Heat & Dust: meet the couple who travelled India @500 a day
We've read travelogues. We've read travelogues about India. We've even read travelogues written by budget travellers. But the Heat and Dust Project, by Saurav Jha and Devapriya Roy, is like no travelogue we've ever seen.
Meet eternal student of geo-politics Saurav and his writer-wife Devapriya, co-authors of the Heat and Dust Project -The Broke Couple's Guide to Bharat. They have travelled across Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi to churn out this part-travelogue, part-tribute to love.
Oh, and their budget is Rs 500 a day.
Rs 500 a day for travel, room and sustenance for two. That means rickety local buses, seedy hotel managers and resisting every impulsive urge to eat cake. That means every bottle of packaged water is a considerable dent on the daily budget. And a gift to one's spouse is limited to a naughty keychain from Khajuraho or a mat that costs Rs 25.
The 25-rupee gift - which, prodding reveals, was actually closer to Rs 150, a rare flouting of their agreed budget - is the kind of frugality that could spell doom for the healthiest of relationships.
Yet, Saurav and Devapriya have emerged from it with only love, rich stories and - as Devapriya never fails to remind Saurav - photographs of him sleeping with his mouth open.
Living out of a backpack is the ultimate indulgence
Saurav and Devapriya have been married eight years. But in many ways, it is this project - to travel and write a travelogue on a borderline-debilitating budget - that made their marriage come into its own.
They were writers before they set off on this adventure. They met at Presidency College and carried their relationship into their years at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Soon enough, they found themselves writing books part-time. Saurav wrote The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power, and Devapriya, The Vague Woman's Handbook and Weight Loss Club - The Curious Experiments of Nancy Housing Cooperative.
They settled into nine-to-five jobs, Saurav working as an energy analyst, and Devapriya, as a book editor. But even with the comfort of a regular paycheck and the sunshine in their barsati in Vasant Vihar, something was amiss.
And then in 2010, after months of mulling over a life that didn't quite seem their own, the Heat and Dust Project was conceived. It was originally titled Two Honeymooners and a Criggly Map of India.
And so it was that, much to the dismay of their family and the enthusiasm of their publishers, the duo packed their belongings, bought themselves sturdy backpacks, and with only a meagre allowance from said publishers set off into the Rajasthan sunset.
They hadn't imagined the full extent of it. How the project would irreversibly change their lives. How it would force them to confront and then conquer the fear of not being the writers they thought themselves to be. How it would make marriage easier, but living together in urban domesticity much, much harder.
The road increasingly well-travelled
The Heat And Dust Project was initially conceived as a single book.
Eventually the duo realised they couldn't possibly squeeze their travels across a country this vast into a single paperback. So they broke it into three installments.
The Heat and Dust Project covers Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. The second, Man. Woman. Road., due to be released in 2016, documents their travels of Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. The third will see them cover Eastern India.
The book - or the first, which is what we've read - makes for warm, spirited reading. It is an honest book. In language both easy to read and candid, the couple take you through their arbitrary encounters with people, whether at restaurants or on sand dunes.
They talk about wandering into the homestay of a generous family in Pushkar in the middle of the festival of Teej. And of the political debates they overhear on the buses trundling through the northern hinterland.
And they won't stop there either. They'll take you into the candid moments in their own relationship. The one night Devapriya was upset by Saurav's apathy towards taking notes. ("He thinks he remembers everything", she grumbles.)
They speak of bus rides with impassioned longing, as if for a home they lost in a fire
Saurav pondering memories of his mother's death. Her exasperation at his relentless need to throw himself into defense websites. His exasperation at her relentless need to eat cake.
They'll let you in to their marriage as seamlessly as you'll let lessons from theirs into yours.
Home is a place on the highway
At some point during their journey, Saurav and Devapriya came to realise that their concept of home - a personal haven that provides emotional and physical comfort - had undergone a dramatic change.
Home, a space shared with ones we love, was no longer their South Delhi barsati, nor their South Calcutta house. Home now meant being aboard a bus. And fellow travellers, strangers with little in common but Bhajpa-Congress polity, had become family.
"Home is when the bus is just leaving the depot," Devapriya explains, quietly.
"No, for me it's when it's on the highway."
The wistfulness is palpable. They speak of this bus with impassioned longing, as if for a home they lost in a fire.
Never mind that grandmotherly keepers of stories are now owners of homestays. And that the safety nets they create for themselves in times of distress are woven with the kindness of strangers.
The unpunctual honking buses with lopsided seats that traverse the Indian hinterland, day after day, have now become home.
The Heat and Dust Project, HarperCollins, Rs 250