Nishi Pulugurtha is basically an academic specialising in English literature that begs any question on her command over English especially when the word “writing” is associated with it. She is a published poet too and also indulges in short fiction and research-based articles. Her areas of interest are British Romantic literature, Postcolonial literature, Indian writing in English, the literature of the diaspora, and Indian cinema.

Her new work, Out in the Open – Essays on Travel, published by Authors Press, is a pleasant surprise though it is a collection of her essays on travel written over a span of time that went along with her busy life filled with teaching, a lot of research, and creative writing of poetry and fiction.

The roots of her writing on her travels, to known places and unknown ones lay in her childhood during the train journey from Howrah to Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh every year for the vacations. Her father gave her sister and Nishi a notebook each to write down the names of the stations, their experiences of the journey, the places, the visuals that flashed past the windows of the compartments and so on much of which are carved in her memory til today.

To quote her from her beautifully penned foreword, “travel writing is about memory, about smells, sights, pleasant associations; it is about looking, listening, feeling, understanding and presenting people, events, occasions, food, journeys. Each experience has a different story to tell, a tale that is bound to evoke associations.”

This opening paragraph is enough to open the doors to another journey you embark on as you begin to read the book was walk, run, leap and skip through the book depending on your mood, your attitude, your space, time and above all, your love for reading and that too, reading essays on travel.

The sub-title – Essays on Travel is a bit misleading because an “essay’ in common understanding, is rather prosaic, dry and bereft of literary flavours. There is an encyclopaedia of Literature of Travel and Exploration. “Though these are called books and so literature, what makes a literary work is the unfolding or the revelation of the writer’s feelings, personality, imaginativeness and fine turns of expression, to describe some qualities essential for literary compositions.” This comment by Dr. Rama Rao Vadapalli V.B. in his informed essay Travelogue as a Literary Genre ( runs true of Pulugurtha’s insightful essays.

The book is divided into three sections each focussed on a special area of travel such as – Bengal, Beyond Bengal and Across the Oceans. Bengal comprises of 12 essays, Beyond Bengal has 21 while the last section Across the Oceans contains three essays. The essays in the “Bengal” section are unique in the sense that they often talk about once-little-known places like Baranti that have later become known or remained hidden in the small corners of the state waiting to be discovered again and again and again. For example, we have all heard of, read about or even travelled to Kurseong and Murshidabad and Darjeeling, true. But how many of us have even heard of, much less visited Baranti, a small village about 265 kms from Kolkata? This is how Pulugurtha closes her brief essay on Baranti:

Baranti is a nature-lover’s paradise, time stands still here and a calmness and serenity overpowers our senses. We leave Baranti with the images of the beauty of the place, the palash in bloom, the dry leaves strewn on the ground covered with the petals of the flowers all around adding so much colour to the place… and so on.

The Painted Havelis of Shekhawati : Mandava is a chapter in the Beyond Bengal Section and those who have visited Shekhawati, will be able to take a flashback journey into the trip and much more than that because the author goes into the etymology of how the name “Mandawa” came into existence which, indifferent travellers like yours truly who visited the place never bothered to find out much about its historical significance and even if some did, memories may have wiped them out as unlike Pulugurtha, they never bothered to make notes and archive them forever.

Details about the architecture and fine arts that decorate the havelis are described in detail. One is saddened by the fact that some of these havelis have been converted to lavish heritage hotels that have a constant influx of international tourists.

Have you heard of Jena? I haven’t till I went through this lucid essay Glorious Land: Jena though I have travelled through Germany not less than a dozen times. This essay is more of the history of the place, details of the remnants of the original architecture and a bit about the locals who helped her on her trip which, for her, was a journey into the unknown. And so the journey moves on, from Farashdanga to Chandannagar, from Dhanyakuriya to Birbhum and its terracotta beauties, from Dhanaulti to Golkonda Fort and then, moves beyond Indian shores to take a lovely peek at Georgetown, Weimar and Jena.

The book is amply illustrated by photographs the author has taken herself but as these are laid out along with the text, in the absence of glossy paper, they appear faded than the lucidity they would have gained had these been printed on photograph-friendly paper. Two absences in the book this critic noted are (a) lack of references, never mind even if they were brief, to the local people and their cultural practices such as music, theatre and so on and (b) comments on the popular and famous food and drinks each place has made a name for.

The language and style of writing are fluid like liquid honey, detailed and descriptive in every way, but the “smells” and the “tastes” could have added much more to the book I feel. The essays are quite brief so they stop precisely at the right time and the right place. Bravo, Pulugurtha, for taking us through a journey that is more personal and social than political.

Life is a journey, a process of travelling through time, space, experience and relationships. It is an ongoing process that begins with life and moves beyond death because even if the physical journey ends, memories are left behind for people close to one and in the places one has lived and loved and worked during different phases of one’s life.

Literature on travels is a reflection of life, a window to life, a way of looking inwards into oneself and all these put together. Pulugurtha has tried to put in all this and some more, into her writings.

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