I finished reading two travel books - William Dalrymple's The Age of Kali - Indian Travels and Encounters and Pankaj Mishra's Butter Chicken in Ludhiana - Travels in Small Town India.
I've been a Dalrymple fan. I loved his City of Djinns and have excerpts from White Mughals. The Age of Kali is about Dalrymple's journeys through Bihar, Avadh, Gwalior, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka and northern Pakistan. But what really attracted me to the book is the picture on the cover - three statues of Goddess Kali resting on the steps of what seems to be a water-tank with two men sitting on their haunches chewing neem twigs as part of their ablution. It's a picture that screams, "This is India."
On the other hand, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana has a black and white picture of a small-town railway station for its cover. This is a picture of India that we are all too familiar with.
I'm biased towards Dalrymple. He takes me into a separate time zone - going back a few centuries (and a couple of millenia in his essay on Madurai). Indian history is anything but boring.
Dalrymple takes me to the land of the nawabs, of the Nizam of Hyderabad, the temples in Kerala and Tamil Nadu that have had their streams of followers for 2,000 years. He superbly juxtaposes history with current affairs - caste riots in Bihar, Page 3 culture and Shobhaa De, the political turbulence in Pakistan and the degeneration of the garden city of Bangalore. He goes off the trodden path to discover the remnants of the ancient Gandharva civilisation in the North West Frontier Province and the isolated French colony, Reunion in the Indian Ocean. He gets right in the middle of action in an LTTE training camp in Jaffna where cadets learn the art of mortal combat from Rambo flicks.
Mishra's is a travel book. It's more personal than Dalrymple's. It covers a part of India that people don't know about. He talks about journeys in battered state transport buses, tiny motels with dusty beds and torn towels, roadside chai shops, co-passengers who discuss everything from politics to the impact of Hindi films on society, of people who aspire to go to metros and make a name for themselves. He describes places such as Muzaffarpur, Malda, Kalka, Ambala, Ghanerao, Hapur, Jehanabad, Kottayam, etc. Mishra doesn 't dig into a past, probably because the places he visited haven't changed for centuries. Moreover, the book's for a metro audience that is more familiar with Manhattan than Malda in West Bengal. He breaches the topic of small-towns facing the challenges of economic and infrastructure devlopment. This is India Shining, almost.