When I picked up Nataunki Diaries, it promised to open such urban and rural vistas of India for me as I have never seen – well, not on a ‘doodhwallah’ bicycle, at least! And having read the book now, I can safely say, the book over delivers.
It is as much a compelling account of the adventure that its author, Dominic Franks, undertook in 2010 travelling from Bengaluru to Delhi aiming to reach in time for the Commonwealth Games, as a manual about surviving a bicycle journey (a bicycle that he calls Nautanki) in India – including tips about how to ignore unsolicited advice that you get along the way.
Franks’ candid humour, piquant wit, and nuggets of wisdom further spice up the book.
Here’s an interesting excerpt to put things into perspective:
“When they (people at a chai shop) heard I was on a long cycle yatra, they told me to watch out for my testicles swelling up. They gave me all manner of preventive remedies that included coating my balls with turmeric and tying a damp muslin cloth around them before getting on the cycle. The ideas came thick and fast. I laughed at it all.”
A doctor by training and a sports broadcaster by profession, Franks always knew he would be making this trip – the seeds for it had been sown quite early in his life by his sports instructor, Shikaari. However, more than being a happy adventure, it turned out to be an exercise in self-exploration that helped him to make sense of the “tangled mass of confusion” his life had become after experimenting with love and careers. Most of all, it helped him appreciate what he had taken for granted up until that moment. The following excerpt from the book proves as much:
“I thanked whoever for the good fortune of belonging to the family I owned. It was only because I’d been born Anglo-Indian that I’d become a doctor in the first place. One medical seat reserved for Anglo-Indians for the state – and it had fallen to my happy lot! And what tremendous luck to have been born in Karnataka too – other states didn’t have the same reservation.”
As the scenery changes in the book – from Bengaluru to Hyderabad, Hyderabad to Nagpur, Nagpur to Jhansi and Jhansi to Delhi – so does its tone. Start of the book, I find the author more relaxed and self-assured, only to see him getting tetchy towards the end of his 22-day-long journey; the heroine of the story and his travel companion, Nataunki, rivalling his mood as if by design.
I wonder if it has anything to do with the hardships he and Nautanki have faced on this journey?
“Not at all. The trip was as safe as could be with not a single lorry-driver, car-driver or anyone wanting to run me off the road. Everyone I met on the road were all encouragement, advice and amazement,” he says, explaining how the real reason for his irritation was not so much his own physical hardship, as the levels of poverty he saw the further north he went.
The mental fatigue of staying motivated, the physical effort of the journey, the emotions wrought by the people I met – many of whom lived extremely difficult lives –contributed to the tetchiness.
“So, given the experiences you had, would you do this trip again?” I have to ask.
“I would do it in a trice, but I would go slower this time, indulge myself and the people I meet a lot more,” Franks replies, adding how he would also like to get off the main highways to explore the life in villages. According to him, the India that you see from the highways is all too “taka-tak”. However, the further into the hinterlands you go, through dirt tracks and kutcha roads, the closer you get to discovering the real India, Franks claims.
I wonder at the unique flavour of the book, and at how hatke it appears from a majority of books flooding the literary space in India. I pose my last question, therefore, to Franks’ literary agent, Kanishka Gupta of the Writer’s Side: “How difficult was it to sell this book?”
When my editor and I read the first draft, we were certain that every single publisher would offer on the book. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case and the book was rejected by almost everyone. Many publishers didn’t even read the entire manuscript. Those who did, and liked it, felt it was too dated as the entire purpose of the journey was to make it to the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Ultimately, it was Dharini Bhaskar, then with Rupa and Co., who made an offer conditional to the author cutting down the length drastically. (Even so) it took her months to convince her bosses to sign it up.
Well, perhaps the book had just as exciting a journey to make as its author and his bicycle, Nataunki.
(Vani has worked as a business journalist and is the author of ‘The Recession Groom’. She can be reached @Vani_Author)