Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." This was the private detective of Raymond Chandler’s dreams, a man who struck a match in the darkness of the big city.

All travellers are detectives of a sort, determined to discover truth by following maps and guides. Stories are just another kind of map then: opening up a world in which plots become milestones and characters become a layer of the landscape. It’s why backpackers on Colaba Causeway are seen clutching, not the Lonely Planet guide, but Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram.

Canvas: (clockwise from above, left) History and geography meet in Ghosh’s Kolkata, Photo Indranil Bhoumik/Mint; Rushdie evokes Malabar Hill’s lovable humanity, Photo Wikimedia Commons ; Roy’s Kerala is far from backwaters tourism, Photo Manoj Madhavan/Mint ; and Ali’s Old Delhi is caught up in turmoil, Photo Sandipan Das/Mint .

THE EAST

Amitav Ghosh’s work

But there are those books which shade the landscapes of the East into the lives of its people. In the fiction of Amitav Ghosh, for whom geography and history have always been simultaneous, ordinary settings develop startling backstories. To walk through bylanes in residential Kolkata with The Shadow Lines is to realize a whole complex of Partition and ideology that envelops their histories. To sit in a tea shop is to unravel the pasts of the unknown young men who share your table.

In The Hungry Tide, the story of an imaginary settlement on the Sundarbans reconstructs its entire ecosystem: to walk through its unparalleled forests in real life will forever be a quest for Lusibari and Garjontola. And in his Ibis trilogy, whose second instalment River of Smoke comes out this July, everything from Kolkata’s commerce in opium to the colonial histories of the India-Myanmar border becomes part of a wild intercontinental odyssey that begins on the banks of the Hooghly. There can be no better way to learn history, Ghosh says, than by making it personal.

Supriya Nair

THE WEST

Salman Rushdie’s work

Rushdie’s Mumbai may seem overly dependent on the fluted columns and yellowed stonework of the neighbourhoods around Malabar Hill, with its parks where people from other parts of the city still come “on chutti" (holiday). But it is also the constantly crumbling, constantly remade world of the Irani cafés and art galleries of south Mumbai, of the Western Railway’s stations, of central Mumbai’s pickle factories and red light areas.

The star attraction of Rushdie’s Mumbai, though, is always its grotesque but lovable humanity. His disaffected Parsis become rock stars; his psychotic cartoonists become political overlords; his magical midnight’s children become seers, beggars, lose their homes, find love. Rushdie was perhaps the first English-language author to bridge the gap between two well-worn clichés: In his novels, it made sense that the city that never sleeps is also the city of dreams.

Supriya Nair

THE NORTH

Twilight in Delhi

Mayank Austen Soofi

THE SOUTH

The God of Small Things

There are neither beaches nor tea gardens in Arundhati Roy’s Kerala, a place anchored to its time, not its advertising. It is overflowing with human energy: a place where a stop at a toddy shack might bring you in contact with a communist radical and a factory-owning capitalist at once; where a bus ride can be overwhelmed by protesters walking in the other direction; where an evening by the village river can change your destiny. It is a place of whitewashed churches, frenetic party offices and homes full of secrets.

True, Roy’s Ayemenem is underpinned with such darkness that it may put you off the most quotidian activities, like going to a movie theatre (or at least its drinks counter) for some time after you’ve travelled through it. But unlike the tourist Kerala, it can be visited in the rainy season. It invites serious engagement.

And we hear the pickles are delicious.

Supriya Nair

supriya.n@livemint.com

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