With tales of parties, pristine beaches and pilgrims, David Abram tells all about what it was like to write the first edition of one of our longest-standing titles: The Rough Guide to India.
How did you come to work on the first ever Rough Guide to India?
I answered an ad in The Guardian, believe it or not!
What kind of preparation is involved in the first edition of such a mammoth guidebook?
In 1991, when the book was commissioned, there were only two full-length guides on the market. I read them both closely and spent weeks scouring old colonial-era gazetteers in the SOAS library for new ideas.
Where did you go for your research in India for this guidebook?
There were four authors in total and we each did around six months research in India, and 18 months back at our desks.
What was travelling in India like back then?
The travelling was, in retrospect, pretty tough. I stayed in cheap places most of the time and got around on local buses. Few of the destinations I researched were on the tourist map so I rarely encountered other travellers, which made the whole thing more intense but a lot more rewarding.
I’d head off on all manner of weird and wonderful detours, following pilgrims up sacred mountains, catching auto-rickshaws to obscure villages to attend festivals, and accepting invitations by archaeologists to see newly discovered sites. There were times when it all felt like genuine exploration.
How did you keep notes along the way?
I used a portable electronic typewriter (this was the pre-laptop era) and spent hours each evening bashing out notes on horrible pink airmail paper. I kept the pages in a ring binder file that never left my person.
Imagine how valuable that had become after two or three months of travel? I used to photocopy the pages periodically and post them home, but even so, I held on to those notes as if my life depended on them.
What are your fondest memories from creating/researching this book?
I could probably write another thousand-page book in answer to that one. But off the top of my head: crossing the Himalayas on the Manali-Leh road, which had not long opened, was a real adventure as the bus broke down and we got caught by an early snow fall in the middle of nowhere for three freezing nights (I pack a down jacket in the boot of my car on long journeys to this day).
Seeing the Golden Temple in Amritsar for the first time – the Taj understandably gets more attention but this building is no less ethereal. Hanging out on remote, empty beaches in Goa that within a decade would be booming resorts and full of people – lost forever.
And of course, the people I met and travelled with along the way. It’s a cliché to say so, buy they linger in the memory a long time and are what made those journeys wonderful.
Did you have any scary moments?
In the winter of 1998, I walked to Zanskar, in the Indian Himalayas, on a frozen river. It was a month of heaven and hell. Terror potentially lurked around every corner in the form of crawls along narrow crusts of ice, or climbs without ropes up slippery cliffs overhanging open water, which would kill you in two minutes if you fell in.
The reward was an experience in a Himalayan region entirely cut off from the outside world and it was spectacular. Though in truth, it was probably no more dangerous than crossing any road in Delhi or Jaipur today!
What were the strangest things that happened to you on your trip?
I got conned by a Burmese junky in Bombay once. He told me he’d lost all his money after a motorcycle accident in which he had had to pay off a woman he’d injured. He strung me along for days, squeezing little donations from me in well-rehearsed routines, before I rumbled him.
He then took me, by way of an apology, on an insider’s tour of the underbelly of south Bombay that I’ll never forget. I crossed paths with him a few times after that on subsequent trips. He looked more emaciated each time and eventually disappeared, seemingly without trace. He told me his life story over coffee once – it was an epic riches-to-rags tale.
Another surreal experience was going to a party at the glamorous seaside palace of Kingfisher beer tycoon, Vijay Malia, in Goa. I wore flip-flops because I had nothing else and people were genuinely appalled.
I ended up there because The Rough Guide to Goa was a big deal: people whose restaurants were featured in it would erect giant roadside hoardings proclaiming “as recommended by Mr David Abram in the Rough Guide!!”. It was the nearest I’ll ever get to literary stardom and it was great while it lasted!
Rajasthan was the worst place in that respect, though. A glowing guidebook review in those pre-TripAdvisor days was enough to transform the fortunes of a business, and on one occasion I was literally pursued across the desert by a peloton of hotel owners in Jeeps, desperate for me to return to Jaisalmer and visit their places.
How has India changed since your first research trip?
Well, researching guidebooks is a whole different game. Back in the early 1990s, there were no reliable maps. You were literally discovering places – amazing ones too – which had never featured in any books and were virtually unknown to foreign travellers. Communications with home were a lot harder. When I first travelled to India the only word from loved ones was via poste restante – oh, the joy of picking up an airmail letter with your name on it in a grimy Indian post office!
Travel is a lot easier now, but some of the romance has been lost, for sure. It all looked so different then – before the economic liberalization of the 90s, signboards were all hand-painted and tarmac was in short supply.
Polyester was a novelty so in rural areas everyone wore hand-spun, hand-dyed cloth and traditional clothes. There were hardly any cars, but millions of Hero brand bicycles. Stepping off the plane truly felt like entering another dimension.
How do you feel about India now?
I’m much less dewy-eyed about the country than I used to be. I get very frustrated by the increasing wealth gap, by how little seems to have improved for the poorest inhabitants over the decades I’ve been going there, and by the generally bad governance.
I’m more sympathetic to the spirit of Arundhati Roy’s political books these days than travelogues that depict India as some kind of spiritual playground, or ones that romanticize the colonial era, which is something as a nation we would be more ambivalent about if we understood it better.
Explore more of India with The Rough Guide to India.