Is travel writing dead?

Granta Magazine pursued this question with a clutch of writers in Issue 138 on JourneysIn the bookstore last week, I took to a corner and began pouring down the responses. It wasn’t driven by curiosity. Instead, it was to figure out if there is a general perception among the authors (many of whom are noted travel writers) that travel writing is saturated with banality and overdone representations of places which no longer remain far flung in these times.

Travel writing has meant making sense of events for me (as I wrote here earlier). It is to draw and distill an understanding out of the experiences that I have when I leave home. This understanding tends to be about the place as well as the self in the place, as I felt in a post on Paris.  At other points I tried dealing with coloniality and places in post-colonial times, as in Luang Prabang and Tranquebar. It is for these reasons that Granta’s question stood out for me.

Travel pieces have become dry and try hard to sound interesting, often exotic, in my experience. Whereas, unknown and exotic is no longer the position one can afford to write from in these times of cheap air travel and with a flood of medium through which pictures, videos and news from around the world reach us, all the time.

Two views on travel writing are widely held – that its emergence lies in colonial times with the proverbial white man going out into the vast unknown to bring the exotic and ‘other’ back to the readers in the West. The other, that much of the world today has been discovered, seen and hyper-connected for such writing to now find a place among readers interest. What then is the state of travel writing and its future? Pico Iyer maintains his extraordinary equilibrium of views and gets to the future of writing than waste time on critical analysis of the present. The ‘inward’ journey ‘into the realm of silence’ is where a writer should be venturing, he suggests. He makes a case for nuance and personal enquiry. Ending on a philosophical plane which he invariably climbs up from the real, in the course of his writing, he settles the question with this delightful sentence –

‘But that doesn’t mean that travel writing is dead; only that we sometimes are.’

One can see that the old, seasoned hands of travel writing are tempered in their views. Macfarlane reflects that travel writing ceased being a matter of originality. It is about form instead.

The best writers rose to the challenge by seeking not originality of destination, but originality of form.

On the other hand, there are two angry and critical responses to this question from Hoa Nguyen and Rana Dasgupta. And I am with them! They make a compelling case for a shift in the concerns of travel writing as a genre. Nguyen’s piece reminds me of my impressions of modern day Luang Prabang, which align with her sentiment about travelers from the West visiting places in the East –

Do we need more Westerners consuming their way across Vietnam, commenting on local dress, smiles, food and sharing tips on where to get the best deal on bespoke silk skirts?

There is a sense of frustration and anger in Nguyen’s response, and it is compelling. I am again with her when she lands a few punches to that irrelevant and disrespectful narrative of Western gaze, in these questions –

Instead of more consumerism – the buying of experiences, the accumulation og things, of eating the ‘other’ – perhaps writers should name their own environment. What is the shape of your watershed? How is your electricity produced? Where is your water treated?… Homing as a way to place oneself in a constellation of process and being.

It is a compelling argument, which gets to the heart of politics in travel writing which many choose to pretend ignorance too.

Travel writing of the known variety is certainly dead, in my opinion. A writer can no longer be ignorant of his own immediate environment and get to places thousands of miles away to report critically on life, people and societies as they exist in distant places. It only makes for vacuous writing.

Ian Jack’s writing as a foreign correspondent in India has held good example for me to learn from. I have often gone back to his anthology Mofussil Junction for his style and empathetic tone. In response to Granta’s question, I think his thought is laden with wit and insight –

It could be enlightening, for example, to read modern accounts of travels in the Western world by writers from the East; if nothing else, we might then know how it feels to be ironised, condescended to and found morally wanting. Several such books may be in the offing. Some of our own medicine is surely coming our way.

And I completely agree!

It has been an insightful read – these responses to a question as commonplace as state of a genre of writing.

Advertisements

Travel in the post-colonial times

Fort Dansborg ovelooking the sea, Tranquebar

Fort Dansborg ovelooking the sea, Tranquebar

This little Dutch settlement has always attracted me with its brilliant blue skies and the expansive ocean. Last week we drove into this seaside village, which was a twenty five mile long stretch of coast leased out to the early Dutchmen by the Tanjore king in the late 1700s. The Dutch called it Tranquebar. The Tamils call it Tarangambadi, translated loosely as ‘the land of singing waves’. The last couple of hours remained of the day light as we entered this town and took up a hotel by the sea side. The evening wore a calm look and a quaintness that is hard to find along the dense and busy east coast road in Tamil Nadu. The intact (and partially restored) arch at the entrance of the Dutch settlement physically marked a time travel zone that we were about to enter. The narrow road led to an old church, the fort – called the Dansborg and a lovely sea side villa which now is a heritage hotel run by Neemrana group.

I have been visiting this place on almost all my rides along this coastline much like the Danish, Portuguese, British and the French ships which did the same but from the other side. From the records of protestant missionaries and the Portuguese trade documents I learn that this was one of the busiest regions in maritime trade along with other now disappeared ports like Porto Novo (about 80 kilometers north of Tranquebar). We stopped to take a look at the statue of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, the first protestant missionary to India, who traveled to India to spread the word of God. A marble slab underneath the statue listed many other minor firsts that the local Diocese could dig up, or perhaps imagine, about the man and made a laundry list of achievements down there. The statue didn’t cut much an impression on me, especially with its gold paint but the little tidbit of a history there – of he being the first protestant missionary in India – set my thoughts wandering into a past that I have often loved to imagine and recreate. A past much like a movie set in which fort Dansborg rises in the horizon with the Danish red flag fluttering and the young Zigenbalg hoping to set foot as he approaches the land, at this very place on the eastern coast.

An old Dutch house, Tranquebar

An old Dutch house, Tranquebar (Image: Praveena Sridhar)

A statue of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (July 10, 1682 – February 23, 1719)

A statue of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, July 10, 1682 – February 23, 1719 (Image: Praveena Sridhar)

Fishermen at work on a Sunday morning, opposite to the fort. They inhabit the modern day Tarangambadi.

Fishermen at work on a Sunday morning, opposite to the fort. They inhabit the modern day Tarangambadi.

The other details blurred out as I read the history of protestant missionaries in Madurai, Tirunelveli and the incursions of the Tranquebar mission. These men were clearly fired with a spirit of adventure and fascination of ideas which captured their imagination. An imagination which saw a world made possible by their God, their faith and that these are supreme – and that the rest, the ‘heathens’ must be brought to the fold. In my reconstruction of the 17th and the 18th century India when the Dutch arrived, I was inclined to think more about their adventure and rawness of the endeavor of these men who set sail in a direction they hardly knew of. And yet when they arrive they have plans – of trade, commerce and evangelism. Perhaps they were fired by the enthusiasm of the newly formed Dutch Republic back home when they declared independence from England and formed a federation during the end of 16th century.  One can see Tranquebar as a consequential small story in the larger canvas of the Dutch Golden Age (“Gouden Eeuw”) during which the Dutch Empire became one of the major seafaring and economic powers in the 17th century. Interestingly, many economic historians regard Netherlands as the world’s first thoroughly capitalist country.

Well, in the heat of such a splendid economic and power charged run the Dutch were understandably getting adventurous and sure had plans for it. And from the many ships sent out in the world, one of them was to reach India and hit the coast somewhere around the place where I stood that evening. Fort Dansborg was rather unimpressive and likely so to an Indian who has seen the massive, intimidating and fascinatingly beautiful forts in the Rajputana – Mehrangarh, Jaisalmer, in the Deccan – Golconda, Gingee, Vellore and in the high hills of the Konkan coast. Meanwhile, the fishermen on a small landing spot were busy sorting their nets and separating the catch after an early morning round of fishing. The scene was mildly strange – a bright 21st century morning with motorized fishing boats on the coast and a very busy history in the background with Zigenbalg’s grave marking the end of a generation of adventurers.

Reading accounts and papers of the colonial era and experiencing them often generates different narratives. And that is the point I was reflecting upon. On the Sunday morning in Tranquebar, gospel music flowed in the air from the church nearby, interspersed with hymns in Tamil. The church is as old as the fort. The hymns stood in contrast to the reality of the day. This in a way appeared as the way in which the dead Dutchmen’s conquest lived. In these hymns and a formerly alien faith which arrived by the ships that laid anchor on this coast over three hundred years back. Colonial era may have been past and the research papers mark that historical juncture fairly well. But at the core of the post-colonial times lies the colonial, healthy and mutated. Those hymns were by the ‘heathens’ who embraced protestant Christianity and years later venerate the man who brought this alien faith to them. The faith that makes the people of this settlement sing these hymns and regard Sunday as a day of prayer and mass is clearly not theirs. It was a part of the conquest, of men charged with commercial and technological prowess and a part of the project of shaping the world into becoming what they imagined it as.

Conquests I now think are little about physical forms like forts, territories and countries. They are more about conquest of minds, of people’s faith, practices and of their beings, into becoming what the conqueror wants it to be. This variety of conquest impregnates generations to come and lives, as strong as ever. The physical forms, even of the conqueror are gone yet the effects remain.

From that midnight ‘tryst’ to the high noon – Indian democracy

The recent gangrape in Delhi and the government’s response to the demonstrations in the city has been the most disappointing sight for me. Corruption, scams, policy screw ups… all that was fine with me. But stifling such a protest wasn’t what I thought one would see in India at least (like shutting down metro stations to prevent protestors from getting together). This set me exploring how far has India come along on the democracy road or has it actually drifted away from its path?

Independent India was all about experiments and grand ones at that to begin with. Nehru, the first Prime Minister, felt that the new born nation cannot afford the revolutionary way of the left nor can it afford to be socialist in its approach to nation building. He proposed “a third way which takes the best from all existing systems- the Russian, the American and others- and seeks to create something suited to one’s own history and philosophy.”[i] With independence, India’s political landscape began transforming in a manner that would later have accumulated as not quite favourable or even reasonably reflecting democracy in spirit. Sudipta Kaviraj articulates the phases of political transformation as an early period of realignment (that happened around independence), experimentation (when India moved to a passive capitalist growth led economic system), consolidation and instability (a degenerative phase of Nehruvian ideas and Indo-China, Indo-Pak wars). [ii]

Although many views on how old is democracy in India exist, with some Hindu nationalists also claiming that the appointment of kings too was democratic and that the idea of democracy is not new to India. It is also argued that with the British, democracy has only revisited India. These scripture based reasons of democracy are of little relevance to the scope here. It should be interesting to map the emergence of democracy in a post-colonial India. That democracy arises from a peculiar set of historical, social and economic circumstances is helpful in explaining much of the values that independent India inherited, which determined its approach to nation building and governance.

While presenting the new Constitution in the Constituent Assembly, its architect Dr. B.R. Ambedkar said that “democracy is not a form of government, but a form of social organization”.[iii] Ambedkar made remarks in that address to the Assembly, which in hindsight appear landmark. These can also be considered as a benchmark to understand that where did India aspire to start and where did it set its eye as a democracy. Doing this, we can then look at the events and explore if she did reach anywhere near that or has only gone wayward in the six decades since Independence. Ambedkar reasoned that three things must be done if India wishes to maintain democracy not only in its form but also in fact. First, he emphasizes, is that constitutional methods must be adhered to, for achieving social and economic objectives. When the nation didn’t have a constitution, movements resorting to unconstitutional methods might have been justified, but now that there is one, no justification stands reasonable for resorting to unconstitutional means. Civil disobedience and Gandhi’s ‘satyagraha’, as used post-Independence, was also viewed as an unconstitutional way to achieve an objective which a group felt was in its interest.

Contrasting this view with recent movements in anti-corruption, people’s rights to natural resources, right to reservation in public services etc, one can notice the divergence from the original thought that India set out with. Second, that in a democracy people should not vest so much power in a single person or leader that he may subvert the institutions. Any form of ‘hero worship’ too must be avoided. Although, there is nothing wrong with honouring great men for their service, there are limits to being grateful. Third, Ambedkar urges people not to be content with political democracy alone. He reasons that social democracy must form the base on which political democracy rests. Social democracy, he states, is a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as principles of life.[iv]

This address in November 1949, by Ambedkar sets the larger context of understanding of democracy in India and the practice of it. Although, it is debatable how it unfolded over the years, the intent it can be said was much as Ambedkar outlined while presenting the draft Constitution

Democracy- Increasing divide in spirit & practice

When Congress came to power, a realignment of the earlier order happened, as Sudipta Kaviraj articulates. To some within the party, Congress’ departure from reformist agenda was a great concern. For Nehru, as a Prime Minister, democratic social transformation became an integral part of economic strategy. This turned out to be at odds with the socialist ideas as well. He pointed to “country as an area of agreement between opposing ideologies of capitalism on the one hand and communism on the other”.[v] These differences marked the changes that Congress underwent, and its emergence as a party led by Nehru’s ideas about nation building. In this approach, India got its first streak of capitalist development by the way of extensive planning exercises and massive government programs in infrastructure building and public sector enterprises. This shift is important to note because in about a decade’s time a heavy bureaucratization of the government takes place which in later years would come to determine (and undermine) the democratic process in the country. Nehru’s industrialization led approach to growth and modernization had a good run during the period 1950-1964. But it also had consequences which would lead to serious polarization of Congress party, a national dissatisfaction on over emphasis on industrialization whereas India was still agrarian (with a majority of them being small farmers) and an over dependence on Soviet technology and assistance. These factors eventually precipitated into disillusionment and a political crisis with the death of Nehru in 1964. The phase of assertion by regional political parties and establishing their rule in Indian states was about to begin. Within three years of Nehru’s death, the CPI (M) managed to regroup in many Indian states and run for election in those states. Similarly, the rich farmers from the northern belt had formed stronger associations to assert themselves. Several other forms of associations and regional political parties had begun to emerge making the larger political scene noisier and diverse. Theoretically, democracy was actually being well lived by representation from several different groups, communities and classes that India is made of. But this did not guarantee that the government, its institutions and its work was all in public interest.

Indira Gandhi came to power after Nehru, her father, passed away. This was a period of political turmoil which was answered by appointing Indira Gandhi as the successor. Her coming to power marks a major blow to the spirit of democracy in India but in a way it also helped the country look back at what it started with, and attempt a reorientation. It is paradoxical that Indira Gandhi’s style led to a gradual decline of election based choice of leaders within the party and at the same time her rise as a leader nationally. Her mass appeal and the ability to directly connect with the masses bypassing the regional leaders was an interesting phenomenon. While she was leading a party (Congress), everything in the party was about decisions made by her and passed on to the party members. Critical political decision making also began shifting to higher levels of bureaucracy. This had a very debilitating effect on Congress party. Nationally, elections turned into populist referendums which completely undermined the electoral process. The period of emergency from June 1975 to March 1977 is another landmark in the progression of democracy in India. This 18 month period made a good time for leaders and the people of India to experience what it is like to exist in a space of limited or no civic rights that democracy guaranteed. Patronage and cronyism infiltrated politics even when Indira Gandhi was re-elected to power in 1985. During this entire period, the gulf in practice of democracy kept widening, but it would be difficult to present a contrary argument that India on the whole did not move towards becoming more democratic. This is because in spite of severe damages done to the political system by feudal and class led politics, the chaos that it caused only made several other groups emerge and put up a strong opposition. Although, the emergence and assertion of political parties from minority groups did take a considerable time, the sum total of the events by a great measure, moved towards heterogeneity and multi-party political system.

Dalit groups emerged faster as a consequence of this higher class dominated politics. For instance, formation of dalit political parties like Republican Party of India, Dalit Panthers and more importantly BahujanSamaj Party (BSP) which was formed in 1984. From its formation in 1984 to its emergence as single majority party in 2007 Uttar Pradesh state elections, BSP makes an interesting case in rise of oppressed and marginal groups in the political system of India. This could also be seen as a consequence of the early democratic principles that were enshrined in the Constitution of India. It could also be said that the process took a considerable time. But the fact that it emerged on its own accord and from the people themselves makes it peculiar and also ensures that the change is lasting.

_________________________________________________________________

i) Guha, Ramachandra. Makers of Modern India. Penguin Books India, 2010
ii) Kaviraj, Sudipta, (1988), A Critique of the Passive Revolution, in Chatterjee, Partha, State and   Politics in India, OUP 2002 
iii) Guha, Ramachandra. Makers of Modern India. Penguin Books India, 2010.
 
iv) Constituent Assembly of India – Volume http://parliamentofindia.nic.in/ls/debates/vol11p11.htm Date Accessed, Sept 30, 2012
 
v) Harrison, Kevin and Boyd, Tony, Understanding political ideas and movements. Manchester University Press, 2003