CHENNAI: Travel books are often a compendium of clichés. If the ‘when to go’ / ‘how to reach’ concerns are ever transcended, it is the ‘majestic beauty of the mountains’ or the ‘vastness of the ocean’ that is tritely commented upon, putatively granting solace to the writer who is trying to escape the ‘hustle bustle’ of a megalopolis. As if confronting the picturesque to escape the hectic life was all there was to travel. If the book in question is sufficiently post-modern in conception, it will make a big deal of the virtues of traveling solo, of backpacking on budget, and so on. Indeed, travel as an exercise in self-discovery is a hip notion these days. But the fact ignored is that the seemingly simple problems of ‘knowing oneself’ or ‘coming to oneself’ or ‘being at peace with oneself’ are lifelong metaphysical projects whose essence cannot be delivered in toto over a two week trip to Ladakh.
Travel, in and of itself, will not ‘save us.’ In fact, if indeed it does provide something akin to solace and leads to a superior understanding of the self, then precisely because such deliverances aren’t permanent, because life as it is must be returned to, travelling can become an imprisoning habit, making larger liberations difficult because of the tastings of smaller gratifications.
Thus it is problematic to conceive travel as that which leads to self enhancement, and perhaps better to return to the less attractive idea of travel as an exercise in knowing the outer world. If the traveller believes that knowing the world has a value in and of itself, that subjecting herself to the objective world as it exists is a worthwhile activity, then travel can be said to be approached in the right spirit. And if, in the process of assimilating realities that were hitherto unseen, her self-consciousness does experience an expansion, then all the good.
One travel book that belittles clichés and stays clear of any dogma, recent or modern, about the virtues of travel, is Srinath Perur’s If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai: A Conducted Tour of India. The book, published in 2014, is a collection of ten essays, detailing travels undertaken by the author with ten unique groups of people. The groups are mostly composed of Indians, and most travels are in India. Perur travels to Tamil Nadu’s temples in buses full of retired government servants, to Europe with a desi group, to Uzbekistan with a group of sex tourists, to Pandarpur on a pilgrimage called Wari, and so on.
The essays are mostly journalistic, so that the tone can be wry in the face of absurdity, or reverent in the face of piety. Perur narrates as someone who observes precisely to the degree that invites reflection. On the rare occasions that Perur tells us what he felt in a given scenario, he has the good sense to break through the ironic veneer, so that what is delivered seems like zen wisdom. Recommended
(The writer is publishing his first novel in October 2016)