Right of Passage: Travels from Brooklyn to Bali | Rahul Jacob
The happy result is a vision of a city that is so alive and so animated that we might as well be on its streets,” writes Rahul Jacob in his new book Right of Passage: Travels from Brooklyn to Bali. “Transporting us in this way is the very purpose of travel writing—and great writing of any description.” As evident in this collection, these words, on fellow travel writer Jan Morris, could well describe Jacob’s own writing.
In this age of sophisticated information technology, when we have already seen the Taj Mahal in all its hues on television and film, and the treasures of the Victoria Albert museum on online tours, the job of the travel writer has become far more challenging. The demand for a different kind of travel writing has grown—the kind that unravels offbeat, hidden destinations and shows how to get to the “real” experience of travelling, rather than visiting places.
Jacob does his job well by adding a historical perspective to personal impressions and reflections on the cultural and political significance of his chosen destinations. A Kolkata-born journalist, Jacob started travelling after he left home to study in the US at the age of 21. Later on, his stints at Fortune and Time magazines, and the Financial Times took him all over the world.
Right of Passage: Travels from Brooklyn to Bali: Picador India, 266 pages, Rs250.
In all these pieces, Jacob is more an astute journalist than a storyteller. As he writes in the piece on Morris, an acknowledged hero of Jacob’s, “Great non-fiction must necessarily sketch the big picture, but also capture the chance remark on a chat show and the historical footnote.” Jacob excels in bringing the small details alive. In one of the chapters, he talks about a Western woman so engrossed in her workout she fails to notice that she is speed walking through a Balinese funeral ritual—a perfect example of the clash of Western and Oriental ways of life in this tropical paradise.
One of Jacob’s gifts as a writer is that although most of his writing is personal reflection, he doesn’t deprive the reader of the useful information—where to go and what to see in a city or country. In an article about midtown Manhattan, he mentions in one paragraph where to learn how to make caipirinhas (Cabana Carioca at 123 West 45th Street), how to get half-price tickets to Broadway shows (the TKTS booth in Times Square), and his coming-to-terms with his own homosexuality.
Jacob relies heavily on historical details. For example, he describes how the Louisiana museum in Copenhagen has “nothing to do with the American state of Louisiana: the manor’s nineteenth century owner named it after his three wives, all called Louise”. History texts accompany Jacob on all his journeys: the Maldives with the journals of Ibn Battuta, Bali with Louise Koke, Colin McPhee, Waiter Spies and Beryl de Zoete, four writers of the 1930s. Some of the chapters in the book deal with the odds and asides of being an avid traveller: the joys of travelling in economy class; the peculiar pages of an Air China in-flight magazine. He also includes five profiles on travel writers including Joan Didion and Vikram Seth—rich portraits, combining personal musings and reportage.
The final section of the book, The Empire Writes Back, comprises seven love letters to Jacob’s adopted city, London, written before 2006. Sadly, the praise he so willingly lavishes on the city—“For all its differences, London’s most winning characteristic is that it is at peace with itself” and “London seems to me more of a mosaic than its US counterparts: assimilation is much more of a two-way street”—seems a bit naïve after the bombings of 2006.
The jumps from the first person narrative to historical references are jarring in some of the chapters, and occasionally, he adds more insider information than is necessary—for instance, in a piece about tennis in Wimbledon, a few Internet searches are needed to get most of what he writes.
The book also suffers from some repetition and clichés. For example, Jacob loves the word “bonhomie”. He attributes that characteristic to the men and women of almost every country he visits—from the cultural elite of Lebanon to the music makers of Dakar. By the end, it seems that everyone Jacob meets is good-natured, and that somewhat diffuses Jacob’s authority on his subjects.
But, overall, Right of Passage is an entertaining and inspiring read.