Book Review: Returning Home to Heal and to Explore the Familiar and the Changed

In Mihir Vatsa’s travelogue 'Tales of Hazaribagh: An Intimate Exploration of Chhotanagpur Plateau', the land is the protagonist which reveals itself slowly.

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Whether in fiction or fact, travel writing tends to follow the format of the hero’s quest. The traveller leaves the familiar behind and is called to the unknown (Journey to the Centre of the Earth, for instance) and brings back insights that enrich the home culture (The Voyage of the Beagle), or restore the order of nature (the Odyssey).

On the way, he meets a guide or psychopomp who helps him find the true way (Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars). Frequently, he embroiders upon reality (the bizarre depiction of giant gold-digging ants in the bay leaf trade in east India in the Periplus) and even fibs about his experiences (The Travels of Marco Polo). I reference European travellers because they have chronicled their journeys more meticulously. The journey of the Roma out of north India must have been just as stirring, but is unfortunately unrecorded.

‘Tales of Hazaribagh: An Intimate Exploration of Chhotanagpur Plateau’, Mihir Vatsa, Speaking Tiger, 2021.

But sometimes, the journey that matters is on a return ticket. Mihir Vatsa was one of the millions who moved to Delhi from smaller towns in search of better prospects. “In 2017, 26 years old and battling depression, I returned to Hazaribagh from Delhi. Because Hazaribagh is my home, I often say that I can never go there. Instead, I can only and always return. So, I returned.”

Vatsa returned to places that he knew intimately, like the road that he had travelled to school every day. But in a sense, the Chota Nagpur plateau was altogether new because its purpose had changed, from his perspective. Home was now a sanatorium, a place of healing from the strife of the world out there. It’s apt, because Hazaribagh was indeed a sanatorium during colonial rule. Soldiers and administrators from Britain, one of the most warlike and acquisitive nations in world history, were sent there to recuperate from the dubious exertions of bearing the white man’s burden in lands they had subdued.

Today, the wild beauty of Hazaribagh is threatened by mining interests and the pressures of development. But the traveller looking out of the window of an intercity train chugging across the Chota Nagpur plateau is still moved when briefly, the neatly laid out farms and fields of the Gangetic plain give way to the primeval wild ― rolling hills named ‘Gloomy’ or ‘Canary’, watercourses and wildernesses thick with sal and lantana, and with almost no visible human presence.

These landscapes from before the dawn of civilisation, dim memories of the original home of humanity, offer the author an essential ingredient of life that is missing in modern urban landscapes ― empathy between the human realm and the world of nature.

The journey home is also a hero’s quest. The traveller ventures beyond the realm that he once knew well, seeks the unknown in a familiar place and enlightenment follows. “The pleasure of exploration brings with it the arrogance of discovery,” writes Vatsa (American tourists speak of ‘doing Venice’, after having ‘done Rome’). “To detach pleasure from arrogance was a challenge.” As he explores his homeland, Vatsa also realises that travel writing is a privileged act: “Stories are written by those who can write them,” the educated. But in the realm of memory transmitted by the spoken word, travel stories have always existed. In Patagonia was written, so to speak, aeons before Bruce Chatwin got there: “There was no sound but the wind, whirring through thorns and whistling through dead grass, and no sign of life but a hawk, and a black beetle easing over white stones.”

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Chatwin also wrote, “As you go along, you literally collect places.” But the real purpose of travel, especially on the long road home, is to collect yourself. “If, in Delhi, the depression felt larger than me, in Hazaribagh, the plateau was greater than me. Against this greatness, the mind had to behave,” writes Vatsa.

Indeed, in his stories, the land is the protagonist and people are bit characters. It’s a mark of sensitive writing, this humility in the face of the world ― Gotham towers over Batman, Apu is a dot on the rural landscape of Pather Panchali. And the beauty of the telling is that the character of Vatsa’s land is revealed slowly, at the pace of a man walking a country road, pausing occasionally to admire a waterfall, or to reach out and touch a leaf, or just to breathe the air of home. It’s a leisurely journey, chronicled in admirably simple diction, but there’s something unmistakably heroic about it.