There’s a train journey in the book we’re looking at this time, a 15-hour trial by fire for a bunch of English singletons, travelling regular sleeper class express from Delhi to Mumbai, replete with the sights, sounds and smells of India unplugged with all the consequent turbidity. Now that’s a really long sentence, mainly because the word ‘turbid’ was trying desperately to nose its way into. If this explanation leaves you feeling further discombobulated, read on.
The book is The Lonely Hearts Travel Club: Destination India by Katy Colins, her second, after Destination Thailand. This time, we’re playing a game. The game is: there are words hidden in this article that are prominently displayed in Destination India; you could say that’s the Katy Colins signature. Your task is to ‘discover’ these words. How you will do this is left entirely to you: I can think of one way. But yes, ‘turbid’ is one of the words: it means confused, muddled. There are 35 more. By the way, I confess that some of these words shocked me into a realisation of my own nescience.
Anyway, so much for the game. Now, for the book. My eye does not miss any writing about India and if a book is to be seen, my hands automatically make a grab for it. That’s how this book landed up on my shelf, although the author is unknown to me and it seemed somewhat like chicklit, a genre I’m not too fond of. Having said that, there’s some outstanding chicklit out there, smart and easy to read.
You could say this book is chicklit’s older cousin. The central character is Georgia Greene who, with a partner, runs a travel agency in Manchester (not London, for a change!) with a rather unique USP. It’s for those nursing a broken heart. They’re single, therefore sad, somewhat lonely, and basically unclubbable. The Lonely Hearts Travel Club arranges trips abroad to lift up their spirits. You could say the effort is to engage them in a journey of reparation, if that’s not being too fanciful. In the course of the story you find that the reason why this travel agency was founded was that Georgia herself needed to recover from a relationship that left her feeling wretched. She works so hard to make the agency work, it invidiously transforms her into a workaholic.
Recently, the agency’s India tours, though popular, have been receiving very poor reviews on online travel sites. A particularly scathing report threatens to scupper all that the team has been trying to achieve at the agency. Besides, Georgia’s social life is worse than worst. Her parents worry over her drawn looks; she is far from the ebullient creature she usually is. She is galvanised into taking a spontaneous decision to travel incognito on the India tour as a hairdresser called Louise (she’s not lying, that’s her middle name) in order to check what’s ailing their tour guide, Nihal. Unmindful of the repercussions, she sets off on the tour without informing anyone at work, not even Ben, her partner whom she likes more than just a little.
And so, the small group arrives in New Delhi, meeting each other for the first time at the hotel and only just managing to spend a few minutes with Nihal. It doesn’t take much shilly-shallying to figure out that Nihal is not all there: he appears tremulous, trepid, petulant even. Gradually Georgia figures out what the problem is even as she has to try really hard to keep her cover intact. The group goes through the usual touristy rigmarole, including gawping at the Taj Mahal, luxuriating on Goa’s beaches and confronting the Delhi Belly after succumbing indiscriminately to various culinary delectations. In the process, each character comes alive even as Georgia’s problems multiply. Of course, there are the usual bumps that writers unfamiliar with a territory, tend to trip over. Fatehpur Sikri is mistaken for Red Fort, the group celebrates Holi in Goa (an odd choice), and is regularly served chai tea. Chai tea? Chai tea! However, these do not affect the flow of the story which is fast-paced. Besides, many of the observations, made lightly and in the context of the narrative, ring true, as, for instance a description of a toilet on the Agra leg of the tour; strangely this was an experience I had had several years ago on exactly the same sector, a trip to see the Taj!
In true Bollywood style, Nihal’s problem is solved on a movie set in Mumbai when a harassed film assistant ropes in this raggedy bunch as extras for a dance number. Movie aficionadas have seen this umpteen times in various films; for the visitors it is a taste of stardom, twinkling small but shiny! Truly, it’s Xanadu come live for these singletons who, after some major hiccups in the initial part of the tour, begin to loosen up and have a good time, thanks in large part to CEO Georgia Incognito. The denouement has Georgia facing the aftermath when her cover is blown by a dour-faced group member called Chris. She decides to flee the scene and return home, all the while suffering paroxysms of fear at the prospect of facing a firing squad back at work. To make things worse, a temporary hand hired to help out in Georgia’s absence turns out to be a superwoman whose praises Ben simply cannot stop singing. No wonder Georgia is consumed by the green-eyed monster. The end takes you by surprise although the very end is predictable. Even so, considering that Destination Thailand and Destination India were inspired by Katy Colins’s actual travel solo across South East Asia, we can expect more travel fiction from her pen.
Many have written with candour and verisimilitude about India, among them Katherine Mayo whose Mother India Gandhiji dismissed as the report of a drain inspector, and V S Naipaul, whose An Area of Darkness has annoyed and continues to annoy many Indians. Of course, much of what they say unmasks the country and its people and this never leaves you feeling comfortable. Destination India is nothing like that: for one, it is fiction, light fiction; for another, it is affectionate even in the critical bits. Besides, it is always interesting and edifying to know how people view people — one set of people with their own baggage of experiences and expectations going up close and personal with a zillion other packages of experiences and expectations is a sure recipe for fireworks. Negotiating the unknown and the unfamiliar calls for valour and a willingness to cede your mind and heart to conflicting pushes and pulls in order to arrive at an accord. That’s what life’s all about, isn’t it? Sitting tight in the midst of differences and loving it all the same. In a small way, Destination India helps the reader sit tight. So then, sit tight and play the game.
The columnist is a children’s writer and senior journalist.