Sunday, October 5, 2008

Travel Travail

The is from today's The Sunday Express.


Paul Theroux doesn’t think highly of travel writers. Their occupation is “one of the laziest ways on earth of passing the time…an elaborate bumming evasion.” They’re fond of “jumping to conclusions, and so most travel books are superfluous.” He’s even more scathing about those who retrace the footsteps of other writers: “opportunistic punks” indulging in a “glib debunking effort for a shallower, younger, impressionable writer”.

Having got that off his chest, he justifies his return to the terrain he wrote about in The Great Railway Bazaar. “Curiosity” and “dreams” are among his compelling reasons. And so, 33 years after he embarked on that expedition at the age of 33, Theroux boards the 12.09 to Paris from Waterloo to find out what’s changed and what hasn’t.

The actions of politicians and warlords meant that returning to Iran and Afghanistan was out; instead, he travels through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. City squares, streets and bylanes, bars, massage parlours and other dives are the places that he primarily talks about, apart of course from his train journeys, the stations, food and passengers.

Serendipity and the ability to not too take oneself too seriously, those essential companions of the interesting traveller, are largely absent here. Even though it’s clear he hasn’t planned every detail, most of his accounts have the same ring to them. He likes places that haven’t changed all that much, among them Amritsar and Myanmar (the country not the government). He’s scornful about Singapore, heaping pages of criticism on its authoritarianism. He’s illuminating about how the totalitarian regimes of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have turned the lives of citizens into a low farce. And his Vietnam sojourn – among the most moving in the book – reveals that the spirited Vietnamese bear no ill-will towards America; they just want to get on with their lives.

Theroux, of course, has many novels to his credit, and seeks out other writers too. He dines with Orhan Pamuk in enchanting Istanbul, modestly confessing that “he reminded me of myself"; finds Elif Shafak “so beautiful [that] writing seemed irrelevant”; visits an absent-minded Arthur C. Clarke in Colombo; strolls around Tokyo and visits a porn emporium with Haruki Murakami; and gossips about writing, the strangeness of Japan and V.S. Naipaul with Pico Iyer in Kyoto and Nara.

In India, he discovers fresh confidence and optimism – nothing unusual in that – and finds that “everyone talked about the new India but the old India was never very far away”. Nothing revelatory in that either. His trip to the country is full of the contrasts between growth and grime, from the slums of Dharavi to the BPOs of Bangalore. Though he doesn’t break new ground, one sympathises with his reason to move on: an aversion to the “colossal agglomeration of elbowing and contending Indians.”

Towards the end, he experiences an epiphany. “What’s the big difference between then and now? …The greatest difference was in me”. In contrast to his younger self, the 66-year-old Theroux is more comfortable in his own skin, at ease with writing and traveling, with a home he looks forward to returning to. Alas, his conclusion is that the world is shrinking into “a ball of bungled desolation” and if there is hope, it is only to be found in the kindness of strangers. They say travel broadens the mind; perhaps too much travel simply makes it tetchy.

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