The art of travel reading

This oppressive lockdown has forced people to read. I have managed to read a lot of travel books that I had bought to read before going to the place. 

Travellers have been writing books for a long time. Those two Chinese guys Hiuen Tsang and Fa-Hien were the first we were introduced to as students. They made some interesting observations. 

Then came not just one or two travellers but entire armies. The Muslim hordes descended on India, in wave after wave, over five centuries. 

But they were what a new language nearly a thousand years later, Urdu, would call jahil. It means, if you want to be generous, clueless. It actually means ignorant lout. So no travel books got written. These guys weren’t travellers. 

Then in the mid-16th century came the European travellers. They wrote a lot. My first exposure to one of them was in 1990 when someone brought along photocopies of some pages by a man called Joseph Tiefenthaler, a Jesuit. He had described the Ayodhya mosque and Sita ki Rasoi. QED, said my friend. 

Over the next 30 years I have read many such accounts and found them very informative. I so wonder, though, how they got around, what they did for food and where they stayed. It couldn’t have been easy. 

Oddly enough, there have been very few American travellers who have written books about their experiences in India. The best known amongst the older ones is Mark Twain who came here in 1896. He made sure he said all the nice things. 

But there was Katherine Mayo as well who was full of bile and wrote a lot of nasty things. Gandhiji said “It is the report of a drain inspector sent out with the one purpose of opening and examining the drains of the country to be reported upon, or to give a graphic description of the stench exuded by the opened drains.”

Then political correctness happened and travellers don’t say it like it is any longer. They are expected not to offend countries that deserve to be offended and jolted out of their complacency. This role has now been taken over by foreign journalists. 

These days you only get feel-good books. I don’t like them. Far better read the sort of sarcastic things V S Naipaul wrote about India. Such writers hold up a mirror that’s not distorted by political correctness. 

But spiteful writing, whether through disdain or sarcasm, is just one aspect of good travel writing. You have to be able to tell a good story, too. 

As Paul Theroux was able to do, you must portray the natives as weirdos but in a gentle way. He is my favourite travel writer. So is Alexander Frater whose pursuit of the monsoon from Trivandrum to Cherrapunji is an absolute classic. 

There are others like Simon Winchester, the journalist who was expelled from India during the Emergency, and Jan Morris, whose writing is just what a travel book should be — history, anthropology, humour and a light touch.

But travel writing is not just about going from one place to another being nice or nasty. The anthropology researchers also do a very good job. 

Robert Ardrey who wrote a lot about Africa was great to read as was Konrad Lorenz. There are scores of them, actually. 

The market for travelogues in the West is well established. In India it’s still struggling because 99 per cent of those who travel can’t write or even know what good travel writing is. That, sadly, includes publishers.

Newspapers have, of course, long ago stopped paying for travel with a view to writing. The genre is almost gone because it’s impossible for a writer to finance travel writing. 

A few Indians, non-resident Indians (NRI) and persons of Indian origin (PIOs) do indulge their passion but their numbers are dwindling. But most resident Indians don’t know what to put in a travel book. 

I think this is because we resident Indians don’t understand what travel writing is. Most of us think it’s about monuments and scenic spots and bars and so on. But for that there is always Wiki. 

Actually, however, it’s about the people a traveller meets and the sorts of local practices he sees. It is, if you like, anthropology-lite. The Europeans are very good at it and a few Americans. 

So when I buy a travel book I look for three things about the author, in that order: European; American; NRI/PIO, resident Indian. Try it. It works. 

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