Countries change; it is in their nature to do so. Some of these are major changes, like the effects of wars or revolutions, resulting in grand history-writing and analysis. But ordinary things often change in ways that go unnoticed — often, the only evidence of the past was recorded by the outsider’s eye, the travel writer who makes it his business to take down impressions for posterity to review.
This is particularly true of Indian history: we have Western merchants and envoys to thank for descriptions of the grandeur of the erstwhile Vijayanagar empire (whose capital city was the now ruined village of Hampi) and ancient Chinese pilgrims give us a wealth of detail on the historical Buddhist sites (such as Nalanda). These narratives may be biased, for which a reader must make the necessary adjustments, but they’re often detailed enough to give us a sense of local life in another time.
Such thoughts cross my mind as I read Joe Roberts’s book, a diary of six months spent in south India in the early 1990s — originally published in 1994, but recently reissued by Aleph. Roberts was based in Bengaluru (then Bangalore), where he rented a room with a local family, and his vivid descriptions give us an idea of life in a city that had not yet become a global hub overtaken by IT money and shopping malls for international brands. Roberts takes notes on everything including local fashions among the urban youth — ‘jeans with three pleats at the waist and an inset pleated panel from the knee to the hem, snow-bleached jeans with suede patch pockets. Because designer labels weren’t readily available they dreamt up their own variations of a Western theme — there were certain hip tailors around Brigade Road who could be trusted’. He captures conversations, attitudes, manners, linguistic quirks and many other intangibles that we’ve probably forgotten about today.
The way Roberts meticulously recorded everything he saw is the real asset of this book: a flashback to 25 years ago.
However, if one is looking for a scintillating travelogue, his actual travels border on the mundane — he frequently takes Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation tours rather than pursuing independent adventure tourism, and puts his faith in the Lonely Planet . Despite consulting his guidebook, he takes a trip to Mangalore the week the monsoon breaks out, only to remain cooped up at the resort (instead of visiting the temple at Udupi as per plan), reading books (bought from Gangaram’s in MG Road when it still ruled the city’s book market).
Despite these drawbacks in the plotline, the narrative has its merits. In Ooty, for example, he stays at a highly recommended, venerable old hotel, which turns out to be breathing its last. It is soon to be taken over by the Taj group and restored into a luxury hotel (a sign of the new age already knocking on the door). His descriptions of dusty corridors ruled by mice, musty hotel rooms that were once grand, waterlogged bathrooms with broken plumbing, indifferent waiters sleeping in the dining hall where tablecloths and napkins stay unwashed, and fried pork or brain curry being the only food on offer, bring to mind the many strange places that passed off as traveller’s habitations in the olden days... Back in the time before the advent of the boutique hotel with its attached designer bistro.
And so it goes on, as we travel with Roberts to a jungle resort (where nothing much happens), to the Vijayanagar ruins at Hampi (again where nothing much happens), to Pondicherry (where he chats up an intriguing, divorced Indian woman), Madurai, Mahabalipuram, and then Kerala (where he encounters a hilarious, tragic British drunkard on the train who later becomes a disciple of a guru in Bengaluru). Although ostensibly a book on his travels in south India, he also goes north to Khajuraho and Varanasi. In effect, he does all the mandatory tourist activities, never quite venturing off the beaten track. The most dramatic moments consist of traveller’s diarrhoea and vomiting spells. Like any travel diary, it is amusing and dull by turns.
Yet it is with a deep sense of nostalgia that I finished this little story of a tourist’s life in India a quarter of a century ago. Maybe it is a nostalgia that can only be felt if one lived in those times — by a curious coincidence I made my first trip to India in the same year, 1991 — but, nevertheless, I am sure that in the future, a book like this will be consulted by people who search for remembrances of things past.
Zac o’Yeah is a Bengaluru-based author, travel writer, literary critic. His new novel is titled Hari a Hero for Hire