say only to a set of people with the same cultural background. “To them, because they are all familiars, I can open up and directly say the stuff that I only suggest above, circuitously, for fear that in the mouths of others, strangers, people who do not read Indian, they will get twisted to mean something else.”
The voices of both the authors are distinct, as are the topics they cover. In some places the narrative does not seem to connect, but like India, that is the charm of the book. I could almost visualize Devapriya jotting notes furiously into her little notebook and Saurav mulling over his articles. The overriding concern in the book is about the choices we make as adults. How do you sustain relationships and meaning when the paths that we all choose growing up take us to different places? Some friends follow the Indian economic dream while some choose to be true to their art and passion. How do dynamics in friendships and in the social structure change with these choices?
What made the narrative especially appealing to me was the celebration of the Indian spirit. As a country we don’t look at our successes – we look to the west and ooh and aah at the American Spirit and the American Dream. If we chose instead to focus on our own people, there is so much being achieved – from adapting old lifestyles to convert homes into heritage home stays for families, small town entrepreneurs breaking away from family businesses to create new successful ones, running parallel businesses to cash in on the newest trends, parents focussing on their girls and their education, and Indians loving their country and making it work despite all its problems. The things that bind us all together – telling our life stories to complete strangers, inviting them into our homes for a hot meal, ‘adjusting’ political and religious opinions to not ruffle feathers, twenty one people crammed into a jeep, and as the author puts it “We’re Indians – jodi hao sujon, tentul paatay no’jon (If your heart’s in the right place/ Nine people can be accommodated on a tamarind leaf).”
Did the authors find a meaning to their lives through their discovery of India? In a sense they do – they plan to write and earn and travel. But I did not get a sense of their personal growths, and if there was a shift in their relationship or how they changed and grew as people and a couple.
Eventually though, like the rest of us, the Devapriya and Saurav are also “poised on hope. That ultimately we shall discover meaning; that the conversations we have with people and the conversations we eavesdrop upon will help us understand the country, and ourselves, better; that later, buoyed by our sublime lessons on the road, we shall become better people, better citizens, better writers. That we might learn to speak of the nation, not like the studio experts we so detest, but like humble sensitive new post-global Indians. ”
The book ended a tad abruptly for me, but it was a book I found hard to put down.