Humour: Whims and woes of the homesick Indian traveller
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Indians don’t travel well. I don’t mean Shashi Tharoor, who demanded reparations from Britain at the Oxford Union. Priyanka Chopra, who broke into an insular US TV industry. Or Cheteshwar Pujara, who made himself at home in Australia, scoring big runs in India’s historic Test series win in January. These intrepid travellers fill me with pride. Primarily because if you take me out of the land of my birth, I’m instantly rendered fangless, witless and cheerless. In fact, if I heard the title track of Swades (2004) at the immigration counter, I’d run out of the airport and back to my little flat like a woman possessed.
The 25°C world tour
I know I run the risk of being branded a nationalist when I say: There’s nothing like travelling in India. And yet I say it, snug in my sweater and socks in the Mumbai “winter”. The weather, to me, is the big challenge when you leave the tropics. And even close to the equator, the temperature falls to degrees that leave a true-blue Bambaiyya struggling. Whether it is a windy pier in Durban or an overcast day in Edinburgh, it would be safe to say I don’t acclimatise well. In India, be it in Kashmir or Himachal, I can add on the layers as if I were a Heston Blumenthal dessert, without any fear of judgment. In fact, just yesterday I enjoyed a fancy meal at a SoBo restaurant wearing a sweater plus a hoodie, with the hood flipped on. But I’m infinitely more conscious of my cavalier sartorial approach while away.
Then there is all the music and literature that celebrates the wisp of a wintry wind, the thrill of first snow and the chill of a plunge into an icy river. The antidote to these frozen enticements is invariably a glug of whisky or brandy, thawing the blood in the veins. In vain have I tried to apply these Hemingwayesque remedies. If a travel agency promised me a 25°C world tour, I’d grab it with my gloved hands at once.
Caught in a pickle
When it comes to food, I check the embarrassing Indian stereotype box once again. It takes me not more than two hours on new soil to crave dhokla and butter chicken, dosas and halwa. This, I realise, is not a purely biological response. I’m as fond of burgers, pasta and sushi as the next yuppie, but something about being in unfamiliar conditions makes me reach for the papad and the pickle in desperation. While my travel companions seek exotic cuisines and novel experiences, I scour the supermarket shelves for curries and powders, tearing up at the sight of a particularly appealing baigan or karela.
At the checkout counter, it’s another little skit, with my Indian currency mixing with ringgits or dollars. “Doing the math” has never been my strong suit. To do the math standing at a busy checkout counter, with impatient queuers and an unsmiling attendant, is a cliché that I’m doomed to inhabit my entire life.
Now in comparison, travel in India is a breeze. A gentle breeze … upon which wafts the smell of pakoras… which I can pay for in currency I understand. In this era of digital nomads and world citizens flitting between time zones and cultures effortlessly, I stand as an anomaly, that is for certain. But there is another element at work here. International travel has turned into a stage where we perform “the good life”. A social media event, garnering likes and wows, feeding into our sense of success and accomplishment. The hills of Meghalaya and the jungles of Coorg are all welcome, but they are just the fillers. The main event is the international trip. As if it isn’t good enough if you don’t need to switch currencies and accents.
My shortcomings as an international traveller don’t stop me from dreaming. I’d love to see the Northern Lights. Ride along the Amazon. See the seamier side of Tangier. But until these “main events” take place, there’s tiger spotting in Tadoba and entangling oneself in the grapevines of Nashik. Enjoying a junglee khichri in Uttarakhand or marvelling at the ruins in Hampi. I may be a tourist whenever a passport is involved, but I am a bona fide traveller on home ground.
From HT Brunch, February 3, 2019
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