Wherever I may roam: Travelling in the subcontinent (Column: Bookends)
What drives people to leave the comforts of their home and familiar surroundings to explore other lands near and far? Can we ascribe it to the human fascination to visit new places, see how other people live, or obtain fresh experiences? Or are they simply echoing life, which itself is a journey in time and space?
Travel also always had a close relation with literature. One of the most earliest epics is the "The Odyssey", an account of the lengthy - and largely involuntary - wanderings of the eponymous Greek warrior. Travel, as a quest or due to other reasons, has always been a key motif of epics - both sacred and secular - and classics, be it "The Ramayana" and (to a shorter extent) "The Mahabharata", the tasks of Hercules or of Sindbad the Sailor or Hatim Tai, the wondrous adventures of Captain Gulliver, the global circumnavigation of Jules Verne's Phileas Fogg and even Harry Potter in "The Deathly Hallows".
If we stick to real life, we have to thank a band of intrepid travellers - men and women - for their efforts down the centuries to push back the boundaries of terra incognita and inform their own people about another part of the world. And a bulk of it in the era before the advent of reliable maps, mechanical transport, modern medicine, sophisticated communication devices and many other technological developments we now take for granted.
Some of these explorers are familiar names - Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Sir Francis Drake, Captain Cook, David Livingstone, Robert Scott ('Scott of the Antarctic') and their accounts and memoirs are literary classics in their own right.
As far as India and the South Asian subcontinent is concerned, its "best reporters" included Ibn Battuta, Chinese monks Hieun Tsang and Faxian (or Fa Hien in our textbooks), the Russian visitor Afanasy Nikitin, French traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, or even the Seleucid envoy, Megasthenes, whose "Indika" was a sourcebook about the subcontinent for classical Greece and Rome. They have had their successors - down to their present day.
The world has mostly been explored, but travel writing persists, providing a view of various lands and cultures through the eye of an outside observer or even a native or diaspora member, who can offer a refreshingly fresh perspective, or may be a most unconventional one.
There scarcely is a country or region that has not been visited and written about. The Indian subcontinent has never been an exception, down the ages to the present.
On India, some representative works could include Eric Newby's "Slowly Down the Ganges". It entails exactly what it says - a 1963 trip with his life-long travel companion and wife on a series of boats, but also by rail, bus and bullock cart from Haridwar down to then Calcutta, based on the theory that "on a river, if you go downstream, you're sure to end up somewhere..." and serving as an invaluable portrait of the last years of Nehruvian India.
Travel in the country is however incomplete without railway journeys.
Paul Theroux crosses India in "The Great Railway Bazaar", his mid-1970s trip from London to Japan on a variety of trains through Europe and Asia ( and then back home on the Trans Siberian Express) and then retraces it three decades hence on "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star" - save the areas which are now inaccessible.
But when it comes to journeys on Indian Railways, the key work - wry, amusing, dramatic and even wistful at times - is Britain-based Monisha Rajesh's 2011 India-specific emulation of Verne's classic tale but with a twist - a 40,000-km train-borne adventure around the country - in "Around India in 80 Trains".
It is also a sort of home-coming for her, two decades after her family again left the country for Britain after a brief spell trying to adjust to it.
Taking the focus to the other side is Bishwanath Ghosh with "Chai Chai: Travels in Places Where You Stop But Never Get off", who explores a multitude of the towns hosting key railway junctions across the length and breadth of the Indian Railway network.
As far as Pakistan is concerned, Alice Albinia's "Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River", traces the course of one of the subcontinent's most prominent rivers upstream and back in time through Pakistan and India up to its origin in Tibet, with colourful descriptions of the various people living along it. Then there is Maliha Masood's "Dizzy in Karachi: A journey to Pakistan", which seeks to make the western-educated woman understand the divergent realities (and perceptions) of her homeland after an absence of two decades.
These works may just be a representative - and subjective - selection but offer an incisive view of not only geography but politics, society, cultural norms - and most importantly perceptions!
(27.07.2014 - Vikas Datta is a Senior Assistant Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Posted on 27-07-2014)