St Augustine’s clichéd adage, “the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page,” has a close equivalent in China, where it is said that a journey of a thousand miles is more instructive than reading ten thousand scrolls. Both statements evoke the close equivalence between reading and travelling, between a book and a journey, but it is perhaps the Arabic word rihlah that sums up the connection best. A rihlah is a book about a journey as well as the journey itself, as if the two were a single, inseparable whole. When Ibn Batutta called his book Rihlah, he was continuing an Islamic tradition that took shape in the ninth century, in the time of the Abbasid caliphs, two hundred years after the prophet Mohammed instructed his followers to “seek knowledge, even if you have to go to China.”
Batutta was a near contemporary of Marco Polo, and their travelogues as well as their journeys are similar in a variety of ways. In some cases, and within their respective cultures, Batutta and Polo brought home the first factual reports of mythical lands, and both men made passing on knowledge their top priority, even if they dabbled in myth-making on the side. Their books are travelogues, guides and histories rolled into one, without enough of any genre’s depths to satisfy readers of our time. They fail as travelogues because they are not intimate, as histories because they do not corroborate facts, and as guides because they are not systematic – because they are corrupted by the idiosyncrasies of singular expeditions. Both literature and travel have moved on dramatically since Batutta and Polo. Travel is easy and consumable en masse. Literature has turned inwards, to examine our personal lives. History has also changed; it has been shaped by the fragmentation and specialisation that penetrate every aspect of our lives, but travel writing is still a genre that allows writers to indulge in a mixture of reportage that others rarely allow, and the link between reading and travelling remains.
That link is curiosity, to want to see life through another person’s eyes. On their own, travelling or reading will only take you a part of the way, but together they can give you some sense of the whole. Graham Greene thought that the Indian novelist RK Narayan had offered him “a second home,” because without his writing, Greene “could never have known what it is like to be Indian.” He was grateful to Narayan – he “wakes in me a spring of gratitude,” wrote Greene – and I am similarly grateful to the writers listed below, because they have lent me their eyes and allowed me to see the places I pass through, however fleetingly, as home.
Travel Books about India
Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
Born in Gujarat, Suketu Mehta moved to Mumbai as a child. He moved again in his late teens, to the US, and it is his dislocation that Mehta grapples with in Maximum City, after he returns to his childhood home with his wife and children, to make a life. Mehta’s book is a portrait of the Mumbai tourists do not see, of its underbelly and its elite, groups that are not always easy to tell apart. Not satisfied by the journalist’s casual encounter, he builds close connections with his subjects – with gangland assassins, transvestite beer-bar dancers, slum dwellers, Bollywood stars, Bollywood hopefuls, Marathi nationalists and Jain diamond merchants who have relinquished everything to pursue spiritual purity. He allows himself to be sucked into their worlds, to which he becomes a superlative guide, able to immerse himself entirely – in a way no complete outsider ever could – and able to see out at the same time, so that he can translate his experiences for us, the reader without Indian – or Mumbaikar – eyes.
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City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi
William Dalrymple started his travel writing career in 1989 with In Xanadu. He was a student, reading history at Cambridge’s Trinity College, but his book, which describes a journey in the footsteps of Marco Polo, is a classic: an addition to the canon of overland travelogues that showed-up Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar, when I read it, by being about a journey that was as hopelessly, hilariously difficult as it was frivolous. Dalrymple passed through seven countries – Israel, Cyprus, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Pakistan and China – on his way to the Kublai Khan’s capital Shangdu, and would return to some of them in his later writing, but it was India that swallowed him up, like it did Claire and I. After graduating, he set up a home in Delhi, where he has lived on and off ever since, and it is this transition that City of Djinns describes.
It is impossible to choose just one of William Dalrymple’s books about India, and I won’t try to here. He has written histories of Britain’s early adventures on the Subcontinent and his travel journalism about the region has been collected into two books. I have only read two of these – White Mughals and The Age of Kali – and the only reason that City of Djinns is in bold here, at the top, is because it ties his work as an historian and travel writer together, by being both a search for Delhi’s Mughal roots and a home within the Indian capital.
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Other Books: Novels, Guides, Histories, Journalism, Polemics
Side by Side:
Being Indian and In Spite of the Gods
Pavan K. Varma and Edward Luce
When I taught English in Shanghai, I would occasionally describe an event that unfolded while I was in Delhi to my students. Reliance, a typically versatile Indian corporation, had recently opened a chain of green grocers that they called Reliance Fresh. The shops were orderly and air-conditioned, with fruit and vegetables clearly priced and separately shelved – a world apart, in other words, from the vendors who laid out their produce on canvas at markets or on the street. They were cheaper too, because Reliance could bring its full organisational depth to the problem of getting goods to market: refrigerated trucks were sent straight to farms, cutting out an assortment of middle men. The farmers got a better price and the quality of the produce was better too, because it didn’t have to be loaded and unloaded, in the sun, on its way from A to B to C to D. A win-win situation you might think, unless you were a street vendor or middle man, and the two groups made a prompt show of their anger. They went on strike and gathered outside branches of Reliance Fresh to hurl abuse – and sometimes stones – at its customers. Reliance was forced to shutter its shops and everybody had to go back to paying more for dirty, overripe fruit and vegetables. When the pandemonium died down, it reopened them, but the stores had been restocked and repositioned: they were now convenience stores, which would not compete directly with India’s existing agricultural supply chain.
My students were all a part of China’s upwardly mobile middle class, but many had simpler beginnings, in villages, and they had arrived at the symbol of their country’s progress – Shanghai, where the skyscrapers of Liujiazui twinkled outside my classroom window – through their own hard work and the sacrifices made by their parents. I told them the story because I thought it would help them understand what made China and India different. The middle men and market vendors would not have gotten away with their band in China, my students agreed, because the government wouldn’t let them. It’d call in the army if it had to, and progress would be made.
What, you might wonder, does this have to do with Being Indian and In Spite of the Gods? Both books are full of examples like mine, because they point at the contradictions that make India so fascinating and frustrating. The books have similar subtitles – “The truth about why the 21st century will be India’s” and “The strange rise of modern India” respectively – but come at the problem from different perspectives. Varma is an Indian diplomat. His book is a polemic, written in the course of a posting to Cyprus. Luce was the South Asia bureau chief for the Financial Times. His book is a collection of journalistic essays, and it moves easily between travelogue and economic analysis.
I read Being Indian during my first trip to the country, in 2006. I dog-eared it and scribbled in its margins because, like no other book I had found, it explained where India was going, which was at least as interesting as where it had been. I read In Spite of the Gods in Shanghai, in 2010, after it was recommended to me by the Daily Telegraph’s China bureau chief, who had just moved from Delhi to Beijing, and I carried it with me on my second trip to the country because it was an almost encyclopaedic catalogue of India’s potential as well as its problems. I will read them both again in the future, side by side, probably when I get back to the boxes of books I have sent home, because there is more in both of them than can be absorbed in a single reading, just as there is more – much more – in India than can be absorbed in a single visit.
|Being Indian||Amazon US||Amazon UK|
|In Spite of the Gods||Amazon US||Amazon UK|
Karen Armstrong is a modern-day syncretist, fascinated by the threads that tie all religions together. She has written best-selling histories of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; in Buddha, she puts the life of Gautama Siddhartha in the context of the Axial Age, when the market economy of new towns was transforming the Old World. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Zoroaster, Confucius and Daoism’s mythical founding figure Laozi: all were products of the Axial Age, like the Buddha, who Armstrong thinks emerged out of a sea change in the relationship between individuals, society and nature.
Buddha is a biography, in the Penguin Lives series, but it is not a life story of cross-referenced fact. Gautama Siddhartha probably did live – in the fifth or fourth century BCE – but was considered a legend until evidence of a historical Buddha was dug up during the British Raj, and the details of his life are either lost or obscured by myth. Armstrong reaches for the Axial Age as a result, to put the Buddha in historical context, and her portrait comes mostly from Buddhist scripture, with its mixture of allegorical and mundane events. The book is a useful tool anyway, because it is concise and well written. In India, it puts the emergence of Buddhism and the Upanishads side-by-side. In Southeast Asia, it helps makes sense of Buddhist symbolism, which has largely been drawn from the Buddha’s life.
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