Zac O’Yeah has a habit of bumbling through unexpected places, or expected places with unexpected parts and reporting from the trenches on local foods, local folks and local varieties of stomach upsets. In A Walk Through Barygaza:The Ancient Greek Port Town of India (Westland) for instance, the travel writer is beset by the “Gujarati gut assault, a milder form of the dreaded Delhi belly,”which is no doubt the price you pay for eating your way through life. The collateral damage though, is well worth it, and in this slim, novella-length e-book, O’Yeah survives the runs to appraise us of a Gujarat model of tourism.
Barygaza, the old Greek name for Bharuch, was a crucial trading point and power centre on the western coast, attracting a steady traffic of foreigners and even catching the attention of Ptolemy. However, it has been mostly absent from the tourist map and since the 1800s seen its fortunes sink. Intrepid O’Yeah, a Bangalore-based writer who has also written detective novels, decides it merits further exploration. In this account, he visits religious places, forgotten colonial structures and makes sundry jaunts through alleyways.
O’Yeah is at his sharpest and liveliest in the encounters with people, extracting the sense of the place through its characters: the “young fabulist,” the good-looking gadabout, the pageant of curious and friendly strangers. The gormless white man bumping up against unexpected cultural situations is an old trick, but a good one, and O’Yeah inhabits the persona freely. He is potentially offered intoxicating substances (“innocuous enough to mean nothing special, but opening possibilities for anything and everything”) and illegally obtained non-vegetarian food and beer which he turns down (“I determine it unnecessary to stay in Bharuch for seven years; seven days will do just fine”). Then there is a night-time sequence spent with new acquaintances, in which a broker offers to translate a Gujarati book on the region’s history in English over a two-hour oral narration. “It is a slightly surreal situation,” he writes, “trying to learn everything there is to know regarding Bharuch’s ancient affairs while playing the crude oil market in an office-cum-bedroom at midnight, so I allow myself another puff of the perfumed tobacco.”
The book seems to have been stitched together episodically from disparate travel stories. Each in itself is charming, but there are times when the telling seems bogged down by clunky historical interludes. The sincere scholarly interruptions don’t always serve the travelogue well.
Still, there is much to admire. So much travel writing now tends to descend into vapid word salads on bustling bazars, wondrous vistas and aphorism-worthy nuggets hotly served up from cab drivers. But O’Yeah is funny, deft and self-deprecating, and makes a good case for why the genre isn’t a lost cause just yet.
(A Walk Through Barygaza… is available as an e-book.)