Thursday, 19 May 2011

the heat and dust project

                      the heat and dust project: disambiguation

                     1) a budget journey of india, with special reference to the budget bit.
                     2) (to be) a travelogue for harpercollins, who saw something in a crazy seed of an idea and for                      whatever it was worth, decided to lend their name to it.
                     3) a facebook group on the journey referred to in 1.
                     4) a certifiably insane project.

Tajganj, Agra

The heat and dust project was, like other insane ventures, born in a moment of false lucidity infused by tremendous hope. We would, as the age-old fantasy went (‘Moon River, wider than a mile/ I'm crossing you in style some day’), become fulltime travellers/drifters – at least for a while – and backpack through India, joining the ranks of British gap-year kids and Israeli youths fresh out of compulsory military service. We would leave behind hopping and skipping through the fixed hoops of modern-day middle-class adulthood. Desk-jobs, acquiring EMIs – you know, the respectable routine.   

And since in moments of false lucidity one tends to overreach, it appeared in our heads to take the shape of a book – a fun, flaky, speaking, tree-like thing shooting out of nowhere – even on that hopeful misty evening a year or so ago, long before we'd actually ventured out on the journey.

For starters, it seemed like the crazy kind of book that we'd have liked to read ourselves. On Saturday afternoons as we treasured the few hours of utter sloth, or Monday mornings in unhappy autos, book in hand, collars scruffy, the clock in the head ticking ominously. What would it be like, to leave it all, and travel, break-neck or otherwise, and discover that something, between joy and sorrow, that seems to stir inchoate inside?

It would have to be on a budget of course. In fact, a very very tight budget – 500 a day for bead-and-board – and not only because, having left our money-earning routines we would be rather poor, but also because the most effective way of catching an intimate glimpse of the land was if we refused to be limited by the luxuries of travel with frills – if we ate budget, slept budget, and travelled in cramped budgety local buses for long hours. Hadn’t we, like all self-respecting humanities and social science graduates often waxed eloquently on ‘behalf’ of X, Y, or Z groups of ‘the disenfranchised’ and passionately discoursed upon ‘the idea of India’? Perhaps it was high time we got off our self-righteous high horses and did some close-to-the-grounds inspection of our long-held views.

We began our travels in January, 2010, when we traipsed through Rajasthan and Gujarat, and subsequently, in Himachal Pradesh and Western UP. We returned to Delhi and spent a month among backpackers in Paharganj – where, we, as a married Indian couple, did not fit in really – but then we had our friends from the Rajasthan expedition, Moti and Zvika Hillel or The Twins. It helped that, as Israeli boys who’d just finished compulsory army training, they fitted into Paharganj beautifully! 

In May, we ventured into the heartlands; it was then that the journey became the heat and dust project.  
Indeed, there was something so humbling about the whole idea – and something so deeply complex and inward about the nature of what we were expecting – that we decided to turn the solitary act of writing on its head and make it a more collaborative process. Usually a book is written – if one might say so – in a (slightly self-important) solitude and only engages with the reader once it has been published. But given the technologies available today, it always seemed an idea full of possibilities that this act of meaning-making, apparently of grave solitariness, could be teased open into a much more meaningful but open-ended process where others (hopefully, future readers) were involved from the beginning. That is how the idea of the dynamic book was born. After all, we do live in the era of social networking where a certain part of people’s lives has become inextricably linked to the idea of push-button sharing.  And given that the book was to be full of stories that we’d collect from different parts of India, it only made sense to put it ‘out there’ in the cosmos of the world wide web, a virtual hand, signalling to others of its need to share, to participate in a multi-logic space. Or at least that’s the theory behind it.

That is how the facebook group ‘the heat and dust project: a book in motion’ came to be. 

Born on 1 May, the day we began the second leg of the journey (we had covered a 20-day leg in January to assess feasibility within budget constraints) the group quickly became a very crucial part of the effort. As we began giving out funny stories, pictures and confessions while the journey progressed, it became a dynamic space of its own, growing steadily in numbers. Soon, with discussion threads ranging from food to favourite travelogues to suggestions and reprimands to sharing travel experiences, it became a living space full of humour, banter and wisdom. 

As the group continued to grow, we wandered: from Delhi we went to Agra, from Agra to Gwalior; then, journeying  through the intense heat of Madhya Pradesh, to Maharashtra and Karnataka. As we entered Kerala – to Kannur from Coorg, the monsoons arrived. We journeyed down the coast to Kanyakumari and then climbed our way upwards through the beauties of Tamil Nadu. Completely broke and beleaguered in Chennai, we decided to take a break.

That break became a long one.

It is not easy to snip of fetters, even for a month or two, turns out.

Now we are here, finally, beginning our travels again. It is the heat and dust project, period; we still have limited funds; we mean to stick to the budget; we don’t know where we are going next; there are worries that stick like leeches to the inside of the soul; we can’t predict the ending.

So – a day at a time – we must take it.

As I write this, we’re in Haridwar, the gateway to the hills and it was a long long journey from Delhi in a rickety bus but we reached at dusk when a pale full moon was gleaming over the waters. We’re worried sometimes that we have let the last two days just go by, vaguely, tiredly, we’ve let it go waste, we accost each other guiltily, for we were exhausted. But it is okay I guess.

Sometimes it is good enough to simply begin.


  1. "Sometimes it is good enough to simply begin." One day this is going to be as famous a line as can be. Eagerly waiting for the book now

  2. Love it!! Follow me

  3. the journey is always more fun than the goes the saying. in this case Im sure all of us (the readers) will enjoy the journey and its outcome...the book. eagerly waiting for it!!