One of my favourite books about India is William Sutcliffe’s novel Are You Experienced. Published in 1997, it tells the story of Dave, a naïve gap year student, who travels around India with his best friend’s girlfriend. The sexy cover suggests a much less thoughtful book than the one Sutcliffe has written. Some of the jokes may be offensive but there are some very insightful observations.
Dave roams around much of India, including Manali, Udaipur and Goa. The people Dave encounters, from public-school hippies to a Reuters journalist, provide opportunities for Sutcliffe to make points about travellers and the different ways they try to define and understand such a large and populous country. The journalist, for example, is used to skewer the traveller lifestyle, asking incredulously “So the most significant and challenging thing you do in each place is to buy the tickets to get to the next place?”
There’s no sudden epiphany for Dave and even learning from the journalist turns out not to be straightforward. But, somehow, Dave follows an epic hero’s journey to become, by the end of the novel, Dave the Traveller. Sutcliffe is sympathetic to Dave, even as he makes the occasional cringe-worthy blunder. Particularly interesting are his shifting observations, such as those around the question of what backpackers are supposed to do all day. At one point he muses, “maybe the places were the shit bits that you had to tolerate in order to do the travelling”.
Early in the novel Dave and Liz encounter an ostentatiously experienced traveller, who refers to the Lonely Planet guidebook as The Book. A few dozen pages later, they run into Jeremy again in Manali, where he has encountered some old school friends, all exclaiming over the cosmic coincidence that has brought them together in a country of a billion people. Dave is having none of it: “But you all come to the same places and you all do the same things, don’t you?”
Even in the days before the Lonely Planet guides, the traveller routes had their gathering places, such as the Pudding Shop in Istanbul or Jhochhen Tole, Freak Street, in Kathmandu, but the Lonely Planet cannot help but focus people into particular areas. A town like Udaipur, with 600,000 inhabitants, is reduced to a map of the tourist area, less than a square kilometre. Listing a dozen places to stay out of a few hundred leads travellers to congregate in certain ones.
The travellers in Are You Experienced find their way to Pushkar (“Oh, it’s really mellow, apparently. There’s this lake, and …er… It’s just apparently really mellow. A bit like Manali, but with a lake instead of mountains.”). When I visited the town last, I stayed in a guest-house that a friend had recommended. It was beautiful, with a balcony overlooking the holy lake and plain, simple rooms. I think I could have stayed for weeks.
When I checked, out the owner urged me to tell as many people as I could about his guesthouse. It had been in the previous edition of the Lonely Planet but was not included in the latest. He was now finding it hard to bring in guests. The listings in the Lonely Planet changed the routes followed by the herds of travellers and could make and lose fortunes.