This book is a travelogue on the author’s journey through India. The author has grown up and brought up in Dar-es-Salaam on the coast of Africa, which he loves. But as India is the birthplace of his grandparents, he decides to pay a visit to India. This visit soon takes the form of regular visits as he finds that India “seemed to do something to the soul; give it a certain ease, a sense of homecoming, quite another kind of nostalgia.”
On his first visit to India, the author finds on reaching Delhi that the airlines are on strike, so he takes the ‘Puri Express’ to reach Bhubaneswar. Here his first impression is: “Dusty streets, brown earth in a glaring sunlight, stray dogs quietly scampering about, looking busy over, it seems, nothing.” He meets an Oriya poet who advises him to see villages of the tribals. The author is taken aback to learn that there are tribals too as so far he had known of the “canonical” four Hindu castes “and then there were the Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. Now these tribals.”
The author gets to see a jatra which he describes in very descriptive language. He visits the Jagannath temple at Puri, where he sees a sign saying that only Hindus are allowed into the temple. He wonders who is to check this and how? “What exactly is a Hindu? I have not denied any Hindu god.” He talks of “Bhubaneswar boasting of more than 500 temples” and finds that one can visit temple after temple here. “At a simple one in the middle of a busy street, two women at a shrine, eyes beseeching, pleading to a god. This human sight, so private a moment so publicly displayed, is the one that ultimately touches the most; leaves one humbled, feeling ignorant, superfluous.”
Next he goes to Coimbatore before proceeding to Trivandrum where “the landscape is dominated by coconut tees, rivers and canals; the language spoken is Malayalam. This is the real south; Hindi is almost a foreign tongue and the English spoken is hard to understand. I was asked, upon arrival to see a Yum Yum Thomas, influential journalist; it took me two days of asking and considerable embarrassment before I reached that M.M.Thomas.”
The author asks a Mullah about local Muslim literature in Malayali. The Mullah talks of translations from Arabic in which nothing has changed since the time of the Prophet.
He reaches Delhi to travel to Calcutta by air. Here he finds the people “well informed, up-to-date not only on the news but also on global events and history; and they know literature. They can quote freely from Bengali writings (as well as Derrida and Foucault), and unlike Indians elsewhere, lapse easily into the mother tongue in front of a non-speaker even as they apologise for this.” He adds that here he finds a caste system “and the multitudes are poor beyond imagination.”
On a visit to Gujarat, the author visits a place called Gir Gadhada, “my ancestor Nanji Lalji’s birthplace near Una. Here he learns a new Indian English expression, “road to road” meaning a direct route, one leading to another, more or less.” He meets a local Khoja administrator who is able to tell the history of his own community up to ten generations but “How could he tell mine? …Why, I ask myself, could my people not preserve records like other neighbours did? Could it be due to the initial conversion, the first exile, as I see it, then the consequent uncertainties?”
He ends his trip with a visit to Kangra, a short distance from Dharamsala, knowing well that “there is more to discover, there will only be more, the journey is endless, as I knew, as I had been forewarned.”
This book must be read by all for not only the very apt descriptions the author gives but also for his command over the English language which reads so beautiful.
(Penguin Books India Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017.)