As her book fetched her invitations, Snigdha Poonam faced the stark choice between being a writer and a tourist on her literary trips.
The places to which I usually travel can hardly be called ‘destinations.’ Starting in 2014, I have visited towns and cities across India, from Meerut and Ranchi to Surat and Salem, to report stories of young Indians’ dreams and despairs. I did my best to explore their known and unknown charms: street food, cafes, markets, and museums. It became a routine: finish work and find something interesting to do. And then, things changed slightly. In January 2018, I published my first book, Dreamers, which profiled a set of young Indians trying to make bigger and better lives for themselves in small towns. Released at a time when the country’s demographic dividend threatens to be a liability for the world, Dreamers received a wide range of critical attention, and I, travel invitations.
I had mildly anticipated the former, but was wildly unprepared for the latter. My travel options spanned an enviable range of ‘destinations’ in India and the world, from Jaipur, Shillong, and Goa, to London, Paris, and Bangkok. By the end of this year, I will have participated in literature festivals, ideas festivals, cultural exchange programmes, and fellowships in many of these cities, reciting whole pages from the book while trying to look straight and breathe normally. Bigger challenges have been thrown at people, but being asked to “only speak for 45 minutes so that the audience has enough time to ask questions” left me speechless. Even harder was figuring out the codes of writerly travel: attend a session or see the sights, line up for the free lunch or walk around and find a place to eat, after-party or room service-and-Netflix.
I tried everything. Staying back at the venue after my session at a feminist festival in London, I chanced upon a twerking workshop that screamed sisterhood louder than some of the #metoo panels. During a lunch break at an ideas festival in Aspen, Colorado, I piled my plate with a specially catered Polish feast and cornered an outdoor table with the clearest view of the famous mountain range.
I had just pulled out my Kindle when I heard someone call out my name. A young Indian had earlier spotted me leaving an auditorium and followed me across a meadow. Sitting across me and blocking most of my view, he asked me to repeat everything I had said on the panel because he was “so sorry” to have missed it. “Now?” I asked him, chewing a mouthful of roast beef. “Now,” he said. So, that was that.
After talking books for a whole day, a literature festival in Shillong transformed into a song and dance party of extraordinary quality, since nearly everyone in the audience had once been a part of a boy or a girl band. Elvis and ABBA ruled the scene until midnight when we were blessed by the entry of a local prince whose family’s summer palace was graciously lent to the festival. A generous man, he ordered several rounds of vodka shots for a small group of people still after-partying, and began to speak about the sad state of the nation. I didn’t mind his durbar except for its central rule: no one was allowed to put their glass down while he ranted and raved about holy cows and needless taxes. Wasted by 2 am, I tried cheating when he wasn’t looking, but he turned sharply in my direction at exactly the moment when my glass met the table. The prince broke his monologue to say a single word: Drink.
One of the most memorable things I did as part of attending a journalism festival in Jaipur was to go sari shopping with two friends. Then we walked into a local café for pizza, and realised that we had interrupted a very irreverent stand-up comedy performance. We spent the rest of the evening falling into our pizzas laughing.
Between the cross- continental trials and errors, I saw some beautiful places and did some amazing things. In Bournemouth, my official schedule fixed by the university, which was hosting me for two weeks, included day trips to the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, known for its steep cliffs and sprawling beaches. One of these fieldtrips was titled ‘Cream Tea & Countryside.’ We spent the day trekking to Durdle Door and roaming Thomas Hardy’s woods, but by the time we reached the nearest city, Dorchester, for what was supposed to be my initiation into cream tea, the afternoon was over and the tea shops had shuttered down. So we settled for beer. In Bournemouth, I was ordered to “brunch at the literary hideout of J.R.R. Tolkien” (Hotel Miramar), “write by the sea”, and carve dead animals for dinner.
In Boulder, a six-hour bus ride from Aspen, I played the silliest tourist. I hung out with goats at the Mountain Flower Goat Dairy (they have a world-famous flock with elaborate nomenclature including Capricorn Cowgirl, Lady Dahlia, and Little Richard Henry), bought and smoked my first legal marijuana, and stared at hippies wearing only dreadlocks and underwear as they decried consumerism in the middle of the shopping district. Then I went to a Nepali restaurant and ordered a thali. That night, I dreamt of Meerut.
Poonam was one of the speakers at the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival, Thimphu, Bhutan. Her last book was Dreamers.