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Book Review: Inside ‘The Heat and Dust Project’ with Devapriya Roy and Saurav Jha

Saurav Jha and Devapriya RoyThis is not a honeymoon or an escape. It is a conscious journey into a world as yet far removed from their own. It will become a permanent break from their unsettled city lives and a portrait of what has for long fueled their relationship. Coming together during their years spent at Presidency College in Kolkata, India, Saurav and Devapriya never harbored dreams of a life linked to a monthly paycheck. Moving on to the creatively charged milieu of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, their intensely passionate environment left them searching for their own version of a fulfilling life.

The answer came in 2009 as an idea that involved traveling across the length and breadth of India, with a budgeted restriction to boot. While it was Devapriya’s idea to put the daily ‘bed and board’ budget to Rs. 500, it was Saurav who proudly owns to having executed it. Soon they pitched it as a book and within months set off on a commissioned, rickety ride across India.

The Heat and Dust ProjectThe book finally shaped up into The Heat and Dust Project: The Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat, a title released by Harper Collins India earlier this year. Initially struggling to describe the entire journey in one book, they soon realized the enormity of putting their experience into words and restricted this first part to only a section of the journey – a thirty-three day leg. The book is as much a delineation of their step by step journey as a historical, anecdotal account of the regions they visited. It is also a reflection of the rigmaroles that a relationship, in their case a five year marriage at the time, goes through on a journey.

The writing process seeped into their plans, with people, places and stories needing to be noted down, in a diary by Devapriya and in his mind full of a hundred stories by Saurav. Devapriya mentions an instance during the journey, in Gujarat, where they left the hotel room with the mission to ‘look for a story’. Most others simply happened to them. In addition to the budget, having set other rules such as not staying in one place for more than three days, a learning from monks who believed that to be enough time to ‘sprout roots’, the couple were forever on the go.

During the journey, where they were back in Delhi, while taking their Israeli friends (twin brothers who readers encounter more than once in the book) on a tour across their city, Devapriya admits to feeling a sense of “intense loss” while crossing the area of South Delhi they used to call home. Now having circled back to the same apartment they held before their journey, they are happily, permanently “dislocated”. Neck deep in the manuscript of the second leg of their journey, the ninety day sojourn from Delhi to Kanyakumari and back up via the Coromandel Coast, they are forever inching closer to their ideal, of an itinerant idler. The second book slated for a June 2016 release will also introduce someone they consider having come closest to their dream state, Anon Ananda, a Canadian of Gujarati descent, whom the couple met in the hills of North India. The release will be followed by their journey to East and North-East India, again for a pre-commissioned book.

While readers await this introduction, the world of these young writers has heralded them into events centered on their book (launch events are soon to be held in Delhi, followed by Mumbai) and the trappings of being a writer among today’s ever diminishing reader class. Seated at a coffee shop in Vasant Vihar in South Delhi, close to their home and a few meters away from ‘Fact & Fiction’, a bookstore that announced closure last month, the reality is playing out in the couple’s own neighborhood.

As we walk outside Devapriya points to a stall at the entrance of the complex, which once stalked only books. These have now been moved to a corner on the ground, while clothes of indeterminate shape and design take up majority of space. The hawker greets the couple as we move closer, telling them that some new titles have been added. We stand there watching Rushdie sit adjacent to Jackie Collins, while Kafka looks over from another line. We speak of recent reading lists and authors we’ve commonly devoured, wondering if soon writers will be the only ones to find joy in the written word. For the sake of those immersed in a writerly life, may such a time not come for very many years.

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(Don’t) Listen to Me

Call me old-fashioned but I can’t get my ear around audio books. Truth is, until yesterday I had never really given it a chance. When I was forced to explain what I thought about it (“I just don’t like it” wasn’t enough), I thought to leave prejudice aside and give an honest listen. For all these quick experiments I am always grateful to the people at Project Gutenberg, they do make it look easy. So I picked out Jane Austen’s Emma to lose my written-word religion. Curiosity only took me past the first two minutes and my thoughts about audio books remained the same before and after the experiment.

Listening, like reading, requires active participation of your senses if you wish to assimilate the true beauty of the work. While music enhances mundane activities like driving by providing background joy, I do not expect the same to happen with background recitation of my favorite books. The most significant difference between the two is that I’m listening to Long Nights in my car because Eddie Vedder recorded his masterful voice for my listening pleasure. Marcel Proust, on the other hand, spent hours writing In Search of Lost Time so that I could spend hours (realistically half a year and counting) reading him off the translated pages. Even if Proust had recorded a reading of his work, the audio version of his books would have been a wonderful accompaniment to my copies of the seven volumes and not my sole experience of them.

Lovers of audio books vouch for the simplicity of improving their weekly average and being able to complete more books than they could imagine doing by taking the time to read. “I listen while I cook”, a lady remarked while marveling at the ease of finishing nearly two books a week. Is it just me or are speed statistics the worst way to go about devouring books. Many books I’ve loved are imprinted in my mind not only because of the worlds they held but also my memory of life around the time I was reading them. How can I ever forget that after attempting to read War and Peace for years, I finally read it from beginning to end over three months when my little girl had begun to kick around in my belly? Then she popped out two days too soon on Tolstoy’s birthday. Oh the miracles of birth and a few good words.

And yet, maybe, just maybe, I will allow certain types of writing to be read to me. I could permit Bill Bryson to accompany my daily drive with The Lost Continent, his Travels in Small Town America.  I expect his voice will carry along all the humor his written words do. I also hear that Stephen Fry’s reading of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a hoot. And who knows what wondrous things that can happen while Colin Firth whispers The End of the Affair in my ear.

Listening to a book may never replace the joy of finding the time and a quiet corner (or a crowded train) to pore over its pages (I have barely made peace with e-books). Audio pleasures will likely be restricted to the music people make, unless I find an audio-book gem that draws me in from the time I push play.

Do come away recitals. Surprise me.