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'When you tire of India, you tire of life'

November 04, 2003 04:26 IST

Lonely Planet will always be thankful to rock n' roll legends Joe Crocker and Leon Russell.

Over 27 years ago, when Tony Wheeler, one of the book's founders, sat in a movie hall watching Mad Dogs & Englishmen, he picked the name from their song Space Captain that featured in the film.

One of the world's best-loved travel books, Lonely Planet's first-ever guidebook was on Nepal. The first edition of the India book came out in 1981. Nearly 24 years later, the book is in its 10th edition and has a picture of India's most enduring icon -- the Taj Mahal on its cover.

Wheeler says of all the guides from the Lonely Planet stable, he is most proud of the book on India. For him India isn't a simple love affair; it's "passionate, difficult, nerve-wracking," but worth the effort.

In an emailed interview with Senior Associate Editor Archana Masih, India admirer Wheeler said the greatest attraction in the country was not some building or shrine or a tourist spot, but life. Simply put, the different facets of Indian life.

How did the guidebook come to be named 'Lonely Planet'? Whose idea was it?

We needed a name, we'd been to a movie called Mad Dogs & Englishmen, the '60s rock & roll band on the road affair with Joe Cocker and Leon Russell. And the name came out of a song in that film -- Space Captain -- except the line 'once while travelling across the sky this lonely planet caught my eye' was actually 'lovely planet.'

So the name was a mistake. I never get the words of songs right.

You say the Lonely Planet guidebook that you are most proud of is the one on India. Why this special fondness for Lonely Planet India?

When we did the first Lonely Planet India guide, Lonely Planet was still a very small company, less than 10 people. It was a big risk, betting the whole show on one roll of the dice.

Researching it and putting it together was, for an operation as small as Lonely Planet was at the time, was a huge thing, enormously time consuming and as it rolled along it simply got bigger and bigger.

But all the time we were very aware that we were producing something very special. I was very proud of the book when it was finished and I think our India guide has always been a critical and a popular success, which is a two-way combination you can't beat.

What do you find most fascinating about India?

India is like that old line about London, when you tire of it you tire of life. For most of us India isn't a simple love affair, it's a passionate, difficult, nerve-wracking thing, but worth the effort.

How much travel have you done in India? Apart from research for the book, how much have travelled as a tourist?

Looking back now it doesn't seem like I've spent a lot of time in India at all. Less than a year in total I guess. Mainly because I haven't continued working on the book year in, year out. I worked on that first edition, I was heavily involved in the third and then I came back and did a smaller part of -- it might have been the 5th or 6th -- and now we're up to the 10th.

As a tourist? Well nearly all my trips can be defined as research in some way or other. I don't think I've ever been to India purely as a tourist, although I may well one day. My last two trips to India have been working on non-guidebook projects -- the Chasing Rickshaws photographic book I did with photographer Richard I'Anson and then, with the same photographer, a book we've just finished which will be titled Rice Trails.

It's the story of rice in the region. We travelled around Punjab and Uttar Pradesh looking at rice!

If there was one thing you had to warn travellers to India about, what would that be?

Their preconceptions. Nothing is going to work out the way you expected, nothing is going to be like you think it will be. Go with the flow and it will be fine.

Is there some thing you would never want a tourist to miss seeing/doing in India?

The life, not some building/temple/tourist attraction. Although I guess if I had to pick out a 'tourist attraction' it would probably be Rajasthan -- the colour, life, energy. Or perhaps Tamil Nadu -- colour, life, energy!

The Taj Mahal remains the focus of attraction most tourists to India -- it is also on the cover of your latest book -- what are the other must see sites in India?

Book covers are almost always clichés, something which you take one glance at and say, 'oh yeah, that's India (or wherever)'

Other must sees? Well… Khajuraho, Varanasi, various places in Rajasthan, Konarak, I could go on.

In your assessment, what is it about the Taj that captivates tourists?

It's the number one India icon, like the Opera House for Australia, the Statue of Liberty for the USA, the Eiffel Tower for France. Which doesn't necessarily make it more than that, an icon.

There's a lot more to India than that.

What is the worst experience you have had in India so far?

So far? You mean there's worse to come. Actually the worst experience I had in India took place in London.

I was in our office in London when a call came through that one of our writers was in hospital in Srinagar after her driver ran head on into an oncoming truck. He killed himself and left her in hospital nearly dead as well. She survived, miraculously, but I don't ever want to go through that sort of thing again.

What are your best memories of India?

Not any specific sight or icon like the Taj Mahal. My best memories are train platforms late in the evening, waiting for a train to go somewhere far away. Arriving some place early in the morning in the run up to the monsoon and having that wonderful cool interlude before the heat builds up.

What are the worth seeing places in India that have been ignored by travellers and haven't got their due?

Where to start, India is so big and (comparatively) the number of international visitors are so small that most places barely scratch the surface. Gujarat hardly gets touched. I reckon a lot of central India doesn't get many visitors. It's a shame Kashmir has been off the itinerary for so long but the whole of the North-East has never been on the itinerary.

In terms of infrastructure etc, what is it that India needs to work upon to rank among the best tourist destinations in the world?

Let's face it, India is hard work. For a start, half the flights seem to arrive in the middle of the night, things often seem to be chaotic (sometimes they really are chaotic), sometimes things don't work as well as they should (the longest I have ever spent between stepping out of the aircraft, getting my baggage and getting through immigration was in Chennai). But hey, that's what makes it so interesting.

Has excessive tourist traffic damaged any popular destination in India? Say, like Goa, Delhi, Jaipur...

Never ever say 'I was there when it was still really good/untouched/undamaged by excess tourist traffic.' Although I was there before all that happened to Goa.

No, seriously, too much is not good for anywhere but if everybody goes to Goa that means there aren't so many people somewhere else. And Delhi's overcrowding certainly isn't a tourist problem, Delhi would be just as chaotic if there's wasn't a single tourist in town. Don't know about Jaipur, a while since I've been there.

What is it that Lonely Planet has that other guide books don't?

All we do is travel. We're not part of some larger organisation where guidebooks are just part of the whole show. With us it's travel or nothing.

How different was the first edition of Lonely Planet India from the 10th edition? What additional elements does the 10th edition have?

Well, it's much more carefully researched, edited, produced, the maps are far more accurate, there's far more information in it. But the spirit is the same.

How long did you spend researching the book on India? How many copies of the book on India have been sold so far?

That first edition had three writers -- Geoff Crowther, Prakash Raj and myself -- and we each spent about 4 months in India, so 12 months of travel research. India is well past 1 million copies now.

Why do you think Lonely Planet India remains a best-seller? Which are the other best-sellers?

At first our best-seller was South-East Asia on a Shoestring. Then India for a long while. Then Thailand for a short spell. Then Australia-India-Thailand-Australia again. Just recently and for a very short period we actually sold more New Zealand than anything else, some The Lord of the Rings spill over. In Europe our biggest seller is Italy.