This delightful travelogue around ten conducted tours is full of rich experience: hanging on to a camel in the Thar, rediscovering music on the trail of kabir, joining thousands on an ancient pilgrimage in Maharashtra, crossing living root bridges near Cherrapunji, and more.
As much about people as places, the book is also a reflection on the nature of popular travel today marked by the packaging of experiences, the formation of tourist economies and compulsive picture-taking. How this influences tourists comes through vividly in their creating a 'mini-India' in a bus, while racing through treasured sights in Europe; in their perfunctory devotion while hopping from temple to temple in Tamil Nadu; in their 'enjoying' with sex workers far away from home.
Deeply felt, ironic, and often comic, the book entertains and enlightens, and become an idiosyncratic portrait of India and her people.
Srinath Perur's writings on travel, science and books have appeared in various national magazines. He lives in Bangalore.
The official at Immigration, Mr Pandey, looked glumly at me as I told him why I was going on a conducted tour to Uzbekistan. 'If you're a writer,' he said, unconvinced, 'then why are you travelling with a group?' Serious travellers, and certainly travel writers, look upon the conducted tour as the lowliest form of travel. Even travelling with a friend or two can invite contempt. Jonathan Raban, for instance, warns anyone considering travelling with company: 'You're never going to see anything; you're never going to meet anybody; you're never going to hear anything. Nothing is going to happen to you.' The remonstrance is all the more applicable to writers: according to Paul Theroux, 'In the best travel books the word alone is implied on every exciting page.'
I was trying to write a travel book entirely through conducted tours, a book in which I'd never be travelling alone. Mr Pandey's was only the latest voice in a chorus of sceptics, but he'd caught me off guard. I mumbled something about travel being cheaper this way, and he let me pass. But it was a rattled writer who rejoined his thirty-three travel companions.
I'd managed to steer clear of conducted tours until early 2011, when a magazine assignment took me on a week-long bus-tour of Tamil Nadu. How bad could it be, I'd asked myself before going. I had my answer before the first day was up: the tour was wrist-slittingly dull, the boredom so comprehensive that it occasionally transmuted itself into mild hysteria to redeem itself. I was with a group of retirees, and with faithful monotony we went from temple to temple seeking priority darshan. My fellow travellers were set in their ways, and there were no conversations to be had, only discourses to flee from. It didn't help, either, that I'd had to surrender all sense of volition: I went where the guide asked me to go, stayed there exactly as long as I was told to.
Even as I longed to break free, I began to notice that a conducted tour by definition offers something that solitary travel cannot: other people, and the opportunity to know them. There's close and sustained contact with one's fellow tourists; they stand out against the backdrop of new places; the exertions of travel can bring to the surface aspects of character that are otherwise hidden; being away from the responsibilities of work and family, with all travel arrangements taken care of, people tend to relax, grow expansive and reveal themselves for who they are (or at least who they think they are).
My next assignment turned out to be a conducted tour as well, this time a trip across Europe in a bus full of fellow Indians. We ate Indian food throughout, watched Hindi films on the bus, played antakshari, and in between only fleetingly ventured into Europe. We'd quickly take a photograph, tick the place off our lengthy itinerary, and return to the mobile little India our group constituted. If it had to be done in such a spectacularly passive fashion, then why travel at all?
These tours often stand for far more than the travel itself. A strong element of middle-class aspiration is at work, especially in overseas tours. Conducted tours allow for the conquest of the exalted 'foreign' without much effort or discomfort. This is travel as a symbol of leisure and economic sufficiency, and the conducted tour is now a rite of passage among the middle class. For those who have retired and seen to it that their children are settled, or are otherwise considered to have 'finished off their responsibilities', the conducted tour is the new vanaprasthashrama with the real work of life done, one can turn one's attention to frills such as travel Across all age groups, travel signals success and affluence, and is displayed to one's peers through endless slide- shows and albums of photographs. Just as Indians in previous decades posed for photographs with their telephones and TVs, we now picture ourselves against the Eiffel Tower or the London Eye, or at least the gopuram of the Madurai Meenakshi temple.
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