On the eve of their eighth (ninth, S insists) anniversary, Saurav Jha and Devapriya Roy decided to heed the editor’s command and interview each other, around their book The Heat and Dust Project: The Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat over sangria and dinner.  The Heat and Dust Project is the first part of a trilogy, and chronicles eccentric adventures across India on a very very tight budget: Rs 500 a day.

D: Now that you have checked your twitter and done your various other things, will you please focus on the interview?

S: Ask me a question.

D: You go first.

S: No, you go first.

D: You.

S: Why is it you came up with this idea in the first place? What induced you to come up with this crazy idea for a book?

D: So you are actually putting on the record here that it was my idea?

S: To leave everything and travel across India on a tight budget? Yes. Of course. You are the progenitor of this idea.

D: Stop talking like that.

S: Like what?

D: Like you are a character in a book. Though I did put you in my first novel as a character. Why did I come up with this idea? I think this is something you always wanted to do – see India and wrestle with all your ideas on the ground. Not merely hear studio experts declaiming. All the time you were going kind of crazy. With that job, that life.

S: Is that why you came up with this idea for this book?

D: Ya, you know how it’s always all or nothing for me. If I’m turning over a new leaf, I’ll want to wake up at 5 AM to go and run, rather than saying I’ll just go and run. So if we’re going to actually go and see what the country is like, we must do it in an extreme manner.

S: But unlike the running stuff, we actually stuck with this.

D: And it’s not just me who’s a champion at that ‘all or nothing’ stuff.  You imposed the hurtling pace on us. The whole angle about how Buddhist monks were not allowed to sleep under the same tree for more than three nights in a row because people tend to sprout roots in a day. On this premise you kept us running for buses the whole time. But yes, on the whole, this is the only one of my crazy schemes that has worked.

S: What makes you think it has worked?

D: Well, at least we completed it. Of course, the entire next part is left. But I want to go in another direction, especially because I have been feeling blue ever since the book is out. A certain depression has taken hold of me. But I think there is no harm in saying the truth. This book coming out was a huge new chapter of stress and exhaustion. Especially in an age when nobody knows what it takes to sell a book. We’ve been snappy with each other; arguing all the time. I can’t bear to do any of the things I am supposed to do in the book promotion season – I simply want to lose myself in other people’s books. Enough of this already!

S: Quickly tell me, what did you like most about this journey?

D: The ravioli in Pushkar. Jaisalmer’s golden fort by night. The Paharganj posture. You?

S: Barmer – the bajra roti with desert brinjals in Ramaram Mali’s house. Girnar – the light in the Juma Masjid. Mathura – the pelican at night on the Yamuna.

D:  I have a serious question. Do you think somehow we’ve not really questioned gender stereotypes – in the sense that what comes across in the early part of book seems to hammer home that you are the geek and I am the vague woman…

S: No. That’s what you insist on saying. I don’t think D and S of the book are quite like that all the time. These are persons you have invented as though for the interviews and you keep broadcasting them.

D: No, no, it’s a joke. While we were travelling we had written these two very different books – The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power and The Vague Woman’s Handbook. So for a while it felt like a clever way to describe us.

S: I’m circling back to the question you asked. I don’t think while writing we set out with agendas, we didn’t want to ‘be’ radical – we just wrote the truth as we saw it, at the time, as we were then.

D: The Motorcycle Diaries begins with the observation that the two characters who went on this journey ceased to exist the moment they returned home. So the book was essentially written by two other people. In our case too, I suppose. The two people who travelled and the two people who wrote the book are different.

S: That is true about this book as well.

D: In what ways have we changed? Like definitely changed?

(Long pause)

S: I think one way in which we have changed is that when you pose this question, we don’t have any ready answers. That’s it. We are not very certain anymore.

D: What is the one book that really defined your childhood? I don’t think I know this.

S: The Silver Horseshoe by Javad Tarjemanov. It was the life of the mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky. Despite being one of the greatest mathematicians of that era, even his closest aides refused to give him a proper hearing for what he had come up with. But you do know this; it’s there in the book. I am sure a lot of people have another solution to the quarter life crisis that compelled us to travel. Why The Heat and Dust Project? Why not Have-A-Child Project?

D: But your angst had me terrified at the time. You were in such a dark phase. Though you still have dark phases, that had been of a different magnitude. But I didn’t for a second think more responsibilities, more chains would have been good for you. It was the opposite I was trying to do: free you, us. Though, of course, nowadays I get extremely anxious about not having a baby.

S: We’ll probably need to start selling more books than we buy for ourselves.

D: This is something I have never asked you. What do you really think about the process of writing? Other than The Heat And Dust Project, there have been two other books you’ve written. But they are very different from each other – and from what I write. What does the process of writing mean to you? For someone who writes non-fiction? In what shape does the book appear?

S: I think for me the idea of The Nexus was born during The Heat and Dust Project. But that was just a shape of an idea, a mere shadow in the beginning. You start working with it until it really torments you. The more you wrestle with it, the more the sharp edges and angles that you had not accounted for, become visible. Once you agree that this is probably how it happened – in my case, the shape of the theory that links the nexus between energy, food and water to economic growth – that you begin to substantiate it. You craft it in a way that it makes it seem coherent. But as in fiction, so too in non-fiction. Easier envisioned in the head. It is while committing it to the page that the weak links show up.

D: In The Heat and Dust Project, when we were writing about ourselves, we quickly got estranged from D and S, the characters, even if they were versions of us. And I think that estrangement was perhaps necessary to write the truth. Does anything like this happen in your kind of writing?

S: Well, in the beginning you are never quite clear. You examine the central idea back and forth, back and forth. At that stage you can never be too sure about anything. And most dangerously, you must also be open to the possibility that the very premise from which you started off might not be valid in the first place. But I have a different question for you. What do you think leads to the unmaking of an idea?

D: What do you mean?

S: When is it that you as a writer are unable to come to terms with what you’ve written?

D: I think it happens the moment it is published – and out there. That is the truth. Any writer – I think – wrestles with this inchoate sensation. After a book is out – I know I probably sound very theoretical – but to the author, its form disintegrates. It is only reassembled when somebody else is reading it. I don’t know about serious non-fiction – the kind that analyzes the world at large – for every other kind of book, I feel this might be the case. In recent years, which book has affected you most deeply?

S: Anna Karenina. By far.

D: I do remember that phase. You were reading it all time when you were working on the first draft of The Nexus.

S: The other protagonist in Anna Karenina, Levin, is a sort of stand in for Tolstoy himself – literally, Levin is of-Lev – and he raises some of the exact questions I was examining in The Nexus.

D: How is Russia of that time similar to our India?

S: These are old fundamental questions, going back to a time when classical economists used to dominate. These remain relevant. The Russia of that time, like a lot of India now, was still not quite urbanized. Russia was agrarian compared to the nations of Western Europe at the time and there was a great deal of debate in the parlour rooms about the path to be taken in the future. These are important considerations for India too.