BOOK REVIEW: THE EARTHEN LAMP JOURNAL/ASIAN ABSENCES by WOLFGANG BUSCHER






Asian Absences:  Searching for Shangri-La: Wolfgang Buscher: translated by Simon Pare
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Genre: Travelogue
Extent: 147 pp
Price: Rs 350

Some books have the reader hooked by the last line on the first page itself; others grow on the patient reader,  gradually but rewardingly. Asian Absences falls between the two stools. The very first essay in this slim travelogue has to do with the journalist/writer/restless traveller Wolfgang Buscher traversing a corner of India, Rajasthan to be specific. On the very first page itself, appear dwarves and mountebanks, and the cautious reader raises a wary brow. That brow doesn’t come down when the writer goes on to mention the stultifying heat, the smothering and suffocating dust, and the endless press of people.

Worse is to follow because Bucher doesn’t intend to spare his readers. He talks of falling in with a somewhat weird professor, encountering a yoga acharya who seems overeager to make the visiting German his shishya; of meeting an eccentric prince (you can almost hear the word `maharajah` here!) who plays ` a large instrument` to an audience of uninterested monkeys; of falling prey to illnesses that invade the head and the stomach (of course). So packed with clichés, platitudes and so wince-inducing,  the reader almost throws in the towel.

Except,  the aforementioned reader would be well advised not to give up. Buscher  isn’t just another tourist who has come to Asian lands seeking and finding the exotic. In the six essays that make up this book, he tells us about his experiences in India, aboard an oil tanker on its way from Dubai to Singapore, a trip to Phnom Penh quite unlike any other you will read, climbing a remote mountain in Tibet to attend an annual shaman festival, trawling Tokyo all alone without any knowledge of Japanese, and heading to a place which is actually named Shangri-la. While he seems to struggle with describing what he saw and experienced in India,  the sketches of the people and places that form the rest of the book are done with much sensitivity.  

An exhausted and battered- by- India Buscher finds gods everywhere he looks in the country. One Indian breath, he says, contained more religion than an entire German advent. The streets were rivers of bodies pressing onwards, one cataract after another; there were vehicles from the Bronze Age on; as for the smell of India, he describes it succinctly as sweet and spicy, of rotting, excrement and decay, the bright red spit of the betel nut chewers like spilt blood wherever one went.

While on the tanker which he boards at Ras al-Khaimah, the journey at sea become almost the side story, since Buscher trains his interested gaze on the young Second Officer who is  known as St John,  and always practices imaginary strokes off an imaginary cricket bat. St John piques Buscher`s interest but gives up whatever little information he wishes to,  in brief sentences stripped of emotion. Yet, the character sketch Buscher draws of St John is  a masterly one, of a man who is  a sailor because the sea really is in his blood, how he had tried life on land for a bit,  then returned to sea,  never to long for the shore again. When the ship reaches Singapore and Buscher disembarks, he waves a silent goodbye to St John and the reader knows that it is the end of a brief interlude. St John is not going to think of the German who sailed briefly with him, and Buscher, for his part, is heading to fresh lands, new adventures.

Rain,  damp, steamy rain,  plays a major part in the story where Buscher travels abroad a none- too- sturdy boat called the Mekong Mama. He is adviced to travel on the roof of the boat and find himself sharing a tarpaulin against the battering rain with a man who starts to,  creepily, recite a litany, an account of the Khmer years. The Khmer refrain is picked up again at Angkor where Buscher  meets yet another man who tells him of the sinister and pathetic part  he played during the atrocities. The writer who is the listener here, isn’t too sure whether to feel sorry for the man or feel repelled by his tale, a dilemma Buscher`s reader mirrors.

In the chapter titled `Among Shamans,` Buscher goes climbing a mountain in Tibet along with a shaman expert and ethnologist, to be there when many shamans gather to celebrate Shiva in the form of Rudra. En route, Buscher falls into some sort of semi-comatose state for a brief while and is brought to by a shaman travelling with him. `Shiva came and saved you,` the shaman tells him and Buscher is confused: Shiva is not his god, this isn’t his country. Could you visit a god like you visit a country, he wonders.

On the morning of the feast, the veiled Himalayas suddenly reveal themselves in all their glory to those gathered there. Buscher strikes an almost lyrical note when he goes on to describe the setting, the people there, the mandatory sacrifice, the feast,  and it all makes for compelling reading.
The Tokyo essay is a study in aloneness, a man wandering streets which have no name and looking down from a tall tower at a city with no roofs. The city, he writes, came to such an abrupt vertical halt that it looked as if building had just stopped one day. For all the courtesy he observes around him, what Buscher takes away is the impression of a sadly soulless city.

The last story is undoubtedly the best. Somewhere where Tibet, Burma and the Chinese  city of Yunnan meet, Buscher come upon a town called Shangri-La. The epiphany here is that this new town with its clean town square, its traditional wood buildings with elaborately carved facades, its surprisingly smart hotels, all looks decidedly unreal. And of course, unreal it is, since Shangri-La is an elaborate tourist trap, a town set up to lure the Western tourist. Only Chinese tourists have come up here, so far, and the irony of this essay strikes the reader with some force.

This is a quiet reflective sort of book, one in which the sensational makes its appearance cloaked in restrained prose, a book that gains in strength, one that leaves the reader with little nuggets of information in the most effortless manner possible. There isn’t much humour to leaven the flow, except for a stray passage like when Buscher hallucinates about Condoleezza Rice of all people, after he consumes some Happy Pizza at Angkor. The translation cleaves close to the meat of the matter, and you realise the writer has effortlessly taken you along with him on his travels. Which is what the best travel writers do. 

At one stage,  Buscher writes `The night was too magnetic for me to be able to sleep, with all the small epiphanies of this tropical journey.` That about sums up Asian Absences: a book of small epiphanies of one man`s  journeys.

Sheila Kumar is an independent writer and manuscript editor, as well as author of a collection of short stories titled Kith and Kin (Rupa Publications). 



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