Little Greece in Gujarat
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For most Indians, Bharuch, in Gujarat, may not ring a bell unless they are fans of Jabsons peanuts, which is produced and packaged there. For intrepid traveller Zac O’Yeah, however, the deal is altogether different. As a foreigner who has been living in India for over two decades, he is uniquely placed to look at even the most unremarkable regions with fresh eyes and bring a new perspective. That’s the key that unlocks his latest travelogue, A Walk Through Barygaza.
At less than 100 pages, it’s really a long essay—whimsical, erudite, amusing and baffled by turns. When O’ Yeah lands up in the city after a train ride from Ahmedabad, he is greeted by a sign announcing cheap McDonald’s meals. At his hotel, an employee promises “non-veg” and alcohol, both of which are frowned upon in the state. The town is dotted with shops selling cellphones with state-of-the-art selfie cameras.
Sounds like typical small-town India? This is where O’Yeah begins narrating the quaint historical origins of the place—where Greek merchants landed centuries ago to trade in spices (Barygaza is the Greek name for Bharuch), a popular local cookie is still called Aflatoon (the Arabic name for philosopher Plato), and the landscape bears traces of forgotten ancient fortifications.
Curiosity comes in abundance to O’Yeah, who declares himself “an Alice in architectural wonderland” as he goes around identifying the ruins of Malabari Darwaja (the doorway to Kerala, the hub of the spice route) or the Soneri Mahal (where goddess Lakshmi was believed to have lived; it is now a police station). With some local help, old textbooks and informed intuition, he unravels a fascinating city within a city. O’Yeah is most entertaining when he describes his impressions of the locals. In contrast, the lengthy historical deductions, especially towards the end, feel somewhat heavy-going.