Trav­el­ling with pur­pose

A col­lec­tion of travel nar­ra­tives on peo­ple we don’t usu­ally hear about.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Reads - By SHARMILLA GANESAN star2@thes­tar.com.my

WHEN Shivaji Das trav­els, he is as likely to end up chat­ting with the crew on board a con­tainer ship to Hong Kong as he is to be talk­ing to im­pov­er­ished di­a­mond min­ers in South Kal­i­man­tan. Even a seem­ingly in­nocu­ous stroll in Mel­bourne turns into a search for what he terms “the left­ist heart of the city”.

For the In­dia-born writer who now calls Sin­ga­pore his home, travel is an op­por­tu­nity to seek out and lis­ten to other voices. These in­clude peo­ple as var­ied as Nepalese se­cu­rity guards in Malaysia, street artists in Morocco, fe­male box­ers in the Philip­pines, Bud­dhist monks in Sin­ga­pore, and home­less com­mu­ni­ties in Mum­bai, In­dia.

Das calls this trav­el­ling pur­pose­fully.

“I am en­riched by speak­ing to peo­ple we don’t usu­ally hear from. Peo­ple liv­ing in very dif­fer­ent, of­ten ab­ject, con­di­tions, with very dif­fer­ent life ex­pe­ri­ences. Their sto­ries, the hu­man­ity they have, these have left a deep im­pres­sion in me,” he says.

With about six years of such ex­pe­ri­ences be­hind him, Das found that he had amassed a large num­ber of writ­ten vi­gnettes chron­i­cling his trav­els. These even­tu­ally be­came his lat­est book, a col­lec­tion of travel nar­ra­tives called An­gels By The Murky River – Trav­els Off The Beaten Path (Yoda Press).

Fea­tur­ing a se­ries of en­gag­ing pieces – with catchy ti­tles like “The Top Four Nonessen­tial Ro­man­tic Places To Visit For Lovers”, “Penga­men: The Traf­fic Sig­nal Rock Stars Of Ban­dung”, and “Har­vest­ing Hap­pi­ness: The Hux­ian Farmer Paint­ings Of Shaanxi, China” – the book tra­verses the world through sto­ries that are si­mul­ta­ne­ously fa­mil­iar and eye-open­ing.

Das, how­ever, thinks of him­self as a trav­eller first and a writer sec­ond. His aim with this book, he says, is to en­cour­age peo­ple to in­ter­act be­yond tours or shop­ping malls when they travel.

“The no­tion of travel has changed for me. I try not to plan as much, and in­stead just be open to new ex­pe­ri­ences when I visit places,” he says.

For 38-year-old Das, it has been a wind­ing jour­ney to writ­ing An­gels

By The Murky River. Re­call­ing his younger days in As­sam, In­dia, he says he comes from a con­ser­va­tive Ben­gali fam­ily that hardly trav­elled. While he did a lot of writ­ing in his school­days, he de­scribes those works as “very na­tion­al­is­tic”. Over time, how­ever, this changed.

“I be­came much more in­ter­ested in the smaller pic­ture, the trees and not the for­est. I be­gan see­ing the value in in­di­vid­ual sto­ries, in lis­ten­ing to the peo­ple who de­serve more at­ten­tion,” he says.

Das’s pre­vi­ous two books dis­play his in­ter­est in global cul­tures and sto­ries as well: the first, Jour­neys With The Cater­pil­lar (2014), ex­am­ines life in the In­done­sian is­lands of Flores, Ko­modo, Rinca and Sumba; the sec­ond, Sa­cred Love: Erotic Art In The Tem­ples Of Nepal (2013), uses pho­tog­ra­phy to ex­plore tem­ple art around Kathmandu.

This out­look ex­tends be­yond travel and writ­ing. Hav­ing lived in Sin­ga­pore for the past 11 years, where he is a strat­egy con­sul­tant, Das has taken a strong in­ter­est in im­mi­grant worker is­sues. Out­side of his job, he works with Tran­sient Work­ers Count Too, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that pro­motes fair treat­ment for im­mi­grant work­ers in Sin­ga­pore. He is also the founder and key or­gan­iser of the Mi­grant Worker Po­etry Con­test, which be­gan in 2014 in Sin­ga­pore be­fore ex­pand­ing to Malaysia the next year.

As such, Das be­lieves strongly in stay­ing con­nected with the peo­ple he writes about.

“It’s not about be­ing in an ivory tower and step­ping out some­times to write about other peo­ple. In Sin­ga­pore, I’ve spent half of my time with mi­grant work­ers. I also stay in touch with many of the peo­ple in my book – they’re al­ways very happy to see their names in print.

“I also try to make sure my in­ter­ac­tions with the peo­ple I write about isn’t pa­tro­n­is­ing. How you por­tray peo­ple is im­por­tant, to not de­pict peo­ple in just one way. I try to give an ob­jec­tive ac­count, and let the read­ers de­cide.”

Das does this with an easy, con­ver­sa­tional style that nev­er­the­less dis­plays a keen eye for de­tail and a strong sense of un­der­ly­ing em­pa­thy.

Many of his sto­ries are laced with wry hu­mour, like an en­counter with a vol­u­ble foot­ball fan in Shenyang, China. Some are painfully poignant, such as his pieces on the home­less of Mum­bai or Seoul. Yet oth­ers dis­play an in­trin­sic aware­ness of life’s fragili­ties, as when the salt farm­ers of Jeneponto, In­done­sia, talk about the va­garies of their trade.

De­spite the many sober­ing re­al­i­ties within the pages of Das’s book, the overall feel­ing is one of joy and open­ness, aptly de­picted by the cover im­age of a grin­ning boy jump­ing into a river – a photo shot by Das on the is­land of Bo­hol in the Philip­pines.

“What I’ve been amazed to dis­cover through my trav­els is that ev­ery­one has a ca­pac­ity for hu­mour,” says Das, when asked if he found com­mon­al­i­ties among the many peo­ple he has en­coun­tered.

“No mat­ter how in­con­ve­nient or dif­fi­cult life may be for many of them, there is a lot of hope in peo­ple. Which leads to a great ca­pac­ity for kind­ness.”

An­gels By The Murky River is avail­able at the Ger­ak­bu­daya Book­store (gbger­ak­bu­daya.com) and The Good Shop (the­good­shop.com.my).

— Pho­tos: An­gels By The Murky River

An im­age of the vi­brant float­ing mar­ket in Ban­jar­masin, In­done­sia, cap­tured by Das for his book.

Di­a­mond min­ers in In­done­sia. It is peo­ple like these, work­ers, who at­tract Das’s in­ter­est when he trav­els.

— ONG SOON HIN/The Star

Das feels ‘en­riched by speak­ing to peo­ple we don’t usu­ally hear from’.

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