Sunday 10 November 2013

Literary Travellers Then and Now by Elizabeth Laird

Just back from travels in Kerala, around the south western corner of India. Here's a picture to set the scene:

The backwaters in Kerala

Florence Nightingale
I've been musing on the nature of tourism. The modern experience of travel is, frankly, shallow and artificial compared to that of our literary forbears. I've been reading Winter on the Nile by Anthony Sattin, which follows the journeys of Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert, who both (though they never met) happened coincidentally to be sailing in the leisurely fashion of the day up the Nile to visit the antiquities. Their journeys took months. Nightingale, in particular, prepared herself assiduously.

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.

     The God of Small Things  The House of Blue Mangoes: A Novel Show Business

(Michelle Lovric is experiencing IT problems and will be back in this slot on 10th December. We are grateful to of our Reserve History Girls, Elizabeth Laird, for providing us with today's post).


JO said...

What a great post - I love Kerala, and have read the books you mention - let's hope it's the inspiration for many more, some based in the here and now - but also some that talk of India before the Raj - would love to know more about that.

Joan Lennon said...

Thank you for this - I now want to read ALL the books you mentioned!

Leslie Wilson said...

How fascinating!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Hello Elizabeth! Lovely to have you here as a 'reserve' History girl. We wish you'd be less reserved and post here more often. I loved the photographs and the journey you took us on... the connection between modern travel and slow travel and the books we travel with both fiction and traveller's tales. 'Palace Walk' by Naiguib Mahfouz was one of my travelling companions in Cairo, while Orhan Pamuk's 'Istanbul - Memories of a City' held me captivated with its old black and white photographs when I was visiting there. I've still to visit Kerala. Thank you for your post

Penny Dolan said...

Good to find you here, Elizabeth. Thank you for your thoughts!
For those who want to hear more about Elizabeth's travels, there was a blogpost on Awfully Big Blog Adventure on Sunday about her book, THE LURE OF THE HONEYBIRD, which tells of her time collecting stories in Ethopia:

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes - I want to read these books too! They certainly worked at their travelling, those Victorians...

Anonymous said...

I second that sue !

bubblegum casting

john said...

You have done a great job. I will definitely dig it and personally recommend to my friends. I am confident they will be benefited from this site.
bubblegum casting