It's in the books!
|Armchair travel takes on a special charm with the right books, says SHEILA
EXPLORE THE WORLD Through travel books
Sitting in the cosy confines of your favourite easy chair and going places,
seeing sights, meeting all sorts of people, all without having to don camping
gear, resort to insect repellents or learn a foreign language. Bliss, indeed.
All you need is to be a reader. And those clichés are true, you
know: places do come alive if the words are evocative, if the writer knows his
craft, if he takes some lifestyle observations, some travel reports and comes up
with a great stew. So much so, when you reach the last page, it's like coming
home to reality at the end of a great journey where you got to doff your
everyday life and live the life of an adventurer.
Then again, not all travel books are the stuff of great
journeys. Here's a list of what must rate arguably as some of the best travel
literature. I say arguably because lists like this will be argued from
Vadapalani to Vauxhall, Kotturpuram to Kiev. Why hasn't she included P. G.
Wodehouse, a voice will plaintively ask (rural Shropshire, anyone?). What's a
list without Colin Thubron, Pankaj Mishra or V. S. Naipaul, another voice will
pitch in, derisively. But for what it's worth, this is my line-up.
"Bon Appetit" by Peter Mayle. No one can describe the food of
foreign lands, namely France, like Peter Mayle. In books like "French Lessons,"
"A Year in Provence" and "Bon Appetit" (a delicious masterpiece, indeed), he has
melded info on the not-so-strange eating habits of Gallic territories with long
and luscious details of meals he has eaten. Fairs, fetes, food... an unbeatable
Books by Bill Bryson. The irrepressible Bryson, a native Iowan,
brings good clean wit to his writings, be it about garbage disposal units in the
United States, deconstructing the quintessential Aussie slogan `No worries,
mate' or the evergreen constant, tea, high and low, in Britain. And of course,
after you finish chuckling, you realise every word is true.
"City of Djinns" by William Dalrymple. There's history. The
history of Delhi and its people. Of Delhi's Mughals. Of Delhi's White Mughals.
And chronicled by William Dalrymple, the writer-turned-unofficial historian par
excellence. "City of Djinns" is quite the most definitive book on the Capital
you will ever read.
"Ooty Preserved" by Mollie Panter-Downes. Closer home, there's
the history of the Nilgiris. Of Ootacamund, now Udhagamandalam, in particular.
Englishwoman Mollie Panter-Downes chronicles an Ooty that, alas, now is long
gone, Ooty in the late 60s. The ivy-covered cottages, the genteel clubs, the
stately churches, the very air that the hill people breathed, are all described
in a charming manner by someone clearly charmed by all she saw.
"Tales of the Open Road" by Ruskin Bond. If it is the hills of
Uttaranchal, it has to be Bond, Ruskin Bond. You get to see Mussoorie,
Lansdowne, Doon with his clear incisive eye which nevertheless misses not one
bit of magic that wreathes the hills and dales. "Tales of the Open Road,"
written in his matter-of-fact style, is vintage Ruskin Bond.
"The Great Railway Bazaar" by Paul Theroux. This is another
writer whose device is a most matter of fact, even dry, style. Here he takes us
(by train, of course) into lands we have never seen and not even known we wanted
to see, as well as lands we have seen but just not with the eye of a seasoned
"The Snow Leopard" by Peter Matthiessen. Man goes seeking the
fabled snow leopard in the Himalayas and finds himself. Some excellent travel
writing mixed with some nuggets of Zen Buddhism. An enduring favourite.
"Songlines" by Bruce Chatwin. All of the late great Chatwin's
works are wonderful but "Songlines," where he traces the rich lyrical history of
the songs sung by Australia's Aborigines, is a compelling read. It's not the
land, it's not the people, it's the way the two come together to tell a story
that does the trick. This is song in prose by a master.
"Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert Persig is
a cult novel and millions of readers have ridden alongside Phaedrus as he
battles both the elements outside and the demons inside. "On the Road" by Jack
Kerouac. Beat writer Kerouac and the ultimate carpe diem travel book. These are
days of heaven, Americans chasing the American Dream, by road, of course.
Diverse places, diverse people and some radical thoughts.
"Video Night in Kathmandu" by Pico Iyer. Our not-home grown
Iyer boy with his peripatetic pen goes places (mainly East and South East Asia,
our neighbourhood) and the result, as always, is a great read. Here's wry charm
and an intensively descriptive trove of words in Iyer's travel writing, as
indeed in his eyes.
"City of Falling Angels" by John Berendt. Berendt brought his
excellent reportage skills to full effect when introducing us to Savannah,
Georgia, in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." Here, he shows us a
Venice not seen by the hordes of daily trippers and camera toting tourista. My
advice is, read this book, then go visit the Queen of the Lagoon.