Book Review

Loitering with Intent: Diary of a Happy Traveller by Ritu Menon

—Wafa Hamid

Loitering with Intent: Diary of a Happy Traveller by Ritu Menon

Publisher:  Speaking Tiger

Genre:  Travel writing, Non-Fiction

Extent: 235 pp

Price: Rs 299

A Lady an explorer? A traveller in skirts?

The notion’s just a trifle too seraphic:

Let them stay and mind the babies, or hem our ragged shirts;

But they mustn’t, can’t, and shan’t be geographic.

                                                                                    —  Punch Magazine, 1893


Since the publication of these notorious lines used to satirize the Royal Geographical Society for admitting women as members in 1893, women have gone on to not only travel but cover conflict zones, lead peace missions, climb mountains and transverse not only geographical but societal barriers. However, judging by the shelves of travel literature, women are still under-represented. Writer-publisher Ritu Menon’s travel diary with its mix of anecdotes and historical interventions comes as a breath of fresh air in an attempt to fill this gap. The collection is a set of travel writings from the past decade and covers South-East Asia, the Middle East and Europe with each entry accompanied by black-and-white sketches illustrated by AG Krishna Menon.

The book covers ten countries beginning with the days in Myanmar to the gardens and lakes of England, with each entry feeding off the energy of the previous narrative. Menon is not only a chronicler of places but of people. From the local musician in Myanmar to Menon’s historian friend, the book takes the reader on a slow-paced journey exploring Myanmar, Syria, Egypt to England through conversations with friends – both old and new. One meanders through the many pagodas, the Citadel of Aleppo, not yet damaged, the vineyards of Bergerac and Dordogne Valley, and also through museums and the everyday markets and restaurants. Although at first seemingly arranged in a haphazard manner, the entries/sections gradually work towards building the intensity of the narrative, with ‘Palestine: Grace Under Repression’ being the climax with its depiction of the systematic repression and disempowerment of a people which is followed by an easing of the momentum from Sicily to England.

The narrative not only covers the architectural marvels of the destinations but more importantly engages with the political climate of the places in question with its focus on regimes of power and their effects on the common people. Many stories because of being written over the past decade seem dated but that only adds to the beauty of the book, providing a contrast to the current circumstances whether it is the tour guide in Myanmar joining Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy (NLD) in hope of a regime change or the entire trip through pre-Islamic State Syria in 2009. The narratives are interspersed with anecdotes on the history, art, architecture, literature, religion and politics of the places visited. And who can forget the food! Menon’s not only a connoisseur of art and literature but also food and wine. Her elaborate descriptions of mouth watering meals with prosciutto and fat dates, olive oil and smoked ricotta, fresh formaggio and sundried tomatoes with wine has one salivating and craving for a bite of these delicacies. 

The title of the book itself Loitering with Intent is evocative of the assertion of women’s right to public spaces, loitering being an activity usually associated with a masculine sphere. One is reminded of the brilliant work by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade and the question ‘Why Loiter?’. Although not explicitly so, the book with its engagement with the dismembered, disempowered communities does make the reader introspect, to be critical while travelling enriching the experience further.   

With her witty anecdotes, quirky sense of humour, vivid imagery and effortless writing, Menon makes the places and people come to life. The book reads more like a diary entry with memories and experiences being recorded rather than just descriptions which is a part of its charm. Despite some typing and editing errors, the book holds its own inspiring the reader to travel for discovering the story each place has to tell, and igniting wanderlust among its readers.