Two backpackers encounter adventures and colourful characters as they traverse across India and Nepal in the search of Special Lassi
As a rule, I have little patience for Indian backpacking travelogues.
Most foreigner accounts alternate between wide eyed wonder, and scrunched-nose disgust with the country. Indian travellers are often worse- treating their country’s issues with either a benign indifference or an overly injured pride that finds it necessary to over-explain . Except in a rare case, these narratives lack balance and make it difficult to empathise with the author.
One of the reasons I enjoyed Amrita Chatterjee’s Special Lassi was that she seemed to see India just the way I do- as a place that’s incredibly flawed, majestic, complicated, dirty, but never (ever ever) dull.
And the other reason I found myself nodding through so many of the passages was that Amrita looked at her world with the same lens of slightly out-of-date Western pop culture influences as me. It isn’t unusual to find an Indian millennial who refers to Bob Dylan’s discography and Twin Peaks more often than DDLJ in private conversation. But it IS unusual to find an Indian millennial who doesn’t cloak her work in forced Indian references just to appeal to an Indophile audience. This ability to use an idiom and voice that is wholly her own, makes Amrita’s work sound very authentic.
You may not always empathise with her as she travels through West Bengal, Sikkim, Nepal, Hardwar and then all the way to Leh. She is often judgmental, more likely to enjoy a conversation with a tea-seller on the road than wax eloquent about the scenery, but you will never doubt that she experiences every single one of the emotions she describes. I also enjoyed her open hearted interactions with the people she met along the way- especially the children- and found myself smiling when she equated a tiny baby in a train to a warm loaf of bread or when she described another child thus:
“he was exactly the kind of child I like: curious, a bit mental and deliriously happy about god knows what”
It helps that her sometimes cynical point of view is balanced by the more open perspective of her fellow traveller River. He is one of those backpackers who has never met an adventure he can refuse. And Amrita treats this adorable openness with just the right mix of exasperation and wonder. River may often have the last word, but he will also miss the dirty Hindi jokes that Amrita shares with fellow backpackers and nomads. Between them, they bring in a nice mix of an outsider’s unjaundiced vision, and an insider’s local knowledge.
There are flaws in the books- after a while, there is a sameness to the narrative. Another bus ride, another youth hostel, another interesting encounter and another spliff or unexpectedly delicious meal. But if you’ve ever backpacked or travelled solo to any part of the world, you will find a lot to enjoy in this generous and entertaining book. I found myself reliving some old trips, and adding a few more to-dos to that never-ending list of places to see and things to do as I went on this journey with Amrita.
One last word, I hesitate to describe any book or work of art as explicitly feminist. But Amrita’s journey strikes me as interesting in the way her being a woman backpacker is often left unremarked upon. Her gender doesn’t stop her from doing things, but neither does it earn her special privileges or tribulations along the way. She belongs to the screed of backpackers and nomads first of all, every other identifier comes later.
My favourite parts of the narrative are those when expectations don’t match reality (as fellow travellers will attest, this often happens on the road). Like the time when the duo wake up early in the morning to get to the top of Tiger Hill for an unspoiled view and are met by droves of tourists and unbudging clouds. Or when they trek for hours to make it to the “pristine” Khecheopalri lake to find a site overrun by the detritus of tourists and tour buses. Some would complain and feel defeated, but as Amrita puts it
“..sometimes, an experience- no matter how terrible- is worth a lot more than a pretty view”
Wisdom to mull over just before you set off on your summer vacations, and a lovely read for the train/plane that takes you there.
Editor’s Note: Amrita and River spend a considerable time in Nepal during their adventure- enjoying the bohemian spirit of Kathmandu and exploring beyond. It breaks the heart to think that some of these places may have been forever changed in the earthquake this weekend. Should you choose to donate towards relief work may be recommend Global Giving’s Nepal Earthquake Relief Fund or UNICEF’s Help Children in Nepal program.