by Biju Parameswaran
As an armchair traveler I have unabashedly been carrying out second hand travels that too through often second hand books. Many a nomad from Pottekkat and Naipaul to Theroux and Dalrymple has made my proxy conquests for me. But I was recently made acutely aware of a lacuna in my reading – no woman travelers. I am disregarding for a moment the Anglo Indian lady Colleen Gantzer who along with her husband and former navy commander Hugh has been contributing travel pieces to newspapers since four decades. Those stories however tended to be conformist in a ‘prim and propah’ way. An independent woman traveler, a backpacking one at that, is admittedly rare in the Indian context. Anjaly Thomas is one such. So you will pardon my dwelling on the gender aspect.
But hark before we jump into casting her in any set moulds! She has singularly specialized in breaking moulds and patterns. Anjaly is the kind of traveler who will visit Delhi but with the Red Fort as the last thing on her mind, who opts for the perilous path and revels in life on the edge in the course of her travels. Decadent monuments do not stimulate her so much as effervescent life throbbing in people, cultures and Nature’s many marvels. So it is no wonder that her first book, tongue-in-cheek modesty written all over its title of ‘Almost Intrepid,’ comes out as a cross between her childhood idol Nancy Drew, the slumming backpacker’s weed-smelling journal and a reality show like Fear Factor. Its sheer unpredictability makes it a rejuvenating read for minds fatigued from reading museum curators and missionaries masquerading as minstrels. There are great train travelogues (Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster or The Great Railway Bazaar), road travelogues (On the Road by Jack Kerouac or The Motorcycle Diaries of Ernesto Che Guevara), and psychedelic travelogues (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thomson) but if you want a slice of all these ice cream treats in one salver, go in for Anjaly’s rainbow cassata.
This is how the book happened. Anjaly, graduate in law but making a decent living as a journalist, gets hit at the age of 25 by an epiphany she calls quarter life crisis. Here my limited travel reading cannot help invoking the name of that monk in traveler guise, Pico Iyer. Dropping everything on a whim and single-mindedly seeking the absolutely unknown is his forte too. Like the title of one of his books, both these writers are ‘global souls’, severing rootedness at the first opportunity. Home for them is a portable entity. Nirvana is not about being tuned in to the cacophonous world but consciously cutting off from it, zen fashion. Almost Intrepid that came out in 2013 is set in the dawn of the present millennium but still you will come across more mentions of PMS than SMS. And that also makes it so femininely unique. If the world is a big bull Anjaly is ever ready to take it by its horns, no clime and terrain and past conditioning can come in her way. At the same time she pauses every now and then to ponder on the working of the female psychology. She briefly gets out of the frame to see the picture. Her observation about the strong black male guide who accompanied her to the Mount Kilimanjaro climb had me reading the paragraph again and again to fathom its hidden nuances. How she ended up as an unwitting poster girl for Germaine Greer’s women’s lib movement while conquering the dormant volcano in Tanzania is a hilarious keeper. The book is spiced with black and white pictures from the trips. Some of the most incredible stories like posing within ‘biting distance’ of a mother Komodo dragon sadly do not have photographic evidence accompanying them. But on the flip side, the writer lived to tell the tale, so I guess it is an okay tradeoff.
Right from the train in Bangalore where her saga begins, Anjaly is at home bonding with the westerner Mikes and Michels of the backpacking world. While she is not coy about recounting those encounters in detail, she is also adroit in convincing us that the wanderlust was not lust wandering, like in that French-Canadian movie set in Haiti, Heading South. Bangkok need not be ‘two meaningful words’ as her excited male colleague made it sound to her. Inside the covers of this 200 page book you have a world that takes in its span the Dark Continent and the Killing Fields of Cambodia. The author naively downs coffee processed inside civet cats and knowingly gnaws on crawlies in Indonesia. She gaily lives la dolce vita in smoky bars and seedy dorms. She tells us about the traveler’s mask, a psychological device she uses in times of need. An indomitable spirit suffuses the book which is really about breaking free. Travel is its freewheeling premise. Inspiration can be drawn in dollops here not just by women or Indian women or Indian women who want to travel. Anybody who reads it will be fired up to get off the ass and get going somewhere. Like in the case of the hero and heroine of the Malayalam movie Charlie, life is being lived here ‘without any plan in particular’ and surprises galore are inevitable en route.
Check out Anjaly’s blog
(20th April 2016)