Travelling In, Travelling Out is a fantastic collection of journeys, memories and history
Travel has been on my mind for the last few days. Perhaps it’s the anticipation of a badly needed vacation that I can’t just wait to begin, or maybe it’s my recent expedition from Gurgaon, where I live, to Delhi, the heart of the National Capital Region (NCR). Yes I know, a 30 minute journey hardly merits the description of an expedition in the NCR, but somehow, every trip to Delhi feels like one to me!
Sadly, this particular jaunt turned out to be disaster, and the only silver lining was that I was passing by Aurobindo Place Market, home to my beloved Midland Bookstore. Now even on a good day, bookstores are a terrible weakness for me – the rapidly expanding pile of unread books, the practical difficulty of carting hundreds of books from one city or house to another, and the recent purchase of the Kindle have not managed to cure me of my fixation for physical books. But a day such as today could only be salvaged by a bookshop – touching, feeling and smelling the thousands of books and chatting with the genial owner about his recommendations. Besides, hadn’t I planned to pick up a Dr. Seuss for my son?
So it was in the midst of my book-browsing nirvana that I stumbled upon an exquisitely quaint cover (I admit it, I have a thing for book jackets) and ended up adding the book to my shopping cart.
Travelling In, Travelling Out: A Book on Unexpected Journeys, edited by Namita Gokhale , is an eclectic collection of twenty-five essays on travel by a spectrum of writers – Devdutt Pattanaik, M.J. Akbar, Bulbul Sharma, Mayank Austen Soofi, and Urvashi Butalia, to name a few. As Gokhale explains in her introduction, this is not a travel guide about the What/Why/How of destinations. From a taste of the five star holiness of exotic spas inhabited by the rich and famous in Marie Brenner’s immensely entertaining A Retreat to Holy India to the world of oppressed Bastar tribals in Rahul Pandita’s short but powerful Hello, Bastar!, this is a book that dwells upon journeys, meetings and separations – both real and imagined.
The past plays a big role in this book, and nowhere is that more evident than in A House for Mr. Tata. Jehangir Bejan Tata was constantly travelling to Avan Villa, the house in Shanghai where he grew up but left in 1952. He appointed a Chinese man, C.L. Tang, to manage the estate, who continued to send him regular updates until 1966, the year of China’s Cultural Revolution. Fearing for the safety of Tang, Mr. Tata began a search, which revealed that Tang had been arrested and interred in a labour camp. With no one to care for the Villa and the country heading towards a heavy veil of secrecy, Mr. Tata travelled to Shanghai in 2001 to check on the state of the house. He was relieved to find that the property had not been destroyed, but his joy was short-lived. Three years later, he learnt that Avan Villa had been taken over and torn down the by Chinese government. No amount of cajoling and maneuvering helped Mr. Tata reclaim his beloved home. Ultimately, all that remained were his memories of a childhood spent in a magnificent villa in a multicultural city (as Shanghai was back then) and some old pictures, the last of which was taken in 1941.
There are many other gems scattered across this anthology. In The Persistence of Memory, writer-editor Urvashi Butalia accompanies Bir Bahadur Singh as he journeys back to his hometown of Saintha in Pakistan, a place he was forced to flee during the bloody partition of India. Across the world, Navtej Sarna finds a slice of India in the holy city of Jerusalem in The Door to His Hospice Was Never Closed. Mythological writer Devdutt Patnaik talks about travel in ancient India, Goa based fashion designer Wendell Rodericks provides a fascinating history of the Konkan region, Kota Neelima writes about Tirupati, the richest temple in the world and Saba Naqvi has a delightful essay about the myth of Bonbibi, a Muslim goddess in the Sunderbans.
But my personal favourite was The Foreigner’s Situation, Ali Sethi’s account of a Pakistani kiosk owner in Denmark. The essay brought back heartwarming memories of the numerous Pakistanis I met during my decade in Europe, from the nameless Pakistani kiosk owner in Frankfurt who used a mix of Hindi and Urdu to assist a lost and bewildered migrant (me!) to the kind owner of the grocery store across my home in Amsterdam who once brightened by day with DVDs of Bollywood oldies!
Reading about these voyages reminded me of my own travels and of Anita Desai’s famous quip:
Wherever you go, somehow becomes a part of you.
As the world celebrates the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, I am amazed at how momentous the last two decades have been. Twenty five years ago, stories from New York and London and Munich would reach us days, sometimes months, later. Today, I can visit virtually any corner of the earth through the pictures that my friends share on Facebook and Instagram. The world is much more connected, and heaps of information readily available. But the stories that make a place special, those that lie in the hearts and minds of people, are still hard to find – and that is what makes Travelling In, Travelling Out so special.
Harini Srinivasan is an entrepreneur, aspiring writer and ex-bureaucrat. A voracious reader with a penchant to buy books every time she enters a book store (which is often!) she has lost count of the weeks spent packing and carting them all over the world. Her first book for children,The Wizard Tales – Adventures of Bun-Bun And His Friends, was out on Amazon Kindle earlier this year. This is an edited version of a post that was first published on her blog, where she writes about her twin passions – old Hindi music and literature.