Home > Magazine > Cover Story > AN ARMCHAIR TRAVELER?S INDIA



September 2002


For many South Asian immigrants, a constant regret is not being able to visit ?back home? more often. Getting sufficient time off from work can be a problem and, for some, the cost of travel may be prohibitive.

Though, with a little imagination and good travel literature, thankfully, one is only a book away from the destination of their dreams. More so, for the South Asians, because there has been a spattering of choices of wonderful travelogues on India. These travel tomes are significant in that they give the new or seasoned visitor a personal - and often idiosyncratic - glimpse of the region.

Since the authors are usually non-Indians, who have traveled from West to East, their books can be especially fascinating for the immigrants who made their life-altering journeys in the opposite direction. It is always interesting to see how writers from these ?new homelands? view the ?old homeland?. There are so many books ? varying in style, tone and content ? that any survey of them will remain highly selective and incomplete.


For hardy backpackers who relish the rough-and-tumble of highway travel in South Asia, two books worth checking out are On the Grand Trunk Road: A Journey into South Asia by Steve Coll, and Days and Nights on the Grand Trunk Road: Calcutta to Khyber by Anthony Weller. Steve Coll ? now the managing editor of The Washington Post ? takes us on a rollicking trip across the subcontinent, and along the way he makes some astute comments about the people and politics of this tumultuous region. While Anthony Weller?s tone can be sharp and his views rustic, he uses his mordant wit to good effect in giving us a thought-provoking account of his travels. Referring to the Ganges in Benares, he says, ?the stench is encyclopedic and hypnotic.?


William Dalrymple is an accomplished writer who has won numerous awards, one of which was the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award for City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi. This roving author, who wrote his first award-winning bestseller when he was only twenty-two, spent four years in Delhi to research the book; and it is a marvelous treat for anybody who has spent some time in Delhi. With much enthusiasm, Dalrymple patiently unravels the historical layers of Delhi and examines each of the eight cities from different angles; but, also, he interlinks the city?s past with the present in an ingenious manner, making the story vivid and engrossing. Toward the end, there is a lucid account of the creation myth of Delhi contained in The Mahabharata. I have yet to come across a comparable book about any other city in India.

In The Age of Kali: Indian Travels and Encounters, William Dalrymple gives us some of the smartest reporting on South Asia in recent years. Whether he is interviewing Benazir Bhutto or Imran Khan in Pakistan or making dangerous excursions to meet the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and the drug lords in the North West Frontier, his writing is always memorable. Dalrymple is currently working on a BBC TV series about the religions of India.


For those who love traveling by train, The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia by Paul Theroux is an enduring favorite. Although it was first published in the 70?s, the writing is still fresh and the liveliest portion of the book deals with the Indian subcontinent. Theroux is a gifted writer who has that rare ability to bring out the humor in almost any situation or encounter. Readers who like his brisk, polished travelogues will follow him anywhere; and this inveterate traveler and prolific writer seems to have gone to every place in the world. Exploring Indian Railways by Bill Aitken is another interesting book to own if you are a train buff. The Scottish-born author, who has made India his home, also wrote a well-regarded book entitled Seven Sacred Rivers.

When it comes to river journeys, Rory Nugent turns out to be an engaging and intrepid adventurer in The Search for the Pink-Headed Duck: A Journey into the Himalayas and Down the Brahmaputra. But, without a doubt, Slowly Down the Ganges ? Eric Newby?s tale of the 1200-mile journey he and his wife undertook in the 60?s ? remains a classic in this category of travel writing.


V. S. Naipaul can be a provocative and controversial figure, but there is no denying his extraordinary achievement as a writer. This Nobel laureate?s trilogy about India will remain a milestone in the travel literature of the subcontinent. An Area of Darkness was written in the 60?s; India: A Wounded Civilization in the 70?s; and India: A Million Mutinies Now in the 80?s. Taken as a whole, these three elegantly written books show the changes in his views and the progress of his thinking over three decades.

Pico Iyer must be one of the most widely traveled writers in the world today. He is a true ?global soul? (used as the title of his most recent book). His restless wandering has taken him to the far corners of the earth. When it comes to South Asia, Iyer?s Indian heritage (he once described India as his homeland ?once removed?) makes him a discerning observer. Tropical Classical: Essays from Several Directions is a good book to start with, although all his books are enjoyable and worth reading.

Trevor Fishlock (Cobra Road: An Indian Journey) and Mark Tully (No Full Stops in India) are two veteran British journalists who have expertly used their long experience and intimate knowledge of the subcontinent to write absorbing books.


Wildlife enthusiasts, who have fond memories of Jim Corbett?s beguiling stories, will be enthralled when they read Of Tigers and Men: Entering the Age of Extinction by Richard Ives, and Spell of the Tiger: Man-Eaters of Sundarbans by Sy Montgomery. Ives, an American naturalist and safari tour leader, spent four years in South Asia and Southeast Asia in search of the elusive wild tiger. As the haunting subtitle hints, the author?s explorations and reflections make it a poignant book. Ives shows much empathy when describing his encounters with the renowned Tigerwallahs ? Billy Arjan Singh, Fateh Singh Rathore and Valmik Thapar ? who have fought heroically to save the tiger from extinction. This limpid, gracefully written book stayed with me long after I put it down. Sundarbans in the Bengal region is the largest tidal delta and mangrove swamp in the world, and here the local people both fear and revere the tigers that stalk them. With compassion and wonderment, Sy Montgomery examines this complex, enigmatic relationship between man and beast.


Norman Lewis, who first visited India in 1950, is widely regarded as the doyen of English travel writers, and his roaming over the last few decades has taken him just about everywhere. In A Goddess in the Stones: Travels in India, he stays off the beaten path and, in the company of an energetic young guide, sets out to explore ?primitive? cultures, which are experiencing rapid change in India. After going to the tribal lands of Orissa and Madhya Pradesh from the badlands of Bihar, he writes with insight and feeling about isolated tribes such as the Kondhs and the Gonds. Reading him, one is reminded of the anthropologist and Gandhian, Verrier Elwin, who spent much of his life in the tribal heartland of central India (his autobiography, The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin, and Ramachandra Guha?s Savaging the Civilized are excellent sources).


Fans of hill stations will like The Great Hill Stations of Asia by Barbara Crossette, who is a contributing writer for The New York Times. Having spent several years in Asia, this well-read and trenchant journalist writes knowledgeably about the hill stations she visited in various countries. The book has a wonderful section on a sextet of Indian hill stations, ranging from Simla in the north to Ooty in the south.

Anybody who wants to relive the magic and drama of the rainy season ? which plays such a key role in the life of the subcontinent ? can turn to Alexander Frater?s Chasing the Monsoon: A Modern Pilgrimage Through India. Starting in Trivandrum, where the meteorological station is located, Frater follows the path of the monsoon across the subcontinent until he ends up in Cheerapunji, considered the ?wettest place on earth? by the Guinness Book of World Records. This lyrical, richly evocative travelogue was also made into a TV program, with the author acting as the narrator.

May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons: A Journey Among the Women of India by Elisabeth Bumiller (an American journalist) is a thoughtful book in which the writer, while giving us a sympathetic portrayal of various Indian women, takes on hot-button issues like the dowry system and female infanticide without being sensationalistic.


Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: Retracing the Ramayana Through India is a singular travel book written with panache by Jonah Blank. Deftly moving between the past and the present, he retells the beloved epic by tracing the steps of Rama, the blue-skinned God, in modern India. Whether he is discussing Hindu beliefs or TV serials, Blank?s analysis of Indian culture and society is always shrewd. With consummate skill, he weaves the different strands of his story to create a seamless narrative that is always compelling. Blank is a delightful raconteur and he brings this timeless classic to life with effortless grace. As an anthropologist, he has moved on to write a scholarly book (Mullahs on the Mainframe) about the Daudi Bohras in Gujarat; and now, in addition to being a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report, he is a policy adviser to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. My hope is that he will return to India one day and tackle The Mahabharata in his inimitable style.


Pankaj Mishra?s Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India is the only Indian book to be included in this survey of books by ?foreign? travelers to the subcontinent. He is an articulate and perceptive writer, with a unique sensibility, and his essays have been widely published in the West. Mishra wrote the book in his twenties before he became well-known as an editor and a novelist. It is filled with amusing incidents, including a hilarious case of misunderstanding in Ambala, where Mishra?s host ? a wealthy businessman ? treats him as a prospective groom for his daughter. In his travels through nineteen small towns in India, Mishra shows a keen sense of humor, and some of the people he meets along the way are easily recognizable types. This charming travelogue has been praised by Sunil Khilnani in The Idea of India, and by Ian Buruma in The New York Review of Books; but, unfortunately, it has not been published in North America or the U.K.


Spiritual India has always attracted travelers and there is no dearth of good books on this vast subject. Two fairly recent ones that made an impression on me were Spiritual Tourist: A Personal Odyssey Through the Outer Reaches of Belief by Mick Brown, and Empire of the Soul: Some Journeys in India by Paul William Roberts. What is so appealing about Mick Brown is that he comes across as a genuine seeker, with an open mind, who is neither dismissive nor gullible when describing his various encounters in India and elsewhere. This heartfelt book is, as one person put it, ?a perfect balance between rational skepticism and spiritual longing.? Paul William Roberts is a Canadian writer who lived in India for a few years in the 70?s. Since then he has made about twenty trips and, in the introduction to his book, he writes that India is ?the only country that feels like home? to him. Even though the book is not solely about his spiritual quest, it is obvious that this is what draws him to India repeatedly.

About the same can be said of Georgia?s own Robert Arnett. His India Unveiled, is an endearing book that doubles up as both, a coffee-table classic as well as a spiritual and cultural journey through the canvas of India.

Andrew Harvey?s A Journey in Ladakh: Encounters with Buddhism is one of my favorite travel books. It is a beautifully written account of Harvey?s arduous journey (both physical and spiritual) to the heart of Tibetan Buddhism in the high mountains of northern India. In this remote area, which is cut off by snow for six months every year, he explores traditions that date back to 400 B.C. Having lived in India as a child, Harvey ? who was a Shakespearean scholar at Oxford ? writes with great eloquence and sensitivity about his quest.


Every reader?s journey is unique and, when it comes to the travel literature of South Asia, there is no shortage of authors who have written fine books on topics ranging from the princely life (Hindoo Holiday by J. R. Ackerley, and The Hill of Devi by E. M. Forster) to the spiritual life (The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, and Ultimate Journey by Richard Bernstein).

My own journey of the moment is a remarkable tour of occult India in the company of Tahir Shah, an Afghan-born British writer who is the son of Idries Shah. In Sorcerer?s Apprentice, he writes with unflagging zest about his surreal and magical adventures in India. Traveling with a young guide he calls the Trickster, Shah meets a bewildering assortment of sorcerers, sages, sadhus, fakirs, fortune-tellers, frauds, hypnotists, healers and humbugs. The title of this funny and captivating book refers to Shah?s apprenticeship to Hakim Feroze, who is one of India?s master conjurors.


For armchair travelers, sitting in comfort at home, the pleasure is all in the journey the author takes us on. And since there is no destination to worry about, this agreeable journey can continue indefinitely. As R. L. Stevenson said, ?To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.?

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