From Sweden’s Ice Hotel to Salzburg, this travel author has seen it all
We spoke to the Inder Raj Ahluwalia, who is the winner of the Mark Twain Travel Journalism Award, about his travels across the globe, why he wrote a letter to Steven Spielberg after seeing Jaws (1975), some of the most fascinating things he has seen and more.Updated: Mar 21, 2019 14:03 IST
Under his banner of Travel Durbar, Inder Raj Ahluwalia enthrals you with talks of his visits to Salzburg, which is Mozart’s birthplace and was the locale for the filming of the smash-hit Sound of Music (1965). Then he tells you about his experience in the Ice Hotel (200 km north of the Arctic Circle) in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden. Slowly, you begin to realise that the tales too many, and you’d rather pick up one of his travel books to read about not only the exotic locations he visits but also the comic mistakes he ended up making with people in his trips to over 50 countries, many of whom happened to be beautiful women.
In the sea of all the new age travel bloggers crowding our feeds on Instagram, Ahluwalia is a rare breed, for he has been in the field for over 35 years now, starting off at a time when there was no social media. The author of three books feels that the quality of travel writing has steadily gone down, and it’s only the volume which has increased.
A resident of Delhi’s Defence Colony, Ahluwalia has another book releasing soon, The Blessings’ Seeker, which is about his visits to 40 historic Gurduwaras across India. We spoke to the 64-year-old, who is the winner of the Mark Twain Travel Journalism Award, about his travels across the globe, why he wrote a letter to Steven Spielberg after seeing Jaws (1975), some of the most fascinating things he has seen and more.
The three books you’ve written (Travels With My Turban, Meet Me At The Border and Sikh In The Snow) have got quite interesting names. How do you come up with such titles?
The book titles are a story in itself. I dare say I’m pleased with my effort. I made the cardinal mistake of sharing the titles with some ‘pundits’ in the trade, and instantly regretted it. They heaped tonnes of free and needless advice on me. Eventually I just went ahead with my original titles and all of them lauded my effort and praised the titles sky high.
The fact is that I feel a book title is arguably the most important part of the whole project. It attracts, titillates, arouses curiosity, and motivates one to pick up the book.
Tell us two fascinating incidents with women that you have spoken about in Travels With My Turban.
Once, while cruising on the high seas I met an American lady named Holly. She worked at a golf club and had saved for many months to take this cruise. She and I got close together, and just as things were beginning to get ‘interesting’, I spoilt everything by getting into bouts of moody silence that convinced her that I wasn’t really interested in her. Or that I had some other woman in my life. By the time I realised what I’d done, it was too late. I do remember wanting to kick myself for this fiasco.
In Namibia there’s a fascinating little town called Swapkomund. It nestles on a desert coast and is a famous tourist centre. There I met up with a lady named Helga who was a private pilot. She took me up for a flight and later asked me if I’d felt afraid up there in the skies, and also if I had harboured ‘naughty’ thoughts about her. Not wanting to lie, I side-tracked and changed the topic, which more or less ‘killed’ our romantic interlude.
How easy or difficult is it to be a travel writer? What do you love and hate about it?
To be a skilled and professional travel-writer isn’t easy. It requires more work inputs than people imagine. When I started off as a travel writer forty years back there were literally just three of us in India. It was difficult, hard, and often discouraging. I personally have written more travel features than anyone else on this planet, but have made literally no money. But I love what I do. It keeps me going because of the praise heaped on my writing, and also the conviction that many people use my writing as a guide for their own travels, as do travel agents for their business.
I hate the fact that a lot of my work is harmed because our space has been taken up by ‘fakes’ and part-time travel writers, who are just trying to ride of any benefits the work begets. They are ruining the highly professional nature of this work.
Freelance life is a tough one in India. Is it as romantic an experience and liberating as some of us feel or a daily struggle?
Unfortunately for me, I made it romantic. That resulted in my sticking to it and not trying to do other work where I could have made some money. Freelance travel writing is a very tough job. I often wonder how I managed to survive for forty years.
When the movie Jaws came out in 1975, you wrote an angry letter to the director, Steven Spielberg . Was the movie that bad? How did Steven Spielberg react to your letter?
With its theme built around a giant Great White Shark and a group of men out to hunt it, the movie Jaws became a ‘hit’. So powerful was its depiction of the shark that sharks in general, and Great White Sharks in particular, became symbols of danger and fear. This was a setback to efforts aimed at protecting them. Shark Fin Soup, which is very popular, results in hundred of sharks being killed yearly just for their fins. It’s cruel.
Well i don’t even know if he ever received the letter, so there wasn’t any reply. In fairness, let me say that Steven Spielberg had nothing against sharks. He just produced a movie that became an international hit.
What are some of the most fascinating things you have experienced during your travels, both in India and abroad?
My world travels have thrown up myriad adventures. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing some of the world’s natural wonders, such as the highest sand dunes, longest beaches, and most wooded valleys. But a huge added joy was to meet some interesting people – priests, hotel managers, wine and bar keepers, and oh, a few pretty women. I learnt a lot, taught a lot, and shared a few laughs and drinks.
How do you think travel writing has evolved over a period of time?
From a purist’s point of view it hasn’t evolved. It’s just become bigger in terms of volumes of features. The quality of travel writers has definitely come down because many writers aren’t that professional anymore, because they don’t need to be. The internet has made things easier for them and they don’t have to do much research.