Travel writing as a genre had never really interested me. I am fairly certain that the numerous English Comprehension tests I wrote in school that featured extraordinarily tiresome pieces on places around the world are to blame. After I passed out, I’d read very little travel writing and whatever I’d read, I found to be too introspective and unnecessarily geographical for my taste, if not boring. Through the years, I managed to maintain the same distance one does with dull, but well meaning uncles with it: far, but somewhat friendly. So I suppose it was slightly out of character that I picked up Srinath Perur’s “If It’s Monday, It Must Be Madurai” - a collection of ten travel essays, based wholly on conducted/group tours the author has taken.
It was one of the essays (“Memorial For The Victims Of Repression”), which was published as an excerpt in the Open Magazine that initially piqued my interest in the book. The essay featured his participating in a conducted sex tour to Uzbekistan. Perur, as the self-appointed fly on the wall among a group of repressed Indian men, is a joy to read. What I particularly loved in that essay, and as I would later find out, the entire book, was that he does not pass judgment on any of his travel companions - He merely observes, but his observations bear the kind of extreme sincerity that toes on sarcasm, and delightfully so.
I laughed with this book in ways I have not laughed with a book in a very long time. There are some paragraphs in his essay on a conducted tour of Rajasthan, “Desert Knowledge, Camel College” that are so hilarious that I read them a couple more times for extra giggles. “The Grace of God”, an essay in which he describes his experience travelling across Tamil Nadu on a temple tour, made me reminisce about my own family’s seemingly never ending temple trips on which I was a very reluctant attendee. In “Saare Jahaan Se Accha”, he takes on Europe with his Desi tour group. Perur makes many earnest (and thoroughly amusing) observations about his group's uniquely Indian characteristics. However, one stood out for me - that of the the foresight of some of the members who had packed snacks and food from home. The reason it did, was because it brought back a rather stark memory from a trip my family made to Hong Kong in 2010.
Excuse me while I indulge in a slightly long digression.
My father’s rationale while picking out a place to go on vacation has always been very simple. Is a Saravana Bhavan there? If yes, then we could go. If no, then we shall go to the next closest city with Saravana Bhavan. This was primarily because Saravana Bhavan, according to my father, gave us the freedom to do away with hectic conducted tours that forced you to wake up at 6 AM on vacation. We could pick what we wanted to see in the city, when we wanted to see it and the moment any of us felt hungry, we could run into the reliable arms of our old friend, Saravana Bhavan. For some inexplicable reason, he had picked Saravana Bhavan deprived Hong Kong that year, and after much debate, we opted for what we thought was the perfect compromise: a “flexi-tour”, where we would join existing conducted tours as extras depending on how we wanted our itinerary to be.
One of the days involved going to Ocean Park, Hong Kong’s famous water themed amusement park. Two tame rides, one ridiculous roller coaster and a slimy reptile exhibit later, it was lunch time, which, according to our programme, was “At Park”. As we trawled Ocean Park to find a place to eat, we found out that it was the kind of place that thought vegetarian food was fishy. Literally.
(We would also find out upon coming home that there was a pseudo Indian restaurant in another corner of the park, but unfortunately, it had evaded us).
An hour of aimless wandering in the sultry sun took a toll on our hunger, and us – My sister and I wanted to just eat Ice Cream for lunch. My mother, who had previously suggested that we buy bread and cheese at a convenience store (a suggestion we had ignored because let’s face it we were too cool for that) wouldn’t have that, and started whining about how no one took her advice and as a result, here we were, paying the price for our coolness by being hungry in this strange country with no vegetables. My father wanted to sit down for a while, and that scared us, because he’s a diabetic and extreme sugar level fluctuations aren’t the most pleasant things to handle in a foreign country. Ten minutes later, by what could only be termed as divine coincidence, we found a place to sit next to an Indian family who were part of the tour group we had travelled with to Ocean Park. They smiled at us in recognition, and we managed a weak one in response. “Lunch?” was his next question, and my mother summed it up for us.
The man clucked his tongue in empathy - “Us also. Which is why my wife and I always bring Theplas when we travel abroad”, and proceeded to fish out a fat aluminium foil wrapped parcel from his bag. Some slightly uncomfortable silence later, which was primarily due to my family’s staring at theplas like Dickens Orphans, the nice man gave us the foil packet, which contained around a dozen theplas that were promptly wolfed down. “You must come prepared when you travel abroad.” Uncle said wisely, once we were done. “We went to Europe last year. One small bottle water only 3 Euros. 150 rupees! Can you imagine food? If it we hadn’t taken Haldirams and Theplas, then I don’t know”
After thanking him profusely for his kindness and adding his 13 year old daughter on Facebook, we wrapped our half day tour of Ocean Park, and three days later, were back at Chennai. The first thing my mother did when we came back home was locate a Thepla guy. We are, however, yet to make that trip to Europe.
Coming back to the book - Perur writes about taking a trip to the North East in “According to Their Own Genius”. Reading the essay made me feel quite sad. It seemed I was more familiar with the places and culture discussed in the essay about Europe than I was about places in my own country! “Real India”, “Santa Claus Aa Rahe Hai” and “The Same Water Everywhere” were good to read, but “Foreign Culture” seemed a bit like a filler arrangement– something that he wrote because he wanted a nice round number of essays in his book. Incidentally, Foreign Culture might just be the only essay among the ten where it seems the author actually had a holiday, so you can’t help but feel happy for him and his toddy induced stupor.
My absolute favourite essay in the book, was “The Taste Of Sugar”. Perur undertakes a Wari, the traditional walking pilgrimage to Pandarpur. It is not often that you come across a piece of writing which balances being insightful and being side-splittingly funny with as much grace as this essay.
In all, I cannot recommend If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai enough. Read it for the places he's travelled to, but more importantly, read it for the people he's travelled with.
Buy it here.