Of Bananas and Small
Iris C F Gomes
Samir Nazareth treats us to his personal brand of humour as he takes us along for the ride through his travelogue, journeying across various states of India. In conversation with Aniruddha Sengupta at the Literati Bookshop, Calangute, he revealed the inspiration behind his decision to traverse the Indian coastline from Gujarat to Sikkim and pen down his experiences in 1400 Bananas, 76 Towns and 1 Million People. The book explores people, how perspectives change when we witness alternative cultures first-hand and history and its implications in the present times.
Sloughing off the responsibilities of a regular pencil pusher, Samir decided to take off on what he believed would be a redeeming experience and enable him to live out a dream that had enthralled him since his days as a postgraduate student. Back then it was a dream to escape his scholastic endeavours, but the lack of a bank balance did much to dampen his enthusiasm. In his mature years, the impetus was transmuted into the desire to tour small town India, mingle and converse with the people and savour different cuisines.
Setting out on a journey that few would dare to attempt, Samir budgeted the trip by making bananas a major part of his meals. Hence the title 1400 Bananas…He says, ‘The only way I could have saved cash and spent these six months [travelling] was by eating this lovely fruit.’ The number is an approximation, but Samir says, ‘I did eat a lot of bananas!’
Samir quit his job at the end of 2004. He was still basking in the lull of his idleness when a sojourn in Goa with his family prompted him into action. ‘I wanted to make this journey straight from the north in the hills to down south, but that would have been in the summer. So I thought the best thing would be the coast,’ says Samir. He planned to move along the west coast to the east and keep at it until his travelling exhausted him. He had already decided he was going to target small town India and to search out the towns he purchased a map. He quips, ‘The good thing about that map was that it had names of towns I did not know of. And that meant I didn’t do well in geography in class. So ignorance is bliss and it gives you a chance to travel.’
Much of the humour in the book is derived from everyday situations encountered. Samir’s countenance was the reason for much speculation amongst the natives of the places he visited. Some people would speak to him in English assuming that he is a foreigner. To these he would respond with ‘Jai Hind’ to remove the false notion and prove that he holds an Indian passport just as they do. Often he was mistaken for a traveller from the north of India, which would invite conversation in Hindi. Others confused him for a salesperson hauling goodies in his enormous rucksack. All in all, the young man from Nagpur (Samir) believes he was looked upon as the ‘Hunchback of – not Notre Dame – but India’, with his weighty baggage claiming his back. He says, ‘They would think of me as something strange because I did not fit into that place and that would start out talk.’
‘The good thing about food is that I’m very secular. Anything is welcome on my plate,’ says Samir, who did not have much trouble with his diet. As he had grown up in the south, he opted for places he had never visited before and this allowed him to be adventurous in his eating habits.
Language posed a problem. At one point, at a particular town, he decided not to speak to anyone. Not being able to converse easily may have made the trip a lonesome one on occasion, but the challenge presented by the impediment made communication interesting and fun in resorting to means other than words and sounds.
Samir discovered the people he came across on his expedition to be welcoming and open towards him. The presence of food items like pizzas, hamburgers and Chinese dishes making their way to these small towns, only altered to suit their taste, displays a desire for integration, having new experiences and economic growth.
In terms of an unpleasant happening, Samir recalls an incident where he was put up in one of the few rooms at a hall in Bheemunipatnam (Andhra Pradesh). At midnight, he was rudely awakened by attempts to open the door to his room, accompanied by loud knocks and calls. Confused and fearing the worst, he adamantly refused to budge. Later he realised that the man who had tried to wake him up so vigorously had done it to get Samir to switch off the light in the hall. Therefore, the disagreeable occurrence turned out to be merely a misunderstanding.
Samir says, ‘I kept a diary making short notes, thinking I would go back home, grow old and look back and say, “Wow, Samir you did this!”.’ Midway through his journey he realised that his experiences were good material for a book. On returning home and undergoing a process of recuperating from the rigours of his trip, he began writing the first draft of his travelogue. There were regrets of not having made more of the journey than he did, as that would have added to the book. Nonetheless, the six months of writing were a time spent in a pleasurable venture as Samir loves to write.
The prospect of going back to the places visited after all these years, to make a comparison of the changes brought about by time, has some amount of appeal. At the same time, Samir would like to see new places as well. The hardships of a second tour of six months, such as the one he undertook in 2005, tend to colour his enthusiasm a shade of yellow in deference to a more comfortable existence in his present state. Whether there will be a sequel to 1400 Bananas, 76 Towns and 1 Million People rests largely on Samir’s motivation to pick up the trail where he left off.