Five must-read travel books about India


Published on 7 February, 2015 in Scroll.in

Whether they urge you to visit the places or not, these will surely enlighten you the way no guidebook ever can.

People take to fiction more easily than non-fiction, especially when it comes to books. And amidst the non-fiction spread, it takes a while, even for the “avid reader” who undertakes the annual book-reading challenge on Goodreads, to warm up to literature from the travel genre.

Certainly, there’s no dearth of such books in the retail or online market, but the intuition of readers seems rather tangled. Perhaps it’s easier to pick up a bestseller that everyone’s reading or it’s safe to stick to classics are unlikely to go wrong. But as a result of this, travel literature unwillingly takes a back seat.

In fact, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to say that travel books are usually bought when the reader decides to travel. The book is hurriedly ordered with an intention to prepare for the best and worst of the city or country in question. Whether or not he or she visits the same spots, eats the same food, or stays at the same hotel, is a different matter, because, let’s admit it, everyone sees and experiences things differently.

Travel literature is a tricky genre. Contrary to popular belief, it may or may not urge you to visit the place being written about. Not every description of a sunset or sunrise will make you envious of the writer. And adventure in the real sense of the word could mean anything – signing up for a week-long walking tour of villages in Madhya Pradesh under the scorching summer heat; sharing a compartment with a self-confessed kidnapper on the train to Assam; or prodding into the caste-ridden history of toddy shops in Kerala.

We bring to you five such books written about India, by Indian authors, who’ve mastered the genre of travel writing by making the read not enticing but uniquely gripping in every way possible.

Following Fish – Travels Around the Indian Coast, Samanth Subramanian
From a proud moment of mastering the craft of eating Hilsa in Kolkata, to daring the act of swallowing a murrel live, a notorious tradition that claims to cure asthma in Hyderabad, Subramanian’s discoveries along the coastal states of India are centred on anything and everything that is remotely connected to fish. Nine extremely well-researched essays, made witty by an almost organic sense of humility, narrate his encounters with the aquatic species in many forms – recipes, cultures, religions, superstitions, and the fishing business. His writing follows the wonderful long form narrative, clear and lucid, and is complete with humorous anecdotal facets that probe the lives of people influenced, inspired or affected by fish.

P.S. The book is enlightening enough to please everyone, especially those who squirm at the sight/smell/sound of fish.

If It’s Monday, It Must Be Madurai – A Conducted Tour of India, Srinath Perur
It doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve been on a conducted group tour before, but after reading Perur’s book, you might be keen to sign up for one. No, it does not celebrate the idea of itinerated tours with strangers; in fact it does quite the opposite, but in doing so, it quite naturally reveals the intimate ways of people’s lives, at times surprising the reader with perceptive thought bubbles of the reticent author.

Perur’s purpose, on the face of it, may be to encourage a chuckle out of the reader at the description of a bumpy camel safari in Jaisalmer, but the fact that he, bound by the “times we live in”, spoils the moment of overnight camping in the middle of a desert by calling a friend to brag, is an utterly human act that many of us would relate to. Out of ten such introspective and generously entertaining essays, it’d be unfair to pick just one favourite.

Around India in 80 Trains, Monisha Rajesh
Train journeys can be described as exhilarating and frustrating in the same breath, and Rajesh’s book about the ever-so-stubborn functioning of Indian Railways touches flawlessly upon both. Accompanied by her photographer friend, Rajesh set out in the winter of 2009 to train-travel through India.

In between her qualms and complains – from “shitting in zigzags” (in a moving train) to getting squished in the local train from Andheri to Churchgate – you’d also sometimes find her staring through the train window, its corners covered in dust, at the rapidly changing landscape outside. Part-memoir, part-travelogue, the book reveals the tangle of prejudices shared by many Indians, quite interestingly through the eyes of an Indian-origin author.

Hot Tea Across India, Rishad Saam Mehta
Two things unite us Indians like nothing else does – gossip and tea. While the former flows freely whenever there’s some room for conversation, the latter is not too far behind an accompaniment. Mehta’s clever subject – a cup of hot tea found on every highway in India – builds the base of this light-hearted book. There are places and people we’ve faintly heard of but know nothing about, and between countless sips of different kinds of tea, lay the hurdles Mehta braves with a smile on his lips and a Bullet by his side. It’s a feel-good book with everything else in place – the good, the bad, also the ugly.

Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India Pankaj Mishra
Mishra’s focus on twenty small towns and cities of the North, West, South, and East of India makes this book what it is – sincerely remarkable. First published in 1995, it allows a comprehensive glimpse into the minds and lives of certain characters – a businessman from Ambala who appraises the author as a prospective son-in-law, a Jain teenager from Rajkot who uninhibitedly speaks of his hatred for Muslims, a young man from Allahabad who is battling his own reservations against homosexuality. The book opened up stories that we were to confront two decades ago, that we’re confronting even today.

Arunima Mazumdar is a Delhi-based journalist.

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