Monday, July 27, 2015

Book Review: The Heat and Dust Project, in TNIE

I reviewed The Heat and Dust Project by Saurav Jha and Devapriya Roy for The New Indian Express. Read here or see below.


About the time blog hosts that came free leapt off the internet and seeped into the real lives of those hobbyists who had all the means to travel on weekends and expensive cameras to shoot what looked like a million photos with, there have been a profusion of travel blogs. Some are informative, some entertaining, if you happen to know the blogger and his/her quirks. Some writing transports you, like all good writing should, to that place in that time. Several, at the very least, have beautiful pictures. Most though are a tad run-of-the-mill. Devapriya Roy and Saurav Jha's The Heat and Dust Project - the broke couple's guide to Bharath flits, most times, about these assorted elements above, sans any photographs though.

Theirs is a story common enough to border on a slight stereotype of the young intellectual types who invariably develop an air of entitlement and privilege, even when fashionably roughing it. The privilege isn't necessarily that of a monetary nature, mind you, but sometimes of accessibility, of a plan B, of helpful family. So Roy and Jha are married, in well paying, but soulless jobs. They decide to leave the rat race to travel the country. The catch though is that they have to do it at a very small budget of ₹ 500 per day for travel and food.

So the couple start from a foggy Delhi, where they studied and met and lived and worked for a while, and head to Jaipur. Pushkar, Sabarmati, towns like Merta, Barmer, Palanpur, Barsana and others that are unusual on a tourist trail feature, before, for various reasons, the couple find themselves back in Paharganj. For family reasons, it is back to Kolkata then. They go elsewhere later, and there is a book two that will tell that story, hopefully one that justifies better the 'guide to Bharath' in the subtitle.

The project is ambitious, what with such a very limited budget. Situations where the five hundred rupee notes will only fetch the most basic food and rooms that leave much to be desired by way of hygiene, view and location are enough to drive travel companions up the wall. It becomes all the more so with a married couple. The book chronicles the fights the couple get into, including an epic one that lasts hours. If Roy is the more care-free one craving fancy cake in small towns, Jha is the practical yang, controlling the budget, keeping the pace up, hurtling along to the next town. There are a mélange of people they meet, the most consistent being a pair of Israeli twins with whom several coffees, meals and conversations are shared.

Roy, the narrator for the most part, sprinkles some lovely lines throughout the book. In her "yellow notebook" she jots down meticulous, minute details, whole conversations end up being reproduced. The minute details, usually employed to recreate a visual image of the scene for a reader, seem too many, too often. "D (Devapriya. Both are referred to by their initials in the book, D and S) tugs off her jacket and walks towards the toilets..." Strewn with a tad too many references to toilets and other inconveniences of cheap travel, there is only a selective step by step account of the journey. Perhaps that was the whole point of the book - over personalisation. Jha's narrative makes an appearance now and then, mostly to reel off facts and the history of the place they are at. Sadly, these end up, more often than not, reading more like Wiki entries, jarring inclusions in what would otherwise be a breezy, light book.

Scantily peppered, though, are interesting insights into a typical Indian mind, into the hustling pace of development even in the smallest of towns, into the precarious balance between 'ritual making' and modern aspirations that most middle class Indians struggle with in the everyday. It is with these passages that the book manages to redeem itself a little and not end up being just another prosaic blog of a hobby writer.

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