Price: INR 499
Publisher: Penguin Viking
I’ve always been a fiction reader, assuming that all non-fiction would be dry and boring. Until two years ago, that is. That’s when I read Paperweight by Stephen Fry and discovered a collection of essays can be funny, insightful and intelligent. The year after that I read Down Under by Bill Bryson and fell in love with non-fiction as a whole and travelogues in particular. Now I spend my time juggling books that build imaginary lives and long-form articles that talk about real life.
If It’s Monday, It Must Be Madurai was the first non-fiction book’s release that I impatiently waited two months for. Ever since I read an excerpt in the Open magazine about sex tourism in Uzbekistan, I knew I had to get my hands on the book.
The official at Immigration, Mr Pandey, looked glumly at me as I told him why I was going on a conducted tour to Uzbekistan. ‘If you’re a writer,’ he said, unconvinced, ‘then why are you travelling with a group?’ Serious travellers, and certainly travel writers, look upon the conducted tour as the lowliest form of travel. Even travelling with a friend or two can invite contempt. Jonathan Raban, for instance, warns anyone travelling with company: ‘You’re never going to see anything; you’re never going to meet anybody; you’re never going to hear anything. Nothing is going to happen to you.’ The remonstrance is all the more applicable to writers: according to Paul Theroux, ‘In the best travel books the word alone is implied on every exciting page.’ I was trying to write a travel book entirely through conducted tours, a book in which I’d never be travelling alone. Mr Pandey’s was only the latest voice in a chorus of sceptics, but he’d caught me off guard. I mumbled something about travel being cheaper this way, and he let me pass. But it was a rattled writer who rejoined his thirty-three travel companions.
And thus begins a fascinating premise for a travelogue. Perur undertakes ten conducted tours in the spirit of journalistic inquiry. His travels include:
- Temple hopping in Tamil Nadu
- Rushing through Europe
- A camel safari in Rajasthan
- Cruising through the backwaters of Kerala
- The aforementioned sex tourism in Uzbekistan
- Touring Dharavi (with its dubious distinction of being the largest slum in Asia)
- A freewheeling tour of Assam and Meghalaya
- The Kabir Yatra with folk musicians across Rajasthan
- Searching for innovations in Madhya Pradesh’s villages
- A pilgrimage to Pandharpur
Like most young urban travellers, the thought of a conducted tour makes the author queasy. With all its restrictions and forced interactions with people you wouldn’t normally hang out with, a conducted tour is no place to really have fun. But it does provide plenty of fodder for a book. For most parts, the author goes along sportingly, but not without sketching critical portraits of his companions. His observations are are detailed – sometimes hilarious, sometimes insightful, always spot on. I was reading the book while I was travelling in Tamil Nadu and could match tourists I saw to those I read about.
While he is uncomfortable in some tours, he relishes others. In some, he is positively moved by the people he meets and the situations he encounters. And in the end, he is appreciative of all that he has been witness to – the places and the people.
The writing is clever, astute and poignant. The character sketches are true to form, sometimes uncomfortably so. Readers will recognise friends and family in the book, if not themselves. I loved the book and think it’s a brilliant (if incomplete) portrait of the country and its people.