The downhill journey of Indian travel writing
I was hooked from the first lines I ever read of Anil Yadav’s shambling, hilarious travel book, Is That Even A Country, Sir! Journeys In Northeast India By Train, Bus and Tractor (originally written in Hindi, and now available in an excellent translation by Anurag Basnet, published by Speaking Tiger). It was an excerpt posted on Facebook by my friend Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, the brilliant young physician/writer, whose Mantoesque collection of short stories, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, has been banned in his native Jharkhand.
Shekhar posted Yadav’s account of passing through the notorious “chicken’s neck corridor” to enter Assam. “Small stations and halts were passing by—New Bongaigaon, Nalbari, Barpeta, Rangiya. The reports and pictures published in newspapers were all saying that these were those places where the killings of Hindi-speakers had taken place in recent days. Buying red tea and some local savouries from a vendor, it struck me that my speech is inflected with a Bihari accent which makes an appearance at unguarded moments. ‘Our name is Aneel Yadav.’ I can’t tell how many individuals I gather within, other than myself, when I draw out my name.” A flute player innocently invites him to listen, which unleashes paranoia, “Who knows, maybe these people are using these techniques to identify Hindi-speakers on trains.”
Even halfway through that excerpt, I realized Yadav had produced that most precious of rarities—Indian travel writing in the classical mould: naked, humane, visceral and relatable. Of all the different categories comprising national literature, this one has continually, conspicuously lagged. It never genuinely flourished, but terminal decline set in after the advent of glossy travel magazines (full disclosure: I write for most of them) and blogs, which smell of editorial barter mendacity, reduced to plugging content that is mere padding around a laundry list of brand names. The newest trend is sheer vulgarity: name-dropping “celebrity”-authors photographed against postcard backdrops. This isn’t literature. It’s advertising.
Indian travel writing’s deterioration to lifestyle porn is particularly grotesque because it started off so well, with a string of vivid turn-of-the-20th-century accounts. I rate Nivedan best, the astounding memoir of Dharmanand Kosambi, who fled family responsibilities in a tiny village in Goa (his job was to tend to a grove of coconut palms) to study Sanskrit, Pali and Buddhism. He survived horrendous journeys filled with privation, trekked to the Himalayas, sailed to Sri Lanka, lived in a cave in Myanmar, and eventually taught at Harvard and Leningrad State Universities, before retiring to become something like Gandhi’s own Mahatma in the Sabarmati ashram.
Nivedan was marvellously translated from Marathi by Kosambi’s late granddaughter Meera Kosambi, who did the same for Pandita Ramabai’s eye-opening account of travelling in the US in the late 19th century. In her The Peoples Of The United States, this early Indian feminist adroitly reversed the male, Orientalist gaze, writing, for example, that “women—who may be pure, educated, effective as speakers, possessed of other excellent qualities, and much more capable than male preachers, but whose only fault is that they are women—are ordered by men to shut their mouths and sit quietly even if they have received a call from God to preach”.
Where Ramabai was forthright and forceful, the impressionable 18-year-old Mohandas Gandhi’s stories of England depict someone entirely unsure of himself (though he had previously displayed mettle by defying community elders who threatened excommunication for leaving India). The uber-nerd future “Father of India” embarrassed himself frequently, in an extensive catalogue of humiliations, which makes The Story of My Experiments With Truth exceptionally endearing. “I directed my attention to other details that were supposed to go towards the making of an English gentleman” writes the hapless Gandhi. “I decided to take dancing lessons.... But it was beyond me to achieve anything like rhythmic motion. I could not follow the piano and hence found it impossible to keep time.”
Such willingness to reveal blunders and awkwardness makes Gandhi’s diaries valuable, lasting and sheer fun to read. It is only when writers can admit they might be hopelessly homesick, and cursing the day they left home, that travel writing becomes credible and persuasive. Those are the makings of literature, not triumphal selfie-style despatches about tasting menus served by helicopter atop the Burj Khalifa, accompanied by new best friend Salman Rushdie.
Perhaps the greatest travel book of all time, The Road To Oxiana, intersperses trenchant, whip-smart descriptions of 1930s’ Palestine, Syria, Iran and Afghanistan, with equally vivid stories of fear, crippling cold, and severe illness. At one point, Robert Byron writes: “We had nothing to cook, and still worse, no water. I had been thirsty since the morning, and now drank a supply of white mud, melted snow, and oil, which was kept in a petrol tin for the radiator. The moon shone bright, the road was hard, the wind blew my blankets off; tramping up and down, the soldiers kept watch and sang to reassure themselves. I was bemoaning these obstacles to sleep when I woke up in daylight, having slept for ten hours.”
Still barely into my 20s, I came to Byron’s idiosyncratic masterpiece after reading the description of it as “sacred text, beyond criticism” by Bruce Chatwin, whose own books already made me feel that way about them. I’ll never forget the exact moment his writing first filtered directly to my gut, filling it with admiration, desire and longing. It was March 1990, unseasonably hot, outside the University of London Union where I had just finished basketball practice, and borrowed a battered copy of the (now legendary) 1983 Granta special edition on travel writing to read while replenishing myself with pints of St Clements (a mix of orange juice and lemonade). But before I took a sip, I was transfixed by a string of writers new to me: Jonathan Raban, Redmond O’Hanlon, Colin Thubron, Norman Lewis and, above all, Martha Gellhorn and Bruce Chatwin.
In his introduction to that seminal compilation, Bill Buford wrote: “these pieces succeed not by virtue of the details they report—exotic as they are—but by the contrivance of their reporting. They are all informed by the sheer glee of story-telling, a narrative eloquence that situates them, with wonderful ambiguity, somewhere between fiction and fact. There is of course nothing new in this kind of ambiguity, although travel writing seems to be its purest expression—purer even than the New Journalism of the sixties and seventies to which it bears more than a few similarities.”
From that first reading, Chatwin and the markedly akin poetic Polish genius, Ryszard Kapuściński, have endured as favourites, but my all-time writing hero is the breathtakingly ballsy Martha Gellhorn. A great war correspondent, she kept travelling and writing for 60 years, including the gem-studded collection of “horror journeys”, Travels With Myself And Another. I was still studying in London when I read it, and—the only time in my life—wrote to the author. It’s highly embarrassing to recall my piteous whining about inheriting an impoverished world, and hating becoming an investment banker (which fate loomed imminent).
Miraculously, Gellhorn wrote back. “I agree that your generation is taking on a miserable world.... But at 23, you have no right to despair. It is the only world you’ve got and the only time you have to live. Your job is to try and make any tiny corner of it better...for myself I think I’ve had more than a rich share of good luck. And though my writing has never been greatly read, I can’t say I honestly care: for me, personally, the point was to write it.” Those astute words fuelled my life journey towards being a writer and living in Goa, but they’re also revealing of the crucial ingredients for travel literature: moral compass, fearlessness, integrity. Fakery flops, which is why most travel blogs stand out conspicuously unreliable, hooked on freebies and inducements.
Thus, it is unsurprising that the standout predecessor to Is That Even A Country, Sir! was also not written in English. Jangalnama by Satnam, (the Punjabi activist/writer who committed suicide last year), is a disturbing, yet very beautiful record of two months spent on the move with Maoist guerrillas in the jungles of Bastar. It’s full of piercing insight. “Garbage is the sign of a ‘civilized’ society. An abundance and luxury, followed by muck and filth. The ‘civilized’ human being litters the beaches of Goa, the snow-clad Rohtang Pass, and the glaciers of the Himalayas. Fortunately the epidemic of the tourism industry has not yet struck here, nor have the jungles been declared holy places like Rishikesh, Haridwar, Benaras and Allahabad, or every kind of filth would have poisoned the natural and social environment of these jungles.”
Clear-eyed honesty like that is usually absent from Indian travel writing now, where unvarnished reality is treated with suspicion. This bares a critical fault line between travel and tourism, concepts that are twinned in industry parlance, but actually represent two very different things. In the essay, “It’s A Nomad Nomad World”, Chatwin writes: “Diversion. Distraction. Fantasy. Change of fashion, food, love and landscape. We need them as the air we breathe.... ‘He who does not travel does not know the value of men,’ said Ib’n Battuta, the indefatigable Arab wanderer who strolled from Tangier to China and back for the sake of it. But travel does not merely broaden the mind. It makes the mind.” This is not something you find by browsing TripAdvisor.
Anil Yadav’s book stands out for many reasons, starting with the most basic. He travels the most old-fashioned way, like Chatwin and Byron, by any means necessary. He took a Nagaland Roadways bus to Shillong, where “we were stiff with cold and could not control our shivering; so hungry that the thought of shredding the bus seats and eating them did not sound funny at all.” His companion steadily falls apart: “That nasal drop which earlier had a home in his pockets was to be found more and more in his hands. The red jacket he was wearing—the one I had gifted him at the beginning of the journey—was filthy. Its bright colour was now a memory. His face had changed too. His eyes had become alert and wary but the corners of his mouth drooped and so did his shoulders.”
But even as these misfits (Yadav is drinking steadily throughout the narrative) bumble through the North-East, their experiences allow a level of insight into the human condition that is incalculably superior to the conventional wisdom regurgitated in every know-it-all glamour feature on the region combined. “Tossing the useless goods on to his counter, I said, ‘You loot.’ No expression crossed the Marwari’s face. One by one, he waved incense in front of each of the fake goods he held in stock and prayed to the gods for all of them to sell at their full prices... he went to the back of the store and emerged with a tube of toothpaste in hand. ‘This is my personal toothpaste, you can have it. I cannot do any more for you. The underground and over-ground outfits here charge us so much tax that business has become impossible. Bhaisahab, if I sell original articles, I’ll starve.’”
Now that is travel writing worth the name.