“You have five minutes to pick a book”, said G as we raced towards our gate in the domestic terminal of the Kempegowda International Airport. No, we weren’t actually late – we just really wanted to make sure we had time to grab a bowl of mini idlis in sambar before we boarded the flight. This has apparently become some Lagori tradition, and I really didn’t want to be responsible for them breaking it! But I have my own traditions, and one of them is buying a book in an airport. So I found myself desperately scanning the shelves in Crossword, hoping a book would jump out at me.
I was in luck.
Srinath Perur’s “If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai” lay on the top most shelf of the ‘Travel’ section. It immediately caught my eye because of the brightly coloured book jacket. On further inspection, Perur turned out to be a writer from Bangalore. And, okay – the book jacket has a houseboat on it and I was on my way to Alleppey. Destiny? I think so.
And that’s how ended up spending a significant part of my mini-vacation to Alleppey and Kochi engrossed in this delightful travelogue. I think it influenced a large part of the way I saw myself as a tourist and a traveller. For instance, Perur fleetingly dwells on the pressing need many tourists feel to document what they are seeing instead of actually participating in the moment. I had to stop myself from incessantly taking pictures and editing them, and instead hold up my head and observe what was happening around me.
I love the way Perur has balanced the matter in this book. It’s only after I started reading the penultimate chapter did I realise that the chapters increased progressively in ‘weight’: the initial couple of tours are more conventional, comical and highlight stereotypical ‘conducted tour’ behaviour and anecdotes. As one gets deeper into the book, the subject matter becomes more dense, deals more with deeper and more thought-provoking themes.
“If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai” is a real eye-opener for me, and there are many reasons for this. For one, I am now realising what an incredible market there is in this country for these different travel ‘products’. One has heard about the typical religious tours of the south, but I honestly had no idea about Uzbekistan’s emergence as a top sex tourism destination or the Shodh Yatra, “a week-long walking tour of villages in search of traditional knowledge and local innovations” initiated by Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI).
However, I think the real reason I have found the book so enjoyable is because of Perur’s quiet and masterful writing. There are no senseless and self-indulgent philosophical questions, no loud and disruptive ‘experienced traveller’ interjections. Very clearly, the focus of this book is to explore the complexities and comforts offered by Indian conducted tours, which as Perur explains in the introductory chapter, have made travelling a far more affordable and accessible experience for many.
In each chapter, Perur recounts his experiences on ten different conducted tours (eight within India, and two to places outside the country but with groups of Indians). His writing style is very engaging, and I found myself laughing out loud quite a few times while reading some of his very tongue-in-cheek and ironic observations. RM, his discourse on the idea of ‘lost’ Indian culture while wearing a neatly pressed ‘New York City’ T-shirt. The budhiya from Jaisalmer who is forced (by circumstances and pride) to open her home to strangers and cook for them. S.Mauli, the PWD official who has to leave the Wari procession in the middle to sort out a transfer-related issue. These are all people who I will never meet, and yet, meet everyday.
What I admire is that the tone is never judgemental (which is so easy to do with a book like this), and there is a genuine effort to present characters as they are without unnecessary ‘airbrushing’ or exaggeration.
Have you read the book? What did you feel about it? And in case you want to pick up a copy – the Kindle version is available here, and physical copies are available on Flipkart and Amazon. Read more about the book on Goodreads.