Go West Odyssey: How I Saw America in 19 Days, published by Blue Pencil in November 2022, is the maiden book of NS Rajan. In a conversation with LnC Editor-in-Chief, Antara Nanda Mondal, Rajan talks about how he came about writing his first book at 87, his experiences, memories, and plans. The pictures used in this article are from the book.
Go West Odyssey, a richly illustrated book by NS Rajan captures a personal account of a first time visitor to the USA, chronicling the most memorable travel experiences on a 19-day drive from the East Coast to the West Coast and back.
From the obvious to the unexpected, Rajan takes you on a joy ride through national parks, the Grand Canyon, bustling and always busy New York, the sin city Las Vegas, the sun-kissed beaches, glamorous Los Angeles, the Golden Gate bridge, the Tufa towers, Amish country, out-of-the-way museums, sandstone marvels of Arches NP, historical and geographical monuments and much, much more. Rajan’s photos are an extension of his candid travel experiences — they give you a feel of the land that is America. Excerpts from the interview:
Antara: From a successful career in Income Tax service, which we lay people look upon as methodical and number-centric, to writing a travel book, which is a wholly creative pursuit, how has the journey been?
Rajan: Besides the actual ‘Taxation’ and ‘Assessment’ part, there is a great deal of ‘writing’ also involved in the course of Income Tax Service, although the ‘Quasi-Judicial’ nature of ‘Assessment Orders’ and other proceedings render all such writing, loaded with semi legalese, humdrum and staid, hardly qualifying as a ‘creative’ pursuit.
Coming to this book — I ventured to write this at a very late stage in my life. I had always been writing short pieces by way of stories, essays, blogs and letters to magazines and newspapers, and many of them were published. This activity was necessarily subject to availability of time and was not possible when I was in service. I could pursue this more regularly once I retired and also after I gave up my work as a ‘Tax Consultant’ that I had engaged in for some time after my retirement.
Following my trip to the US, it was this love for writing that spurred me to write this book when I was also egged on to do so by those around me. I am blessed with a very good memory and generally absorb very well what I see and observe in things and places.
Thus, the impetus and the ‘creativity’ to write about my travel experiences, the sights, sounds and scenes on the vast panorama that is the US, and the pleasure and pain of actually driving over nearly 8,000 miles across 18 states in 19 days was spontaneous. The desire to write, complemented by the experience.
Antara: Tell us about your childhood and growing up years. You would have witnessed many turning points in the growth of our nation. Any particular memories that immediately come to mind?
Rajan: I was born in Delhi in 1935. Nothing can be more significant to me in the growth of our nation than India becoming independent of British rule in 1947. My family, which had been in Delhi for 20 years, had relocated to Bangalore in 1946 and I narrowly missed the scenes of joyous celebrations in the Capital.
But having been a native of Delhi in the many years preceding the event, I was a part of those heady days. The rude and sudden incursions and attacks by the Chinese Army in the NEFA area, which were the subject of a daily news programme by the inimitable Melville de Mellow of AIR: “India and the Dragon” in 1962, was a turning point in India’s modern history.
Towards the end of the millennium, India saw a surge in its economy and growth, and its continued progress has turned India into a giant, poised to take its place in the echelons of the so-called “First World Countries”.
However, what I would consider most significant in the growth of our country is the ease with which knowledge is dispensed and acquired now. When I was young, the only way I could satisfy my curiosity about anything was by asking questions of either my teachers or my parents. Libraries were scarce and restricted.
For decades, learning was a tedious process, involving much physical activity and effort. Then, suddenly over a mere 20 years, TV, Internet and mobile phones burst on the scene and one had all knowledge at one’s fingertips (or thumbs).
Young people today are very blessed to have so many aids to learning that were unimaginable even at the turn of the millennium. These aids come with mixed blessings and are as much open to abuse as they help to educate and enrich. One fondly hopes that the users will also develop their mental faculties to discern and use them purposefully.
Antara: Lot of people go to America on tourist visas. Some do get the opportunity to travel and see the country. But very few actually pen it down. What made you think of writing a book?
Rajan: It was not planned. As I said earlier, I am very observant and happen to possess a very good memory. But, I realised that only a proper photographic record could help me to later recall and relive my visit, which would last only six months. Thus, my camera became an adjunct of my hand all the time I was there. I took thousands of pictures. Later, I was urged by many who wished me well and knew that I loved to write, to record my US experiences in the form of a book. I put down a cogent record of my time there. But it remained just that — a kind of an ‘In-House’ narrative on my visit.
Meanwhile, my short writings had drawn me to the LnC-Silhouette magazine and, as explained in the Acknowledgements section in the book. I presented my manuscript to you Antara for an appraisal and consideration of its possibilities as a ‘Book’. The rest, as they say, is history. You and your team converted my manuscript into a beautiful looking and elegant book published by Blue Pencil.
Antara: Thank you Rajan Sir. It was indeed a most amazing experience to work with you on this book, which our entire team at Blue Pencil cherishes. Go West Odyssey – your sojourn across America is chronicled in numbers, the routes, the sights, the rivers and lakes and mountains, the history of the places you visited, the American people and their culture – how did you record all these details?
Rajan: Nothing except the pictures was actually recorded as I never knew or suspected that I would write a book on my travels. Every night, no matter how late it was and how hard the next day’s schedule could be (whether during our cross country trip, or in the ‘East’), I would sit up and upload all the pictures into a folder in my laptop. The chronological sequence was thus automatically established.
When I had the time, I could easily organise, sort, filter out and delete the poorly shot ones (there were many of these as some were shot from a moving car, some in bad light or having a poor angle or perspective) and improve some others.
Thus, when I came to actually write about the trip, the pictures provided orientation of the sequence and my memory, aided by looking up references, helped in the narrative.
I have mentioned earlier that I possess a very keen observation. Wherever I went, I tried to talk to people and learn as much as I could about the place. Descriptions of rivers, lakes and mountains were a cumulative narrative from my memory backed up with some research (e.g., the Lewis and Clark Expedition). I could easily recall all that I wrote although I do feel that I could have done better by jogging my memory harder or by concentrating more on the events as they happened.
But then, this is a travel book and in retrospect, I believe that there is little of significance in the six months of my stay in the US (the canvas of this book) that I have overlooked.
Antara: What was the most striking memory of your 6-month trip? If you were to pick, say, three most memorable moments or experiences?
1. My long walks in New York. There is a lot of NYC that I could not cover. But I could make the most of the time available to me by walking long distances indefatigably. I ‘felt’ that I grew to know the city closely.
2. The moments as we entered San Francisco. It was my life’s dream to visit there and, as I mentioned in the book, when we were driving on the Oakland Bridge (Bay Bridge) and on the verge of entering San Francisco itself, I said out aloud to my son: “I cannot believe I am in San Francisco.”
3. My first views of Niagara Falls and The Grand Canyon.
Antara: The book is full of pictures, except about 4 of them, the rest are all your own clicks. You won appreciation from Soumya Mitra, the ace photographer and travel enthusiast living in America who wrote in the Foreword, “No staged shots, no copycat landscapes – Rajan’s photos are an extension of his candid travel experiences. I love them.” That’s a great compliment. Tell us about your photography.
Rajan: First, my camera was an “Aim & Shoot” type, although an advanced version. We were practically on a rush most of the time and there was never much time to fine tune the details. Thus, I did not have too much to do about focussing and settings, except on occasion.
I learnt photography when I was in College in the early 1950s. My camera then was a Zeiss Ikon, ‘Nettar’ model with bellows. I think a noteworthy technique that I acquired in picture taking is in framing a picture’s ‘composition’. This is difficult to achieve in a rush-driven travel mode. No time to think and compose but it can still happen if one is consciously aware of the atmosphere and surroundings. It comes naturally.
Antara: Which part of America did you like most?
Rajan: That is not an easy question to answer, not one to which an answer will jump out. If Geography is not the criterion, I would say that (I have also written about this in the book) America’s National Parks, some of its numerous monuments, its many museums, and the wide range of its topography and terrain will be what I would always prefer. The people are all friendly and often ready to go out of their way to help. The sheer variety of climate, atmosphere, the land and its people, make every part of America very attractive.
Antara: You made this trip 10 years ago. Much has changed in America like any other country. If you were to make a trip again, would you do it differently?
Rajan: Yes. Differently, as to the ‘time’ I could allot to the places I would visit. I found that even very close to wherever we went, there were other places of absorbing interest that we could not do owing to paucity of time. When it is sights, monuments and spectacles of nature that one wishes to see, nothing would have changed at places such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone NP, Yosemite NP, Devils Tower, Lake Tahoe, Mono lake and even at the Golden Gate.
Besides these, I would like to additionally visit places in the South (Louisiana), the South West (New Mexico), the MidWest US (North and South Dakotas), and some other such places which abound in natural beauty and sights.
It is only the cities that would have changed much. But there are museums, monuments and memorable sights in the cities too that would not change. America is huge but has plenty to allow a traveller to satisfy his wanderlust comfortably. ‘Time’ is a factor that one has no control over, especially one from India on a Tourist Visa.
Antara: You write short stories and also essays about the legends of cinema and film music. And now this book. Is writing a passion or just a hobby?
Rajan: I would definitely rate it as a passion. I love to write and this book fulfilled much that I sought to do as a writer. But, the effort has also been an eye opener as to my limitations imposed by my age (87). The computer is a great help but only up to a point. The thinking, planning and gathering material to write upon, which still is only the prelude to the actual physical task of writing a book, is intimidating. But, when writing is a “Passion”, these are obstacles, as in any venture, meant to be overcome.
Antara: You also sing on Smule and write your blog. Tell us about your passion for music.
Rajan: This is an activity close to my heart. Apart from my passion for, and other aspects of, my writing which is covered in the foregoing Q & A, Hindi film music is a subject I am mad about. I am particularly referring to the Hindi films of the late 1930s to the 1980s. From a very young age when we lived in Delhi, I was exposed to this music. The taste lingered and, thanks to my good memory, I can recall from memory a huge lot of songs of that era. I also manage to read a lot of books on this subject. Thus, writing on it is more a pleasant occupation for me than any serious work. I have written many essays on composers, lyricists and singers of Hindi film music. These are accessible on my Blog.
I have my own Karaoke system on which I spend some time now and then. I occasionally sing for ‘Smule’ also but my singing now is no longer what it used to be and I do not share my songs on Smule. ‘Singing’ on Karaoke is a pleasant pastime for me.
Antara: How did you come to write so many essays on your blog about composers, lyricists and singers of Hindi film music?
Rajan: I mentioned earlier my craze for Hindi film songs of what has come to be well known as the ‘Golden Era of Hindi film music’, and that I can sing a very large number of those songs from memory, unplugged. I happen to be an active member of a group that gathers at regular intervals, listens to old songs and generally analyses and discusses the music, as well the creation and delivery of such appealing music to filmgoers by highly talented artists. A couple of years ago, the enthusiasm in our group encouraged me to write essays on composers, lyricists and singers of Hindi film music as a tribute to them. I have since been at it regularly and have so far written 40 essays, covering only those active between the 1940s and the 1990s. I am not very keen on Hindi films and Hindi film music post 1990, although I do enjoy listening to some of it..
Antara: How did you manage to write so much in depth about these personalities?
Rajan: I continue to read a lot of books and other matter relating to old Hindi film songs. Happily for me, I can easily recall the instances, events and background narrated in these books and the articles that I have read. Whenever I need to write about anyone in particular, I first put down whatever I can recollect about them, in no particular order or chronology. Before actually finishing the essay, usually overnight, I access the Internet and check up on dates, facts and look out for any fresh information available. I rearrange and edit all that into a coherent narrative and usually get it right, except for the length of the essay, which is delivered to our group on WhatsApp.
I am always torn between the need to communicate more and yet ensure that I am not long winded. This exercise has given me great personal satisfaction and has also been received well by our group.
Antara: What are you working on next?
Rajan: I am being urged and prodded by my well wishers to convert the essays on my Hindi film music blog into a book. An appealing project for me but also a formidable exercise. I wonder.
Go West Odyssey is available on Blue Pencil and on Amazon in the following countries. Click to buy:
More to read in NS Rajan’s Writings
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