A guide to POTSDAM
Talking Location with author Frank Kusy – India
6th November 2016
#TalkingLocationWith…. author Frank Kusy, who has been going to India for many years and recounts his many adventures in his books.
Half a lifetime ago, a wonderful man (and my Buddhist mentor) called Dick Causton set me on the path to India. ‘So you want to see where this great religion began?’ he asked, raising his arms as if to encompass the world. ‘Well, go out there and be like a sponge. Soak it all up. Then, when you get back, squeeze it all out. Produce something remarkable!’
India was fun. It took me two or three trips to really pick up on that, but as I did so, I found that the childlike quality of the country – the simple curiosity, the warm-hearted openness, the sheer craziness of it – struck a chord in me. Six weeks into my first trip, around February of 1985, I had forgotten that I had ever worn a suit to work. By the time I returned in April, I had vowed never to work again. Somehow, I determined, I would be going back to India on a regular basis – and that was when I started to write.
Dick had said I should squeeze out the sponge of my travels, then produce something of value with whatever came out. I decided to use my experiences to write a book about the real India, a serious accounting of its poverty, politics, and religion. But the real India was far more surreal than serious. It was like a giant playground wherein everything—people, traffic, and livestock—bounced off each other at random.
I had attempted to put pen to paper before, but I’d never got past the first three chapters. I’d simply lacked the incentive to go any further. Now I had all the incentive in the world. It was either getting paid to write about India or return to the drudgery of running an old people’s home in Clapham, South London.
So, discarding the idea of writing a ‘serious’ book, I decided instead to type up the diary of my first trip through India along with a colourful character called Kevin. When I’d finished I packaged it up, then sent it off to forty-two publishers and agents. Then I hopped on a plane to Japan, spending every penny I had, and prayed to the main Buddhist temple there that my gamble would succeed.
I returned to London with the worst case of flu I’d ever had. On the positive side, the phones started ringing. The first call was from a minor publisher who wanted my book Kevin and I in India. The second was from a bigger publisher who wanted me to write a travel guide to the whole of India. It was a dream come true. The money they offered wasn’t much—£2500 advance and 7.5% of royalties on sales—but all my flights were paid for, and they threw in lots of free hotels. Suddenly I was doing what I’d always wanted to do: travel and write. My life, which had been on hold until this moment, finally began to move forward.
Most of my research was done on a cheap Sony Walkman, into which I burbled for 66 days my first ‘tour’ as a travel writer. In those 66 days I travelled – by train, plane, and speed-crazed bus and rickshaw – the entire length and breadth of the Indian sub-continent, from the hill stations of the deep south to the Taj Mahal in the north, from the Goan beaches of the west to the Sacred Ganges and the Bodhi Tree in the east. It was a breakneck tour – described in my latest book Dial and Talk Foreign at Once – and one which I would not care to repeat!
One of the questions I get asked a lot is: ‘Has India changed in the last 30 years?’ Well, India has not changed much, especially at backpacker level. You can still enjoy a thrilling toboggan ride down a 2000ft mountainside in Gulmarg (Kashmir), you can still do a romantic Full Moon camel ride into the Great Thar Desert from Pushkar in Rajasthan, and you can still revel in the hustle and bustle of the Aladdin’s Cave that is Main Bazar’s Monday Market in Delhi’s Paharganj district.
Then there’s the food. After doing business in India for 20 years (described in my Rupee Millionaires), my first port of call is still the rooftop Metropolis restaurant in Paharganj, which serves up a chicken biriani to die for, washed down by a Kingfisher beer (‘most thrilling chilled’). Though I do try to go vegetarian for the most part – India is the place to go vegetarian – and dine out on Chowpatty beach, when I’m in Mumbai, on delicious snacks like bhel puri (spicy mix of puffed rice, peanuts, onions, potatoes and chutneys) and chaat (fruit and veg tossed in a banana leaf). My wife and I’s favourite dish of all, however, is the lentil-based dhal makhani, best sampled at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi or (much cheaper) at Niro’s restaurant in Jaipur. This dish, accompanied with a yummy aloo pyaz (potato-onion flour cake) or a mouth-watering Butter Chicken, will stay in your mind as long as the memory of the nearby Taj Mahal.