SRINATH PERUR – Interviewed by Mohit Parikh
We at TBLM have long felt the lack of a certain kind of conversation in the Indian literary discourse. There are interviews, yes, but these tend to be promotional in nature, and a writer generally makes appearances around a book launch. That is perhaps a necessity. But the writer interview, one that focuses on the process behind a book, its connection with the writer’s personality, her or his life before and after publication, her or his views about money, rewards and recognition in literary pursuits — is neither present nor being asked for. We feel that emerging writers grapple more with these behind-the-scenes questions. This interview is, hopefully, first in a series.
Srinath Perur is the author of If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai, a book about travelling with groups. He writes for magazines and newspapers in India and outside, on a variety of subjects, often related to travel and science. He lives in Bangalore.
If it’s Monday, why must it be Madurai?
Alliteration. And because every trip in the book had a preset itinerary, and you could look up any day and tell which place we’d be in.
Those are the reasons why I liked the title when it was suggested by my publisher. Later I found that it’s also a play on a movie title If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium which is about a bus tour across Europe.
‘If it’s Monday…’ contains essays on the ten conducted tours you undertook from 2011-12. The book is shelved in the Travel Writing section of bookstores. Yet, I’d like to ask you, do you consider it as a travel book?
I once found the book shelved under Self-help and swelled with pride. But seriously, I suppose there is an element of self-help to travel — we travel to a place or through a culture, and unless one is particularly thick and incurious, it’s accompanied by a certain amount of inward journeying.
The travel book can be a varied thing, but typically it’s a non-fiction first-person account of a writer dealing with some form of geographical displacement. By that definition I do consider If It’s Monday a travel book. We can argue that I’m really travelling through some composite landscape formed by place and my fellow travellers, but it’s clearly a travel book to me.
All the essays are written in the present tense, but you are looking back at the experiences. There is a context, a post-trip analysis, and, as a result, the readers get the juice of your reflections, so to speak. It enriches the book with insights. What were the other reasons to choose this style or technique?
Right. There are parts of the book in past tense, but these are where the narrative goes back in time from its present present. So the reader always occupies a point in the narrative alongside the writer. The immediacy this provides is well known and you can’t open a travel magazine without encountering a breathless present tense account. It’s one way of holding the reader’s attention in these distracted times. I did worry about whether it would give the book a fidgety, unstable quality to have so much of it in present tense, but it seemed to flow naturally enough, so I let it be.
I finished all the travel for the book first then started writing it from notes and photographs. I had to decide what aspects of each tour I wanted to highlight, which characters would be effective. (When you travel with forty people, you can’t have all of them in your story!) Also, how the different chapters would sit together. I expect it’s a lot like making a documentary film — you get hours and hours of footage and end up using a tiny fraction to tell the story.
To extend that analogy, it’s worth noting that cinematic footage is always in the present tense. If required, scene can follow scene without necessarily implying an order in time. They just say, “This happened. This happened. This also happened. And we’re not saying in which order because it doesn’t matter here.” In writing, I feel that can be pulled off more smoothly in present tense. It lets you do both things: take the reader right down into real-time action, and at other places spirit the narrative away from time’s linearity.
In JLF 2014, Paul Theorux talked of the importance of being anonymous. The writer, he suggests, should be just eyes and ears in a crowd. In the Intro of your book, you quote him, ‘The word alone is implied in every exciting page [of a good travel book]’. Are you deliberately doing everything opposite to what Theroux suggests?
Haha, no. I haven’t read much by him, actually. That line seemed to me emblematic of an attitude — this exalting of solo travel, especially by travel writers — and I quoted it because this time I was going the other way and travelling with a group.
I think you do not so much overrule the suggestion as confirm it. The word alone is implied on every page of your very fine book. Dressed in jeans and shorts, brandishing a ponytail, there on wiring assignments, you never seemed to belong to the groups you were jaunting with.
You can always say I was alone in a group. But I didn’t feel as alone as you make me out to be! It’s true to some extent of the first two chapters, which I did as magazine assignments. When I knew I was doing the book I made sure to pick tours I actually wanted to be on. All except the sex tour which sounded so extraordinary and fascinating that I girded my loins and went for anthropological purposes.
Also, there’s something of the writer that’s bound to impress itself on the book. I mean, regardless of whether I travelled alone or in a group, the actual writing would in the end be a solo trip of sorts.
You quote Paul Theroux again, disapprovingly, in the slum tour story. He boasts, ‘In Mumbai: a tourist would have been in a temple or a museum. I had been in a slum.’ Do you think you, as an Indian, approach writing about India differently?
I’m pointing out that many more people are now able to say that because slum tourism exists. And that sort of hankering for a gritty ‘real’-India travel experience is what creates the market for this type of tour, where the idea would clearly be reprehensible unless complicated by some philanthropy angle. It’s also amusing how quickly the hardened traveller’s point of pride has been reduced to commodity.
I guess my approach to writing about India would necessarily be different from someone who hasn’t lived here all their life. I probably have more direct access to language, to cultural specifics, and to some extent, how the dynamics of class, caste or religion play out. I say “to some extent” because it’s always hard to be completely aware of the structures one is part of. And this may be where a perceptive writer from elsewhere actually has an edge, even when the writing is more granular in cultural specifics.
For instance, Naipaul’s writing on India — which is often spoken of dismissively these days but still has a place, if not for anything else, then for the third of his India books being a precursor to the rash of India books that have emerged in the last decade. I admire his acuity of observation even when his larger arguments leave me unconvinced. Mr Naipaul’s houses may sometimes be shaky but what fine bricks they are built with. In one of his India books he describes a porter (I think) sitting as if he were trying to occupy the least space possible. I was so used to seeing this sort of thing that I hadn’t really noticed it. Once I did start noticing it, it was all around me, expressing servility or feudal deference or any of the hierarchies we’ve so expertly built. Or take Octavio Paz, who wrote about India from a very different vantage compared to the usual Englishman or American writing about India. Again, I don’t necessarily agree with all of what he says in In Light of India, but I enjoyed considering it and learnt from it.
I came across an online review of my book where a longtime Indian reader of travel writing compares me to Naipaul, Theroux and Dalrymple (favourably, I can’t resist mentioning) and says something to the effect of “this book could only have been written by an Indian.” That did make me feel good. But I don’t think that sort of comment is coming from a jingoistic place or that it says anything to the detriment of those worthies. It probably has more to do with a shared cultural immersion, a more direct way of relating.
After reading your book, I wondered how come there are not more books on conducted travels. It now seemed such a natural thing to write about. Were you amazed by the lack of them when the idea first hit you? Also, how did the idea of the book come to you?
Really? Several people looked unconvinced when I told them the book’s premise. One writer I know even made a horrified face and said “That’s terrible!”
It didn’t start as a book. Outlook Traveller magazine asked me if I’d go on a bus tour of Tamil Nadu conducted by the state tourism board. I did and I was bored to tears. My next assignment from OT again happened to be a bus tour — this time through Europe with a bus full of Indian tourists. By then I was coming alive to the possibility of writing about places and people together — the character of places changes in company, and people reveal themselves differently during travel. By then my Tamil Nadu article had been published and my editor-to-be at Penguin, Kamini Mahadevan, read it, got my email address from the magazine and wrote to ask if I wanted to send her a book proposal. It turns out I did.
In a way, the book informs Indians what it is to be an Indian, and does so brilliantly. Was that also something you wanted to achieve through the book?
Something like that, yes. In fact the original book proposal was titled Excess Baggage and had a larger sociological component than the book I ended up with. It was always the idea that accompanying a variety of people on different types of tours would yield a diffuse portrait of India and Indians.
Since most trips were rigorously scheduled, and some were physically taxing – you had to walk through villages in Shodh Yatra for days for instance – I wonder if the writing challenges that you faced were also of different sorts than your typical solo-travel ones.
The journeys done on foot — the Shodh Yatra and the Pandharpur Wari — were perhaps hardest because, as you say, they were physically taxing and my breaks from walking were often used to make notes or talk to people instead of simply collapsing. But nothing terribly arduous.
As I said, I wrote the book after all the ten journeys (and a few more that didn’t make it to the book), working from detailed notes and photographs. In some ways it helped to write later, because I didn’t have to decide which fellow travellers or incidents were memorable. Memory did that for me. With scenes, characters, dialogue in my notes, and a sense of what I was trying to do with this material, I guess I approached the chapters as non-fiction short stories written in the first-person.
When travelling, do you write in longhand?
There’s one kind of immediate note taking that often happens in a crude sort of personal shorthand. You may have noticed that in the sex tour chapter there many conversations with dialogue. Some of this was jotted down hastily on boarding passes, the back of tickets, anywhere I could find space. Sometimes I’d just make a quick note to remind myself about a particular incident or interaction. When I got to my notebook, usually in a hotel room at the end of the day, I’d use these to make more detailed notes. It’s also interesting how taking a photograph on my phone or camera has increasingly becoming another form of taking notes. I take obligatory shots from the bus or train to give me a sense of landscape in case I need to describe it later. Some photos exist just to remind me that something happened. Despite all that, months later, the process of writing will throw up details from my memory that I don’t have in my notes or photographs.
Is there a danger of misrepresenting place or people with memory? Is that a concern?
I guess. Memory is a funny thing. You know how at school reunions multiple people claim to be the protagonist of stories from twenty years ago? I’m sometimes surprised at how what I remember can be different from what’s in my notes. I had a strong visual memory of a somewhat nationalistic gentleman from the first chapter of my book wearing an “I ❤ NY” t-shirt. Then I went through my photographs and saw that his shirt actually read “New York City”. Who knows what else didn’t get corrected? But I do my best to be factually accurate. The only license I allow myself is exaggeration for the sake of humour, and that too when I’m talking about myself. For example, in the chapter on the desert safari I report being very uncomfortable and completely terrified while on a camel. I was only uneasy and scared.
There’s a scale on which the idea of ‘fact’ resides. I believe there’s a valid case too for simply going with impressionistic accounts. If someone remembers a certain travel experience a certain way, then surely that is the version worth mentioning? Why ruin it with vetting? Further down the scale, some travel writers will create composite characters or mash a couple of incidents into a single, more entertaining scene. And then there is embellishment, even invention. From Marco Polo to Kapuściński, we are finding out that some things written in travel accounts didn’t necessarily happen.
Today I think we’re all very particular that something that calls itself a fact is indeed one. But facts are always blurry to differing extents and I don’t think it’s misrepresentation if the conventions of a genre or a note from the writer make clear what liberties have been taken.
What does it mean to write about places – defined, and confined, by geographical or political boundaries?
Among other things, it means I have to run around for visas!
But it also means that boundaries make things interesting because they in a sense demarcate massive political and social experiments. For instance, I went to Cuba a couple of years ago and found it fascinating for its differences. No ads anywhere, something that felt pleasantly strange. And most interesting to me, the pillars of state welfare were exactly the ones I remembered from the India of the 1980s — the ration shop, the government school, the government hospital. Except, it actually worked well in Cuba. Of course, this was at the cost of certain liberties. In general, it’s fun to try and figure out how one place in the world is different from another.
In as essay you wrote for Outlook Traveller, ‘Middle Ground’, you say “in the combined light of such expediencies, nature’s topographical fickleness, cartographical compromise, and man’s territorial cupidity, I was looking at going to a somewhat pointless point – [the middle ground]” I get a feeling that, in some way, this statement speaks also as a mission statement. This self-consciousness that a traveller cannot pin down a place. In the same essay you quote Oscar S. Adams “It is a conception that depends almost entirely for its existence upon the curiosity of mankind. It is inevitable that there are as many geographical centers of a state or country or any other area as there are people determining them. Any reasonable method will give a center as satisfactory as any other one. This is a case in which all may differ but all be right.”
I tend to be a lazy traveller when I’m not motivated by a project of some sort. I don’t take in the sights, I don’t explore. There have been times when I’ve spent a month or two in the same place, getting into a rut on day one and staying in it, relying on accident or the agency of others to elicit any sign of life. I might not try a second restaurant unless the one I’ve got used to is shut. Or I might end up doing the not-to-be-missed thing only because someone I’m enjoying talking to asks if I want to come along. I’ve sometimes justified this to myself by saying airily that I’m letting the place come to me, but maybe your observation is more flattering: this isn’t laziness, it’s a heightened awareness about the futility of place!
In the book too, you remind the readers that just as you are observing your companions, this Other is observing you too, and perhaps weaving you into its own narrative.
Inevitable, no? Maybe this is a good place to go back to something you said about writers having to be only eyes and ears. Others aren’t seeing you as just that (unless you’re eavesdropping) and it’s best to be aware that interactions and responses tend to be modulated by your presence.
While reading ‘If it’s Monday…’ I was reminded of essays by David Foster Wallace and George Saunders. Theirs aren’t travel essays per se, but the Self is at the centre there as well and there is an effort to not evoke a sense of place. Would you like to comment?
I haven’t read much by Saunders. I love the writing David Foster Wallace did for magazines — so perceptive, funny and compulsively readable. It’s possible I might have responded differently to my first conducted tour if I hadn’t already read his account of being on a cruise ship. But who knows. I also like reading Geoff Dyer. His book of travel essays — Yoga for people who can’t be bothered to do it — is brilliantly funny. I’m always amazed at how he seems able to get the reader up a flight of stairs when he’s himself taking one step up and one step down for a while and giving up. Among Indian writers I particularly enjoy Kai Friese and Rahul Bhattacharya. (I’m sticking to travel-ish sort of writing. There are many more in other areas.)
This ‘sense of place’ is a funny thing. I’m not very patient while reading descriptions of places and I write them reluctantly. There are people who do it well, but I get bored with my own writing when I try. I’d rather get at a place through people or peripheral details or what it feels like to be there.
How do you connect the dots: from a PhD in Computer Science to science and travel writing.
Let’s just say I had the sort of upbringing that made it inevitable that I’d end up as an engineer of my own free will. I write about many things — science and travel, yes, but also about cities, books, anything at all really, even a bit of fiction. I guess there’s a certain curiosity that led me to research, but at some point I felt the urge to synthesise, to make connections between things I was interested in. And broadly, that is what I try to do with my writing.
Still, writing is a difficult career choice, given that you were already doing a doctorate in Computer Science. I will assume you already had a different career in mind.
We are constrained by how we grow up, aren’t we? My family is filled with engineers and science teachers and those were the role-models I had by default. There were no musicians, writers, painters, either in my family or in our extended circle. A life spent doing these things was outside the realm of my imagination. Though I’d always been interested in reading, and though I thought I’d like to write, I chose to become an engineer.
I worked for a software company after getting my degree, but I somehow did not feel fully occupied. I thought the problem was that I hadn’t studied enough. I went on to do a masters and a PhD, and a big part of that is learning how to think and read and write — with precision and rigour. The training happens in a particular domain, but it’s applicable anywhere.
That period of relative freedom in an academic environment shaped me in many ways. It’s not like I wasn’t interested in the subject I was getting deeper into. I was. But I wanted to get at the world more broadly. What I really wanted to do, as a very fundamental impulse, was put things together, bring about some kind of synthesis between ideas. I think I’m doing that now in some of my writing, for instance when I combine travel and science in an article. And I hope to do more.
To say another thing about the constraints of my upbringing — it might have set me on rails, but not so firmly that I couldn’t change tracks. I’m glad for that.
Did you think writing would be sustainable?
I worked at a research lab for a couple of years, saved up some money. The plan was to write full-time until I ran out of money. At the time I thought I would write short stories – I had just won a short story competition held by a Bangalore newspaper, and I had the material of my childhood to process. That eventually receded into the background. I started doing book reviews, travel pieces, assorted journalism. At some point I realized money wasn’t running out. It was starting to come in. But then I don’t have dependents and I have a family home to hang out in when I’m not travelling, which is about half the year. It’s also strange how having a book out brings in more work. Apparently one becomes a much better writer the instant a book is published, and magazine editors who wouldn’t respond to email previously begin writing of their own accord. In terms of making a living, it also helps that I write on a variety of subjects. There’s always something to work on. I’m sure I’d have been making more money if I’d stuck to my original career path, but this isn’t bad at all. I enjoy what I do.
Could you talk a bit about your writing schedule and habits?
They’re irregular. I procrastinate often and well and write with a martyred air when it can’t possibly be put off any longer.
Coming back to your book, you often come across as the lone sceptical voice in a herd of believers. A careful thinker in the throng of opinionated, prejudiced, institutionalized and ignorant. Is your scepticism a reaction, then, to them? Or is it a result of your training as a researcher?
Haha, what a jerk this guy sounds like! I don’t know if it’s them or me. I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture.
Haha. Sorry, that was a rash question but I formed this impression because much of the irony in your writing, I think, comes from selectively quoting people.
I don’t think I have selectively quoted people to make them out to be something they aren’t. Hypocricies, contradictions, incongruities are naturally interesting because counterpoint evokes a richer world. And I think — I hope — where I’ve pointed these things out, it’s done with certain lightness. A group of devout pilgrims marching more than 200 kilometres in their faith is all well. But when this group takes a break from their piety to quietly steal buckets of water from a neighbouring group, it says something about their pragmatism and the frame in which their faith thrives. And when we — I’m part of the group too — bathe happily in the street using that water and one pilgrim tells me were lucky to find this water, isn’t it just delightful?
The last sentence of ‘According To Their Own Genius’ alludes to “[the] hint of the transcendental I sensed.” This hint is all over the book, especially in the two religious detours. And yet it always remains a hint. Are you deliberately hiding something from the readers?
To me it seemed as if there was an emotional barrier. I wanted to know more… I also felt at other places that you were not allowing yourself to be an emotional presence on the page.
I don’t know. I’m not sure there is enough distance yet between me and the book to answer this effectively. I can think of several places in the book where I’m moved, and it’s true that I don’t dwell very long upon them. Maybe I’m trying to be a quieter presence. Maybe I expect the reader to read deeper. Or, just maybe, I’m dead inside! To reach back to your last question… That chapter does some exploring about how we interact with nature, and towards the end a connection is made between lives lived in cities and how it affects the environment in distant forests. Then I take an evening flight from Guwahati to Delhi, east to west, and end up watching a slow-motion sunset that lasts almost the whole flight. I say this experience had a “hint of the transcendental” and maybe I wouldn’t have sensed it without the experiences that came before it. I still don’t think I need to say more. It’s the last line of the chapter, I’d like to leave the reader with an image that lasts, and sometimes the best way to talk about the magical is to not talk too much about it.
Are you working on your next book? Would you like to talk a bit about it?
I’ve been translating a wonderful short novel from Kannada — Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag. The experience has been hugely rewarding. This is the first time I’ve tried translation and I’m excited by some fairly elementary things. One is that the process yields all the pleasure of putting thoughts into words without the insecurities involved in first having to make things up. Another is that translation can be seen as an exercise in very slow, very close reading. What other reader gets through a book at the rate of a page a day, thinking through every word and sentence?
Mohit Parikh is the author of the novel Manan.