Map of the Invisible World by Tash Aw: Get the hardcover if you can!

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It’s a funny story, really. How I came to properly own this book. It was the summer of 2011 and I was looking for a gift for a friend who was going for a long vacation. I wanted her to have something inspiring to read during her travels, so for her birthday, I presented her with this book.

When I saw it up there on the bookshelf, it looked lovely! It reminded me of beaches, white sands and those twirly little globes I loved when I was younger. Maybe it wasn’t the perfect “mountain” read for the likes of Rishikesh and Manali, but it would be a stimulating one nevertheless.

Map of the Invisible World. The name itself inspired me to delve deeper into places and cultures, so an aspiring globetrotter like her would surely appreciate the cover just as much as the story bound inside.

I bought it and wrote a heartfelt dedication on the title page about hoping this would kindle that adventurous spirit she was about to unleash and yada yada yada.

One year later: We fought about something or the other. In her anger, unrelated as it was to literature, she flung the book at me and said she hoped it got me as depressed as it did her.

Wait! What?

I wasn’t to find out what she meant by that until a few months after when she confessed that she just hadn’t been in a state of mind to appreciate a dose of history with World Literature. That I had probably pitted it as a travel guide in disguise didn’t help any.

I hadn’t bought the book blindly. I did read the jacket. I knew it wasn’t about utopias, unicorns and and all that escapist stuff. But it surely wasn’t depressing, was it?

So I read the book to see for myself and decided that never again would I gift someone a book, nor would I deface the title page, without reading it first.

Because you see, Map of the Invisible World can be a little heart wrenching, yes. But really, to call it truly “depressing” is going too far! Tash Aw is a brilliant writer and it shows in every chapter throughout this book. Read my review of the book for The Caterpillar Cafe here.

I’m glad to have had this book flung back at me because I don’t think I would have bought myself another copy and read it otherwise. It isn’t depressing, thankfully. Not in my opinion, anyway. Ever read The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek? It’s a dose of depressing that doesn’t go away. Also, for someone who isn’t Indonesian or a history student specialising in colonial rules and revolutions through South East Asia in the early-mid 20th Century, how else would you truly understand the country’s historic and cultural influences if not through literature?

For a change, I’m recommending a book that deserves way more than e-space on your bookshelf. It’s a lovely book that has pride of place on my bookshelf, as do all the books I treasure. Get a hardcover if you can. Because you will cherish it too!

Throwback from 2012 | Pretty Pondicherry and the travel guide that isn’t

This post was originally published in 2012 on The Caterpillar Cafe

mapping

We would have ridden the bicycles to our room, but they got stolen from the poolside restaurant. That’s how the unwritten code of honour – ‘Thou shall not seal another traveller’s transport in Dune Eco Village’ – found itself in the pooper and experience#58 (Ride a bike to your room), listed in Peter Richards’ 108 Experiences in Pondicherry, Auroville and Nearby got slashed with a pointy pencil. The book itself is still nestled in my handbag for quick access should I need a pick-me-up in the middle of a workday.

108 Experiences is unlike any travel guide you have ever read. That is precisely what makes it the perfect companion for a footloose idiot passing through the union territory. You see, Pondicherry isn’t a very big place and once you’re through entertaining yourself with the street names – Rue Dumas, Rue Romain Rollard, Rue Jawaharlal Nehru – and done a few rounds of the churches, temples and Aurovilian shops, you need to do something to experience the place, like really grab a slice of it, you know? Richards, by no stretch of the imagination, takes you off the beaten path. He takes you through the same sights, sounds and stories but turns it into an adventure with a sense of humour.

Lakshmi

The Manakula Vinayaka Temple is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Pondicherry. Not for religious sentiment — though it does serve a large number of devotees daily — but the prospect of a tap from Lakshmi, the beautiful elephant who spends her days here. Grab a good photographer and arm yourself with coins because this is one blessed photo-op you do not want to miss. Word to the wise — give her 10 one rupee coins rather than one 10 rupee note. #2. Get off to a good start. Be tapped by an elephant.

If the strong currents thrashing about in the Bay of Bengal aren’t enough to keep your feet on dry, sandy shores, you should also know that swimming in Pondicherry happens to be illegal. But alas, there isn’t a sign board that announces this. I guess the lifeguards just sit around hoping the waves at high tide will keep pushing people out of the water over and over again, allowing them a few more moments of lathargic stupor. But if you’re really quite adamant, do what my sister and I did as children — play Baywatch in the swimming pool — by all means, step inside and face the tide. But if you’d much rather take your chances with the pool, as I suggest you do, the book suggests a few hotels that allow visitors access to massive pools for a small fee. #57 We’re your designated lifeguards

street stall pondicherry

“If you don’t know what your booty is we can’t help you. It’s your booty.” Wise words, these. #77 Dance your booty off, sounds like a fun thing to do, though I don’t know why anyone would pick Pondicherry for this activity. Even Bangaloreans and Chennaiites, frustrated with the ban on dancing in their cities, might think twice before picking Pondy to wear out their dancing shoes. As a Bombayite the only thing I wanted to take advantage of was the food and cheap booze and the fact that they have no alcohol and service tax to speak of. Richards believes Asian House on beach road is a good place to shimmy-shake. But I’d suggest you skip that bit and go to the roadside cart right opposite which makes beautifully marinated prawns, quail, fish and chicken that go perfectly with a cold bottle of beer.

Some experiences are hilarious to read (#7 Watch paint peel) until you realise that they’re arbitrary and nothing more than fillers to reach a number higher than 100. But that shouldn’t discourage you from buying this handy little book. If you have limited time to spend in Pondicherry, then most of the pointers will keep you curious enough until you make another trip. Be warned though, not all experiences are unique to the union territory — lose a beggar, load up on sandalwood soap, readThe Hindu — but the index at the back is dead useful. With a list of places to visit, a map showing where they’re placed and cross references to the experiences you can weave around them, the book gives back more than the 150 rupees it costs.

108 Experiences in Pondicherry, Auroville and Nearby is not available on Flipkart, unfortunately. I bought my copy from Gratitude Heritage on Rue Romain Rollard.

Flight of the SatNav Lady

I’d forgotten about this lovely little post from 2011 when SatNav ladies had a mind (and map) of their own.

No matter how many times I travel, I can’t rid myself of these bouts of paranoia. It’s become a ritual for me to chew my nails, or the nearest person’s brains from the moment I wake up to the minute I receive my boarding pass.

Sometimes I go so far as to make a list of all the things that could delay my departure – traffic, taxis, earthquakes, cows – usually, this helps me strengthen my backup plan in case these calamities strike.

But on a recent trip to Germany, I didn’t quite anticipate the most terrifying catastrophe of them all – the SatNav lady. Let me just point out that if Google Maps is a dog, eager to please in any way possible, the SatNav lady is a cat. Go figure.

Anyway, we were to drive from Dilligen, an hour and a half from Munich, to Frans Josef Strauss airport. We got as comfortable as we could — four adults with four large suitcases, two small carry on bags, not to mention backpacks, did I mention we’re Indian? — when the following happened:

Please turn right and then take a right again.
Fair enough.

Please turn right (again) in 100 meters.
Are you sure?

Please turn right.
If you say so.

Please take a U-Turn if possible.
But you just said…

Please take a U-Turn if possible.
Well, you are the expert and I don’t really have a choice, so…

Please turn left.
But that’s taking us back to the hotel.

Now, turn right onto the A8 to Munich.
But we haven’t even gotten out of Dilligen yet. We’re not from around here but even we know that’s not for a couple of miles.

Please take a U-Turn if possible.
I don’t think she knows where she’s going. Somebody summon Google Maps… NOW!

Prepare to reach a dead end.
But.. I’ll miss my flight! I need to sign into work tomorrow morning… I’ll loose my job! What did I ever do to you? *bawling inside my head*

In that case, drive on for a 100 miles and THEN turn right onto the A8 to Munich.
Thank you. Thank you so much. How can I ever repay you for doing the job for which you were invented?

150 Miles Later…
You have reached your destination.
Wait! This isn’t the airport. It’s the autobahn and no one seems to be going anywhere below 200 kmph. Damn you SatNav lady!!!!

(Some of the above might have happened inside my head)