I’m at the tail end of a ten year college reunion at Bangalore even as the world is at the tail end of 2019. It is an unprecedented winter in North India which, in Delhi, translates to unprecedentedly poor air quality. I find myself in serious threat of ringing in the new year at Bangalore airport, waiting for my flight’s delays to end before the year does. To add hormones to injury, it is my first time away from my infant son and there is only so much separation anxiety a new mother can take.
If It’s Monday, It Must Be Madurai proves to be a worthy companion to ride me through this perfect storm of pollution, progesterone and paging announcements.
I’m not big on travelogues and will admit I belong to that special breed of Homo Ignoramus whose eyes begin to glaze over at any mention of dates and historical facts about places. If you ever want me to tune out of a conversation, drop in words like “Babur”, “Silk Route” and “1893” and watch as a waking coma descends upon me. This makes travel book reading especially hard for me.
So it takes a travelogue with generous doses of humour, sarcasm and regaling of tales of typical Indian eccentricities to get me hooked. IIMIMBM delivers on all these fronts, and how. Aboard conducted tours within India and abroad in the company of Indians, Srinath Perur makes sharp-witted observations of all the terrible, wonderful and largely hilarious behaviours that we Indians display, especially in large flocks.
From undisguised collective curiosity of elderly women around the relationship status of a young unaccompanied woman in the tour group, to frenetic temple “pub-hopping” by the devoutly inclined, to the passionate political discourses that only retired Indian men are tirelessly capable of, to the single-minded focus of a special tourist group comprised largely of married Indian men traveling to Uzbekistan in pursuit of what they alternately call “enjoyment” or “boom-boom” – Perur writes anecdotes from his travels with a deadpan shared-without-comment narrative that has you laughing out loud at almost every page. Rarely does he add a judgment around an observation and leaves it, for the most part, to the reader to draw their own conclusions and make what they would of it.
While the author can sometimes not resist sharing the historical significance or background of the places he travels every now than then, it is the people he travels with who inevitably steal the show. Who among us has not marveled at that supernatural ability of Gujju travellers to produce an endless supply of theplas and pickle from their bags, enough to ride a busfull of tourists over a minor famine? And who hasn’t noticed the less-than-innocent teenaged boys who bashfully ask white female tourists if they can take a picture with them? Put boisterous North Indians and stern South Indians in a single bus and who cannot predict yet another battle to claim cultural supremacy raging between them within minutes of mutual interaction?
What makes his stories all the more enjoyable – and the word “enjoy” will never be the same for you after this book – is his evident discomfort with the format of group travel. An obvious solo backpacker at heart, he places himself aboard buses, boats and planes full of group travelers and this makes for particularly astute wallflower observations. I felt grateful to Perur for putting himself in these all-too-familiar uncomfortable situations so that I, the reader, can vicariously enjoy the stories he came back with, without having to bear the mental battle scars he incurred en route.
Back at the airport, my state of strandedness mercifully ends in the same calendar year it began. Once again I prove that only I possess that rare ability to be late for boarding a flight that is six hours late itself. The Captain of the flight announces boarding closed seconds after I step onto the aircraft, making it obvious to all my co-passengers who was responsible for the six minute delay over and above the six hour one. As I sidle through the aisle trying hard not to make eye contact with anyone, and breathless from the 300m dash I made across Bangalore airport, I can’t help but thank my lucky stars that Mr Perur is not aboard this flight. This little stunt of mine would definitely have earned me an unflaterring though undeniably funny mention in his next book, and I am not sure how my hormone-addled brain would’ve handled that sort of attention.
If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai is a highly recommended read for anyone who has ever been in torturous social situations with our fellow countrymen and women and thought to themselves, “Someone should write a book about these people.” Thankfully, someone did. Enjoy!