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Wanderers, All Kindle Edition
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Two journeys run parallel through Jahnavi Acharekar’s Wanderers, All: a whistle-stop road trip and an exodus that spans centuries and generations.
Thirty-five, single and unemployed, Kinara arrives in Goa at a time when her life has, admittedly, “taken a detour”. In her luggage is a roll of maps given by her father with a cryptic “It’s about journeys. We are all on the same one.” When she remembers to look them up almost a month later, a whole new world unfurls—that of her ancestors, goldsmiths who fled the Goa of fifteenth-century Portuguese persecution, clutching their beloved deities, to find their feet first in the quiet Konkan village of Khed and then in big city Bombay.
Kinara is your typical new-age nomad—even as she backpacks her way through a blur of forgotten temples, forts and beaches for months on end, she is quick to clarify: “I’m not in Goa forever. I’m never anywhere forever.” (p.290). Her ancestors walk the talk of je pindi te brahmandi: know yourself and you will know the universe. Great-great-great-grandfather Narayansheth forsakes the leafy comfort of Khed for the lure of bustling Bombay. His son Gajanan follows in his father’s footsteps as goldsmith apprentice, only to realise that his heart belongs to theatre, not trade. Gajanan’s son Murli takes it a step further when he vacillates between the respectable drudgery of a clerical life and the testosterone-powered lure of the akhada, until his true vocation comes calling.
And so the present and past take turns, following the paths of least resistance for the most part in this rambling double-decker narrative. A description of the onset of monsoons in the Khed of yore segues into a cloudburst in the Fontainhas of now. Right after Gajanan Khedekar discovers the nataksangeet of Bombay, Kinara stumbles upon tiatr, the local performing art of Goa. The purchase of a shiny new gramophone as a marker of twentieth century middle-class taste in one chapter is heralded in the next by two songs-for-the-road courtesy Nick Drake and The Kinks. There is a charming chapter-long spoof of Marathi theatre titled ‘A Mid-semester Night’s Dream’, concocted in Murli Khedekar’s mind while he prepares for his Matric exams, distracted all the time by lovely Laxmi poring over her textbooks in the balcony across the street. Entire pages are devoted to the rise of Bal Gandharva, the rise of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the Bombay plague epidemic of the late nineteenth century, the Quit India movement of 1942, Bombay Docks Explosion of 1944 and of course, India’s waking up to freedom on 15 August 1947.
This, perhaps, is also the book’s undoing: Jahnavi Acharekar’s canvas is as large and ambitious as it is flat and unproblematic. Her research is extensive, the bibliography exhaustive, the characterizations painstakingly pointillist, and yet, there is definitely something wanting. The saga of the Khedekars soon begins to flag under the load of all the momentous milestones of fin-de-siècle Indian history. Kinara’s sojourn, too, is marked by a distinct lack of any real conflict as she flits from shack to feni-fazed shack in the Goan sun, dodging reality checks in the form of WhatsApp messages from family and her own dwindling bank balance. Indeed, a little more of Kinara’s back story and a lot less of the Khedekar chronicles may well have shored up this book which tries too hard to be too many things—fiction, fact, travelogue, memoir—all at once. At 420 pages, is it any wonder that the reader reaches the end of the road long before the story does?