Ironic, and often comic, If it's Monday It Must Be Madurai is an
idiosyncratic portrait of India and her people.
The official at Immigration, Mr Pandey, looked glumly
at me as I told him why I was going on a conducted
tour to Uzbekistan. 'If you're a writer,' he said,
unconvinced, 'then why are you travelling with a group?'
Serious travellers, and certainly travel writers, look upon
the conducted tour as the lowliest form of travel. Even
travelling with a friend or two can invite contempt.
Jonathan Raban, for instance, warns anyone considering
travelling with company: 'You're never going to see
anything; you're never going to meet anybody; you're
never going to hear anything. Nothing is going to happen
to you.' The remonstrance is all the more applicable to
writers: according to Paul Theroux, 'In the best travel
books the word alone is implied on every exciting page.'
I was trying to write a travel book entirely through
conducted tours, a book in which I'd never be travelling
alone. Mr Pandey's was only the latest voice in a chorus
of sceptics, but he'd caught me off guard. I mumbled
something about travel being cheaper this way, and he
let me pass. But it was a rattled writer who rejoined his
thirty-three travel companions.
I'd managed to steer clear of conducted tours until
early 2011, when a magazine assignment took me on a
week-long bus-tour of Tamil Nadu. How bad could it
be, I'd asked myself before going. I had my answer
before the first day was up: the tour was wrist-slittingly
dull, the boredom so comprehensive that it occasionally
transmuted itself into mild hysteria to redeem itself. I
was with a group of retirees, and with faithful monotony
we went from temple to temple seeking priority darshan.
My fellow travellers were set in their ways, and there
were no conversations to be had, only discourses to flee
from. It didn't help, either, that I'd had to surrender all
sense of volition: I went where the guide asked me to go,
stayed there exactly as long as I was told to.
Even as I longed to break free, I began to notice that a
conducted tour by definition offers something that solitary
travel cannot: other people, and the opportunity to know
them. There's close and sustained contact with one's
fellow tourists; they stand out against the backdrop of
new places; the exertions of travel can bring to the
surface aspects of character that are otherwise hidden;
being away from the responsibilities of work and family,
with all travel arrangements taken care of, people tend to
relax, grow expansive and reveal themselves for who
they are (or at least who they think they are).
My next assignment turned out to be a conducted tour
as well, this time a trip across Europe in a bus full of
fellow Indians. We ate Indian food throughout, watched
Hindi films on the bus, played antakshari, and in between
only fleetingly ventured into Europe. We'd quickly take
a photograph, tick the place off our lengthy itinerary,
and return to the mobile little India our group constituted.
If it had to be done in such a spectacularly passive
fashion, then why travel at all?
These tours often stand for far more than the travel
itself. A strong element of middle-class aspiration is at
work, especially in overseas tours. Conducted tours allow
for the conquest of the exalted 'foreign' without much
effort or discomfort. This is travel as a symbol of leisure
and economic sufficiency, and the conducted tour is now
a rite of passage among the middle class. For those who
have retired and seen to it that their children are settled,
or are otherwise considered to have 'finished off their
responsibilities', the conducted tour is the new
vanaprasthashrama-with the real work of life done,
one can turn one's attention to frills such as travel.
Across all age groups, travel signals success and affluence,
and is displayed to one's peers through endless slide-
shows and albums of photographs. Just as Indians in
previous decades posed for photographs with their
telephones and TVs, we now picture ourselves against
the Eiffel Tower or the London Eye, or at least the
gopuram of the Madurai Meenakshi temple.
For those who are passionate about travel, it is rendered
far more affordable with a conducted tour. This is
particularly true of foreign travel, which can prove ruinous
if done independently on the Indian rupee. For those
who live with an extended family, the conducted tour
may temporarily offer freedoms not easily' available at
home: spending time in the company of one's spouse on
one's own terms; being able to dress as one wants. For
some it is also about socializing (as with my uncle, an
inveterate conducted tourist, who goes with the same
tour company every time because he knows he'll be
travelling with 'people like us'). For youngsters, especially
girls with overprotective elders at home, an organized
tour may be the only way to receive permission to travel.
For many, the wide world of airports, officious
Immigration officers, unfamiliar food, and foreign
customs is simply too much to navigate, and they take
conducted tours precisely because nothing is going to
happen to them.
It may be that we are cautiously coming upon
individualism, or that many more now have a disposable
income-whatever the reasons, Indians are increasingly
looking to travel, and their chosen way of doing so is the
conducted tour. There has simultaneously been an
emphasis on developing tourism, and the last decade has
seen an explosion in the variety of tours on offer in
India-tour targeted at the young, or foreign tourists,
or farmers, or women, or the elderly. Destinations can
range from villages in India to almost any place in the
world. Travel themes-in addition to the usual sightseeing
and pilgrimage-now include music, adventure, ecology,
food, sex, photography, and much more. If you can
think of a reason to travel, there's probably a tour
company that offers it in a convenient package. The
kinds of tours being offered and the people going on
them capture something particular about these times.
Thus the idea of a book about India and Indians written
through the medium of conducted tours.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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