ZEE JLF@The British Library
Anthony Sattin, Christina Lamb and Samanth Subramanian in conversation with William Dalrymple
Travel writing is one of the most ancient forms of literature but does it have any relevance in the age of the Internet, globalisation and Google Maps? Travel writers William Dalrymple, Anthony Sattin, Hugh Thomson, Monisha Rajesh and Samanth Subramanian discussed the evolving genre, and why it still remains a window into other worlds and cultures.
Dalrymple described travel writing as one of the earliest forms of writing (the novel is an 19th century invention). Since the early wandering of patriarchs in the Old Testament, factual accounts of merchants, pilgrimages and tales of quests, to contemporary accounts of travel, this literary form appears in every culture in the world.
Rajesh read from her book, Around India in 80 Trains. Her chosen passage was a description of travelling through Mumbai on the ‘spaghettini trails’ of its commuter trains. The ‘super crush load’ carriages full of Mumbai commuters were not for the faint-hearted, with rugby-tackling, flying, satchel-carrying men, some wearing bellbottoms, leaping from platforms onto still moving trains.
Dalrymple read from City of Djinns, his account of a ‘disappeared’ Delhi, changed substantially by Partition. Travelling to Karachi, he tracked down the enigmatic and embittered author, Amit Ali, whose novel, Twilight in Delhi was published by Bloomsbury Group’s Leonard & Virginia Woolf. Ali, banned from travelling home to Delhi as a Pakistan citizen, was an angry man whose refusal to acknowledge the existence of Pakistan made him a man of no place, living on a memory of a Delhi of his youth long gone. An evocative passage, the account dwelt on memories of not just a disappeared city but also the rich, chaste Delhi Urdu, now shrunk and words lost.
Sattin’s The Pharaoh’s Shadow took us to Egypt, journeying into an intersection between ancient and modern amidst the tombs of kings and the remains of palaces destroyed but still replete with the mystery of legends. A night-time expedition to an ancient sacred lake meant spying on secret prayers and midnight rituals, and turned out to be a more scary proposition than he had imagined.
Thomson’s One Man on a Mule is a South American adventure in England, his reading a sneak preview prior to the book’s launch next month. His travels amongst the ‘mule fanciers’ of England made his first task – to acquire a mule – a journey in itself. Riding bareback on Diamond the mule his horsemanship was brought seriously into question: perhaps a donkey would be a better choice.
Subramanian admitted his Granta article was not strictly travel writing. The view he evokes from the diving platform in the Breach Candy Club in Mumbai, draws fevered comparisons of a starlit Bombay with an embattled Fallujah. The pool, a ‘pale blue amoeba’ had a charged symbolism for a club built during the Raj: Indians could be members but only Europeans sat on the governing committee and decided club business. No one swam.
Travel writing, it seems, is a form with a seeming less endless capacity for re-invention.
– By Paula Van Hagen