Moving beyond mere travellers’ tales (Feature, IANS Books)

July 28th, 2011 - 2:40 pm ICT by IANS  

Barack Obama New Delhi, July 28 (IANS) The core of travel writing may not have changed much over the centuries, but an emerging breed of travel writers, both Indians and others, are bringing in a vital change - focussing more on people and less on places.

It is cocktail at its best, a fine brew of history, cultural spice, politics and local favours that whets the appetite of the itinerant book worm and the stray thinker. And it helps the tourism industry pick up an odd cue as well.

One of the leading protagonists of this new genre of writers is novelist Amitav Ghosh, whose novels “In an Antique Land”, “The Glass Palace”, “The Hungry Tide”, “The Sea of Poppies” and “The River of Smoke” are tales set in regions as colourful and eclectic as the Nile delta, Mandalay, Sundarban delta and Guangzhou, the Canton of yore.

“Reading ‘The Hungry Tide’ was a profound experience for me,” recalled Urmila Singh, a senior staff writer at an international publishing house in Britain.

“I was located in Kolkata when the book was first published by Ravi Dayal in 2004. I remember reading the book in one go - over a week. And at the end of the last chapter, I found myself on a country trawler cruising the creeks of the giant Gangetic delta in search of dolphins and tigers with the book in my backpack,” she said.

“It was almost like living the book,” Singh added.

A rural eco-tourism operator in the Sundarbans, which employs former poachers-turned-conservators as tour guides, even touted a three-day package as The Hungry Tide trail, Singh recounted.

Writer Amitav Ghosh describes his recent book “The River of Smoke” as a travelogue with a difference. It combines travel, the mystique of the Orient, the history of 19th century migration and the ruthless mercantile policies of the East India Company. In the process, the book documents the beginning of a volatile Chinese, Indian and Western trade link.

“Opium trade accounted for one-fifth of India’s revenue (around 1839). But for some strange reason, this part of Indian history is missing from history books. I wanted to document it,” Ghosh says.

And old Canton was so much like India in its cultural sensitivity, Ghosh says.

William Dalrymple’s “In Xanadu”, “City of Djinns” and “Nine Lives” are inimitable travelogues that span an array of global destinations and themes ranging from history, culture, physical travel to social change and Indian occult.

“If 19th century travel writing was principally about places - about filling in the blanks of the map and describing remote places that few had seen, the best of 21st-century travel writing is almost always about people - exploring the extraordinary diversity that still exists in the world beneath the veneer of globalisation,” Dalrymple says.

Suketu Mehta takes travel writing to new terrain in his book “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found”, which converts the city into a 21st century destination with its tinsel, nostalgia and murky underbelly.

Accounts of travel, reportage, spirituality and narratives merge creatively in books like “Butter Chicken in Ludhiana” and “An End to Suffering: Buddha in the World” by Pankaj Mishra, while writer Vikram Seth documents his impressions of a changing India and the West in his travel-cum-family novels.

Writer-journalist Avirook Sen documented the changing America during President Barack Obama’s election campaign in his political travelogue “Looking for America” as an intrepid roving reporter.

“I was trying to unravel the political phenomenon sweeping across the US,” Sen said.

Travel writer Mark Stephen Levy, who is documenting the changing India, says his journey is a personal one because I met my wife 30 years ago in Jaipur.

Literary historians date this modern genre of travel writing back to the mid-1970s, when Paul Theroux inspired a band of new young writers with his “The Great Railway Bazaar”.

Travel writing has an at least 2,000-year-old history in India.

Says noted travel writer Pico Iyer in Time magazine: “We turn to Marco Polo for the practical information he collects. We read Ibn Battuta, who set out a year after Polo’s death for his digression and often orientalising personality. In India, he goes out of his way to describe most of the people as infidels.”

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at

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