Yesterday, I found myself on a picturesque, breeze-caressed campus by the sea near Pondicherry, attending an outbound learning programme with a batch of colleagues. The programme began with introductions -- each one had to stand up and tell a bit about himself or herself. That's when I realised two things.
One, travelling is the new interest. There was a time when you asked people about their interests, and the answer would automatically and predictably be "Reading and listening to music." Some would add gardening or cooking. That's about it: the lay Indian's hobby was always confined to home. He never thought of looking at the world beyond. But yesterday, about 50% of the people who sat in a large circle under a thatched roof said they wanted to travel, or travel more. That's good news for travel writers.
The second realisation was rather a reiteration, of the fact that I am an outsider. As part of the introduction, we were also required to mention our native places. A large majority of the people, I noticed, had a native place, and they all still lived well within the radius of its magnetic field, almost like the brand ambassadors of those towns or cities.
But I have no native place to speak of. Technically, my family hails from a village called Panchthupi in Murshidabad, the capital of pre-British Bengal, which lies very close to the hamlet of Plassey or Palashi, where the decisive battle between the forces of Lord Clive and the nawaab of Bengal was fought way back in 1757. But my father's generation never lived there. They had long migrated to other places to study or find jobs or do business. My father came to Kanpur, in Uttar Pradesh, in 1966 and settled there. He has lived in no other city since then. I was born in 1970.
So: Bangla may be my mother-tongue, but I am not a bona fide Bengali considering I was neither born in Bengal nor spent considerable time there during the first three decades of my life. I was born in Uttar Pradesh, but I am not a UP-wallah either because I am a Bengali. When I moved to Delhi, Kanpur was 'home', not my 'native'. And then I came to Chennai, and on January 15 will complete 10 years in the city. But that does not make me a Madrasi. Here, I am a 'North Indian' or a 'Bengali'. When I visit Kanpur now, am more outsider than ever, having lived in Chennai for so long. When I go to Calcutta, I am introduced as the man who works in Chennai but hails from Kanpur.
I am the permanent outsider. I belong nowhere, but every place belongs to me. I can make any place home and still write about it with the outsider's eye -- the primary requirement to be a travel writer.