Thursday, January 22, 2015

A journey worthwhile

When I came across this book in The Hindu newspaper (dated May 31, 2014 -Book review), I barely knew I would hit upon a splendid compendium on travel, one of the best books in non-fiction category I have read.

Travelling in, Travelling Out - A Book of Unexpected Journeys, carefully compiled by Namita Gokhale, published by Harper Collins, priced at Rs 599, offers great read for its full length of 250 odd pages. As the book's name suggests, the subject dealt with is travel but the 25 essays written by different   and eminent authors are not mere travelogue entries. 

The book opens with an introductory note that provides a gist of what is in store in pages to come. The first essay The Idea of Travel : From place to place and thought to thought is by one of my favorite authors - Devdutt Pattanaik who can be accredited with all I know about Hindu Mythology and my penchant for it. Picking up cues from Hindu gods and myths, Jain Tirthankara and Buddha, Pattanaik explains how travel acknowledges the impermanence of things and constantly embraces the unfamiliar.

The next two essays are by authors from abroad - Ashok Ferrey's The Maharajah of Patragarh and Marie Brenner's A Retreat to Holy India, unique in content and narration style but plagued by preconceived notions about India, harbored by authors that one might have to take a little incredulously. 

Mayank Austen Soofi (In search of Lost Time), Bulbul Sharma (Travelling to the Hills in Search of Myself), Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, Queen Mother of Bhutan (Village on Treasure Hill) and Ipsita Roy (Bhangarh: Of Darkness and Light) play the role of cicerone in their essays. Mayank talks of how Nainital has changed over time in an interesting fashion. Shaya, a small hill village in Himachal Pradhesh teaches Bulbul mighty things and shapes her life. The Queen Mother of Bhutan provides us with a beautiful insight into life, religion and culture in her country, our lesser known neighbor, more precisely details of Nobgang located in Punakha valley. Ipsita who heads a Wiccan Brigade takes you on a supernatural ride to Bhangarh, historical and haunted ruins in a town between Jaipur and Alwar, Rajasthan. 

MJ Akbar's The Land Of Seven Hundred Hills transports us to Saranda Forest, Singhbum District, Jharkhand and he covers a myriad aspects, geography of forests, culture and life of tribals here, administrative politics, even a bit of philosophy, a many-in-one package much like his columns in newspapers.

Rahul Pandita's Hello Bastar, an extract from his book of the same name, provides the quintessence of Maoist movement, what attracts the Adivasis to their cause and movement and how a guerilla zone has formed spanning five states. 

A House for Mr. Tata by Mishi Saran unravels so much about Mr. Jehangir Bejan Tata, his family home in Shangai at No 458, Wulumuqi North Road, the Avan Villa, his family's journey interspersed with changing political scenarios in China; easily the best essay in the book; I would like to read it again and again to unearth more details. There are photographs by Dayanita Singh of Durga Puja Pandals that come with an adjoining note by Ms.Gokhale. Aspects accompanying travel like taking a passport size photo (Aveek Sen's Lost without a Trace) and getting strip searched in an airport (Advaita Kala's Fear of Flying) blow into essays not so fruitfully. The lull that follows the best piece in the book ends after Ali Sethi's The Foreigner's Situation and Jerry Pinto's F for Dharavi. 

Aakar Patel beautifully elaborates what it means to migrate to Mumbai to a commoner in his Moving to Bombay. Beauty in India by Aman Nath is  a collection of tiny, well written newspaper snippets. Wendell Rodricks proves he knows his subject well when he meticulously details out all about Konkan coast, its language, demography, geography, history, food and culture. 

Many of us might have heard of the Gonds in Madhya Pradesh but how many of us know about their art form, how well it is embedded in their every day living and about its pioneer, Jangarh Singh Shyam and his sudden demise in a foreign land. Nishi Susan traces the journey of Jangarh's Kalam in her essay Gond art

I am sure many have travelled to Tirupati, at least once. But how many of us actually know the names of seven sacred hills that nestle the rich lord's abode?  Kota Neelima in her essay Tirupati describes many facts which we fail to take note of amidst crowd, chaos, confusion and frenzied push-pull accompanied by Jaragandee utterances. Saba Naqvi makes us venture into the fierce man eater's terrain - the Sunderbans and speaks of a Muslim Goddess who guards this territory. 

Urvashi Butalia's The Persistence of Memory presents travel account of Bir Bahadur Singh, one of the many who fled his home in Pakistan during partition, who decades later visits his homeland and meets his childhood friends; truly, a heart wrenching account. 

One is startled to know that there is a tiny Indian corner tucked away in Jerusalem in Navtej Sarna's The Door to His Hospice was Never Closed, a wealth of information that spans from Muinuddin Chisti to his disciple Baba Farid, leading us from Ajmer in India to Mount of Olives, valley of Hinnom, Herod's gate in Israel; a clear favorite for me in this book after Mishi Saran's essay.

Manosi Lahiri in her account Maps for all Times provides good lessons in cartography explaining when early maps were made, when these were refined, why these were made so rigorously, easy enough for a lay man to understand and appreciate. 

For a book that has been excellent all along, the end is not so appreciable. Sans the last essay- Armchair travels by Namita Gokhale, the book would have delivered the same effect; safely said, Namita should have remained content in compiling essays for this book rather than pen down one on her own.

Overall, there are many reasons why one should buy this book -

1) Twenty five different authors write down some great stuff in 25 essays, different authors imply different perspectives. Each piece of work is much like a central piece in a newspaper. These are not conventional travelogues that deal with where to stay, what to eat, what all to see but provide rich information of many aspects that encompass travel.

2) Perfect for "read an article a day" sorts, say while commuting back from work or at bedtime or after your baby goes to sleep.

3) The book ends with a note on contributors which provides wonderful information on each author, their areas of interest, their literary works some of which might interest you and provide directions for future reads.

4) If you are looking for an amalgam of history, art, culture, language, geography - all in one, this book is a perfect choice.

As a mother of a two year old kid, my travel is of limited scope; restricted, preferably, to places where a home like set up can be recreated with ease. Travelling in, Travelling out fills up the void in that scope, it really took me on a journey worthwhile. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Happy New Year - My first post for 2015

A week into the New Year, 2015 and here I come to wish you all a happy and peaceful new year, one filled with loads of good things and lots of good luck. As I watch 2015 beginning to unfold, there is a part of me that lingers in the year gone by. I try to sum up all that happened in the year 2014 and the not so pleasant or more aptly, some very tragic events stand out starkly. Before you dismiss me as a bizarre pessimist, let me try to substantiate my claim.

Early in 2014, the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared while flying from Kuala Lampur to Beijing; after almost three weeks of rigorous search, a trillion theories propounded to explain why and how it went amiss, it was concluded that the plane ended up in southern Indian Ocean causing death of all on board, a  toll of 239. Before one could move ahead in hope of a breather, a deadlier accident occurred when a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 Flight 17 was shot down by pro-Russian separatists over Ukraine in July 2014 resulting in a toll of 298. The year ended up being more turbulent when Air Asia QZ8501 crashed in Java sea killing all 162 on board.

Women empowerment, the most oft-repeated phrase in 2014, thanks to Rahul Gandhi who uttered it like a trained parrot, witnessed new heights when tech giants like Facebook and Apple offered $20,000 to its female employees who chose to freeze their reproductive eggs and not their career aspirations. But it seemed farcical against reports of abduction of over 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria by Boko Haram Jihadist group, of spate of child rapes inside school premises in our own Bangalore. Be it inside a moving bus, an Uber cab or inside a deserted mill compound, from sophisticated urban locales in Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore to rural Badaun in UP, irrespective of  the hour of the day or age of the female victim, cases of sexual assault gnawed at a woman's basic right, right to return home safe.

Terrorist/militant outfits and Jihadist groups sprang up like mushrooms in Mario game. ISIS perpetrated unprecedented terror smearing territories under their control with blood, beheading journalists, seizing ancient and heritage-rich cities of Iraq and Syria. Pakistan pretended it learnt a lesson that there was nothing called "good" Taliban from the Peshawar army school massacre which consumed lives of 132 innocent children. The year ended with a bang in India in literal sense when an IED blast in Bangalore killed one woman. Even on New year's eve, shelling across Indo-Pak border did not cease and the Indian Coast Guard chased a Pakistani boat sneaking into Indian waters till its operators considered it safe to blow themselves up than surrender.

The Ebola Virus Epidemic in West Africa sent a shudder and reminded us that despite human efforts to make many advancements in the field of medicine and many successes, man quite shockingly loses it all to microscopically diminutive life forms.

The Indian General Elections during the summer of 2014 became a watershed event in the history of Indian democracy. Millions voted for the first time with zeal while thousands who always voted were shocked to see their names deleted from lists. Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of India, he led his party to power in absolute majority, won an unprecedented mandate and proved that Modi wave existed after all, its ripples felt even in New York and Sydney. Politics in 2014 saw it all, some who knew nothing about politics and administration wanted to make that gargantuan leap, some in whom people placed trust ran away in middle of things after whinging for sundry, some who amassed wealth disproportionately spent weeks behind bars and some who grabbed power by following erstwhile divide and rule policy thus giving birth to the 29th state in India.

Even in department of sports, the year 2014 seemed a joyless mixed bag. Brazil hosted FIFA battling corruption, huge delays and bundles of civic problems but the country sans its star player Neymar and its shocking defeat against Germany in semi final game sent fans reeling in gloom. The Asian Games, Incheon, South Korea threw Indian fans in confusion, whether to rejoice in Mary Kom's gold or regret the brazen denial of silver to Sarita Devi who later faced heavy punishment for refusing to accept the bronze medal bestowed on her. Cricket only got murkier with reports of betting and match fixing bringing top players and officials under scanner and Dhoni's chaotic exit from test match format of the game added more mystery. Fans all over the world still pray for seven time Fomula One World Champion Schumacher's recovery and deeply regret the sudden death of Aussie cricketer Phillip Hughes from an on-field injury.

In the field of entertainment, Salman Khan delivered a KICK, flew a kite alongside Modi and posed by the side of Rajapakse too, Shah Rukh Khan wished a nonsensical Happy New Year much before one really dawned and Aamir Khan reigned over the box office with his PK unfazed by massive protests from right wing Hindu groups.While superstar Rajinikanth's entry into politics remains a mystery, he showed the world he still held unparalleled reverence with the release of his Linga. Our ears resonated to Yo Yo Honey Singh's rap numbers and Bolly/Kolly/Tolly/Mollywood chart busters but yearned for music from that one mandolin that went silent so prematurely.

The Mars Orbiter Mission/Mangalyaan's success filled us with pride and gave us reason to smile but floods in Jammu and Kashmir, its after effects, tropical cyclone Hudhud in Vizag with its bag of colossal damage left common man in turmoil; why bother about Mars when one cannot solve many a riddle on Earth itself.

Even as I write this article, reports of terror attack in France (Charlie Hebdo attack that claimed 12 lives) and sexual assault of a 7 year old girl in Bangalore school by her teacher, more things that make you feel sad and sigh than smile trickle in. However, I look forward with hope, beyond all that has transpired, wish fervently that 2015 be a happier, healthier and more peaceful year, for hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness (quote: Desmond Tutu).

Footnote: An image from that I used as reference in writing this article.