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Forget the Lonely Planet

Tour guides Suketu Mehta and Salman Rushdie take bookworms on a tour of their India

india Updated: Apr 04, 2010 16:11 IST
Sneha Mahale

Twelve book club members travel across India in search of street scenes and rural settings that have inspired some of India’s best authors. Intrigued?

Called Reading India, the tour is an event started by a Toronto-based bookstore called Nicholas Hoare. “My main profession is that of a bookseller and at our store, we are on a constant lookout for unique literary events to offer our clients,” says Benjamin Walsh, 31, proprietor. Mumbai, the inspiration The idea for this kind of travel, where a literary description of a region acts as a cultural guide, occurred to Walsh in the late summer of 2007, while he was travelling by train from Mumbai to Goa.

Though his friends chose a quick flight down the coast, Walsh looked forward to the overnight journey through a landscape that would be bursting with new life at the tail end of the monsoon season.
“Later in the morning, I was reading a new book by David Davidar called the Solitude of Emperors. As the train pushed forward, it struck me that I might be travelling along the same route as the book’s central character,” says Walsh. It was then that the idea of a literary tour, one where group members prepared for the trip by reading a selection of fiction and non-fiction, struck him as an unlikely but intriguing possibility. The first Reading India tour took place in 2007. While everyone was reading Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, terrorists attacked several targets in Mumbai, the book’s setting, leaving more than 170 people dead, including two Canadians. “Group members were shocked and concerned, but I am sure it was the books and these records of a less sensational and more authentic India that calmed their fears,” he says.

What is a literary tour?

A literary tour is anything from a pilgrimage to the home region of a famous author or a tight schedule of sites with literary significance. “We select a region that has a rich tradition of contemporary literary production. We then develop a reading list of six books in fiction and non-fiction,” says Walsh.

The books chosen need to give the readers a wide look at the culture, history and society of a region. Once the books are selected, an itinerary is designed according to the setting of each book. “Our partner tour company, Going Places Together, reads those books and pulls out important sites, settings, and situations that become the foundation of the literary itinerary,” says Walsh.

These might include neighbourhoods, communities, musical traditions and foods. An average tour is two weeks, but tours to India are closer to three weeks. Book club members also join in reading each book and meet for six discussions over the months leading up to the tour.

Booked, literally

The name of the tour changes with each destination. Names such as Reading India allow those unfamiliar with the programme to grasp the basic premise very quickly.
The selection of books is the toughest task. Firstly, the books must be gripping, engaging, and challenging to the readers. They also have to be relatively contemporary to give the readers the best representation of each region today.
“During the selection process, I read and reread many books, discuss my options with fellow readers and also with friends or colleagues who hail from the regions in question,” says Walsh. Group members join after the books have been selected and receive all books as part of their costs.

Discussions

Once the books are selected, members discuss politics, religion, relationships, news stories, character development and history. They often realise familiar settings though the stories are set so far from home. “The struggles we have had as young people are very similar or the same as the struggles faced by the characters and figures in the stories we read. Our reading takes place during a six-month period leading up to our visit,” he says.
Those joining from cities other than Toronto read on their own or participate in an online readers’ forum and join the group while travelling.
Each tour has a unique reading selection. If there is enough interest, the club may repeat the tour with a new book club and the same reading list.
“In February 2011, we are travelling from Kolkata to Mumbai via Varanasi, Agra, Jaipur, Pushcar, Udaipur, and Amedabad with a new reading list reflecting this journey.”
But are there any takers, considering the fears raised by terrorism, swine flu and recession?
“There are still takers and yes, they still feel safe. Of course, far back in our minds, we all wonder how we can best protect ourselves from the unpredictability of terrorism, but these are also thoughts we would have visiting when New York or London,” he says.