|The backwaters in Kerala
She learned to decipher heiroglyphics. She read everything she could find on the religion of ancient Egypt. She recorded every thought and every impression in her letters and diaries. She had time to do it, too. Her journey took many months. She spent days in each place, sometimes returning again and again to a particular temple to allow its charm and meaning to soak into her mind.
Flaubert took a more laddish approach, spending much time in the local brothels, fascinated by the women he met there, then spending hour after hour lounging on the deck of his Nile houseboat, ostensibly doing nothing, while, no doubt, Mme Bovary began to take possession of his mind.
On the very evening of the day that my husband and I left snow-bound London, we were sweltering in the heat of Cochin as if transported by a genie. Victorian travellers would have found our approach hopelessly frivolous. I can't pretend to have learned a single word of Malayalam, and certainly never tackled its script. Instead of writing letters home, we skyped our children from time to time, and babbled to them (forgettably) about what we'd been doing. Instead of sitting for hours with a sketchbook on my knee and a pencil in my hand, I snapped away with my camera, taking far too many photographs.
It's clear from Nightingale's letters that her experience in Egypt had a profound effect on her. She had time to muse, to gain insights into the places she visited and her own reactions to them. We, on the other hand, spent no more than three days in any one place, and then sped on, afraid of boredom. We simply didn't give Kerala time to change our lives and our perceptions as Nightingale did in Egypt.
We had one great advantage, however, over Nightingale and Flaubert. They would not have found any novels by Arab writers in bookshops in Cairo or Thebes which could have given them instant yet profound insights into the minds and lives of the people they encountered. We were luckier. In India, especially in Kerala, there is a wealth of fiction that offers us mental short-cuts, taking us into the heart of people's lives.
Arundhati Roy's justly famous novel, The God of Small Things celebrates Kerala in unforgettably beautiful writing, taking one to the heart of the place and the people.
|The backwaters near near Arundhati Roy's
childhood home in Kerala
David Davidar'sremarkable historical novel, The House of Blue Mangoes, follows the lives of one family from colonial times through the travails of the independence movement to the India of the present day. It's a book of great beauty, of atmospheric descriptions and memorable characters.
And for those who want to laugh out loud while they learn more about India than they ever thought they could, Shashi Tharoor's masterpiece, Show Business, takes Bollywood by the throat and shakes the truth out of it, in ways that you'll never forget.