Living in a sunny Barsati in South Delhi, Saurav Jha and Devapriya Roy are your average DINK (Dual Income No Kids) couple, about to acquire a few EMIs and come of age in the modern consumerist world. Only, they don’t. They junk the swivel chairs, gain a couple of backpacks and set out on a transformational journey across India. On a very, very tight budget: Rs 500 a day for bed and board.
And ‘The Heat and Dust Project’ begins. Narrated in two voices (Devapriya Roy and Saurav Jha) – he is trained in economics, she in literature, he is most methodical, she deliciously vague – the couple tell a unique story that soon morphs from being a portrait of their own travels in their own times into the story of a generation in shifting times. The book evokes the scent of an India that is located strongly in the specificity of its immediate co-ordinates, and yet, looms outside it all and casts upon every mood and moment that distinctive shadow: a dusky silken confusing many-layered light that, for the lack of a better word, can only be called Indian-ness.
Their first book, part of a trilogy, was rated No.1 on the Hindustan Times-Nielsen Non-Fiction Bestseller List. A chat in the café with Devapriya Roy and Saurav Jha on their journey from being a ‘regular working couple’ to now leading ‘not so regular’ lives.
What jobs were you both doing before you undertook the mega trip?
Saurav: Devapriya was a book editor and I was an energy analyst.
Why this trip? Was it more to come out of your ‘9-5 routines’ or was it more from an ‘exploration’ perspective? Does it reflect anything about the current state of life in the metro’s that most young couples are living?
Devapriya: Cliched though it sounds, we were excruciatingly tired of the rhythms of the desk-jobs and the expectations that middle class “respectable” life throws on people. There was a lot of unresolved angst about modern-day life and its imperatives for our generation. We hoped that meaning and clarity might emerge through this mammoth undertaking as it sometimes does. Saurav has – for a long time now – been very intimately obsessed with the idea of India. I was obsessed with the idea of becoming a writer. We wanted to see the land for ourselves, meet those brother and sister Indians we might ordinarily not have met, chat with them, and swap stories. But it was hardly easy to bring everything together and take the jump from fantasizing about this idea to actually executing it. Putting all our meagre savings into this journey – and what it represented – meant an extraordinary amount of pressure, too.
How did your friends and family react?
Saurav: Our families were certainly a little anxious. But they were supportive nonetheless. As far as friends are concerned, I think a few probably thought, “This is a great idea, but Thank God I am not doing it kind of way.” Most were however quite enthusiastic about it and many wanted to tag along for at least a part of the way.
How did you decide the route and that you will spend Rs 500 daily? Was there a total budget for the entire trip in mind?
Devapriya: There have been three sets of continuous journeys under the ‘Heat and Dust’ format. Each time, Delhi has been the starting point, and we have identified a general direction to move in from there. So say in the case of the second phase, when we decided to head all the way South through the length of India, we chose Agra as our next stop after Delhi. Once on the move, the next destination was typically chosen from any number of options in a vicinity of 200 km or so, which is a 5-7 hour bus ride in India. The precise location was decided based on impulse, personal ‘must sees’ and tips & suggestions we got from locals.
Saurav: Rs 500 a day, which was about $10 at the time, is a sort of international backpacking benchmark. Of course, it usually applies to an individual, but in our case it was for both together. Essentially we wanted to push ourselves out of any notional comfort zone while travelling. The idea was to see India from the ‘ground up’, as it were. There was no planned overall expense, as such, and the second phase which spanned three months of continuous travel came to a close only because we ran out of money.
The second phase began in Delhi, went all the way to Kanyakumari, and then back up the Coromandel Coast to reach Chennai, at which point we had only Rs 167 left between the two of us.
When you planned this trip, you knew you were going to write the book?
Devapriya: Yes we did. Our publishers HarperCollins India had already commissioned the idea as a book. In fact, our budget for the trip came from whatever savings we had plus the small advance we got for the book.
Highlight one thing that you ‘enjoyed’ the most and biggest ‘challenge’ you faced during the trip?
Saurav: It is one and the same, perhaps. Intense journeying that both exhilarates and enervates.
Am sure there were moments of frustration during the trip. As a couple, did it come in the way? Did you guys feel the relationship has evolved after the trip?
Devapriya: There were plenty of doubts, dilemmas and debates (fights, really) during the course of these journeys, as one would imagine. But it never got in the way. If anything, it helped us coalesce even better as the team that we ought to be.
Are you both back to a 9-5 jobs? If yes, how difficult was it to come back into routine? If no, was the trip the reason for that change in lifestyle?
Saurav: We aren’t back to what people might call respectable employment. We are both consultants now in fields that are allied to the ones we used to work in earlier. For instance, Devapriya is working with the Ministry of Human Resources Development on a project to craft a new language policy for India. I have a small consultancy that advises governments and industry bodies on geopolitical issues.
I read somewhere that you are planning a four-part series and this was the first one? Anything you can share on the next one planned?
Saurav: It’s actually a trilogy, i.e a three-part series. The second book in ‘The Heat and Dust Project’ series is called ‘Man, Woman, Road’ and it promises to be grander than the first one since it covers more territory literally and otherwise. The last book in the series will include travels through Eastern & North-Eastern India, areas that haven’t been covered in the first two.
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