Pity the poor travel writer. Long gone are the days when all that was needed to gather material for a new book was to stick a pin into an atlas to find an unexplored corner of the world, and then return with tales of how they do things differently there. This Eurocentric model has been replaced by tales of heroism and endurance – the north face of the Eiger, anyone? – or inventive means of structuring the journey, be it circumnavigating London or following in the footsteps of legendary travellers of yesteryear. It helps, of course, if you can simply make the reader chuckle (as Bill Bryson will tell you).
The plot thickens if the traveller visits a place that he’s linked to by history: then, even a first-time visit is shot through by ancestral anecdotes and childhood memories of where one’s parents and grandparents came from. The one book that springs to mind in this regard is, of course, V.S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness, a map of the writer’s disillusionment with the country of his forebears.
Like Naipaul, M.G. Vassanji can trace his ancestry back to India, and to specific locations within the country. His A Place Within is a response to and record of voyages around the subcontinent. Unlike Naipaul’s book, it isn’t an account of a single, extended journey, but a montage of incidents culled from his many visits to the country, the first one being in 1993. That’s fifteen years’ worth of material, and organizing these into a tightly-knit narrative poses a challenge that Vassanji isn’t always up to.
The self-described “Indo-African Canadian writer” has said of his first novel, The Gunny Sack, that it was a novelistic organization of “memories, oral histories, and myths”; A Place Within is comprised of much the same elements.
Vassanji’s is a less caustic eye than Naipaul’s, and India’s poor infrastructure, dirt and difficulty for the foreign visitor draw no more than pained sighs and sometimes, bemused wonderment at the state of affairs. In this manner, he meets the taxi strikes, delayed trains and indifferent accommodation that he’s sometimes had to face. Clearly, he has tried to immerse himself in the country, not just view it through a pane of glass, as his accounts of train travel, treks to pilgrimage spots on foot, eating with hands and – on at least one occasion -- cleaning teeth with charcoal powder will testify.
It may well be his scientific background, but Vassanji’s approach to the places he visits is to dig deep into their histories in an effort to link them to the present. Such recounting of the past, coupled with his personal sojourns in the present, then, is Vassanji’s attempt to understand the influences that have created him, in cultural, geographical and historical terms. As he writes: “When I was a boy in colonial Africa, history began and ended with the arrival in Zanzibar and Mombasa of my grandparents or great-grandparents from Gujarat. Beyond that, nothing else mattered, all was myth, and there was only the present. After a few years in North America, I came upon the realization that ever-present, which had been mine, my story had itself begun to drift away towards the neglected and spurned stories oif my forebears, and I stood at the threshold of becoming a man without history, rootless. And so origins and history became and obsession, both a curse and a thrilling call.”
Thus, for instance, there are long sections on the growth and decay of Delhi’s legendary seven cities, interspersed with accounts of his own ramblings though the city. Nothing, it seems, escapes his courtly, genteel attention, from flashy new developments to legendary eateries of old Delhi to the tomb of Raziya Sultan to the house of Kamala Nehru, to mention but a few. Take this wide-eyed snapshot of the walled city, for instance: “On our way, busy meat shops; sweetmeats, salty namkeens frying; fresh-baked breads and cakes on display; a sidewalk book vendor eating meat curry with chapatti opposite the Jama Masjid; a perfume seller calling out, rubbing samples on people’s backs; boys playing alley cricket; cycle rickshaws, horses, mules, cows; burqa-covered women walking stifflt, proudly on the street; busy shopkeepers, idle shopkeepers, a bevy of women gathered outside a shop to inspect a heap of material. I’ve never seen so many veiled women in India before.”
In many ways, Vassanji’s trips to Gujarat are the heart of this book, for it is here that he comes closest to an understanding of his “in-between life”. There’s a painstaking and almost dogged recital of the area’s history, touching upon Baroda, Ahmedabad, Champaner and more. And since Vassanji’s first trip here was in 1993, to a country still reeling in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid destruction, the taint of communalism is much on his mind: “I always cringe at the terms ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’; they are so final, so unequivocal. So exclusive. For ‘Hindu’ – itself derived not from the name of a founder, as ‘Chriatian’ is, or a philosophy or attitude (of submission) as ‘Muslim’ is, but from a geographical marker, the river Indus – I often substitute ‘Indian’, for India’s primary identity is rooted in its ancient history and culture, which preceded these religious divisions. I imagined India as my ancestral homeland; to witness, upon my arrival, its divisions running so deep was profoundly unsettling.”
He visits and analyses cities and towns, stopping at formerly riot-hit areas, shrines, monuments and ruins: “In North America, we treasure the past, strive to preserve it; but perhaps there is not much of it anyway. Here, there is a glut, enough to be neglected or selective”. He places emphasis on religious syncretism and dwells on sites relevant to his community, the Ismaili Khojas -- in particular in Junagadh and Jamnagar, for it is from here that his grandparents migrated to East Africa. At one shrine in the village of Pirana, he discovers the roots of the ginans (hymns) familiar to him from his childhood; however, “there was no Kunta Kinte moment; I did not come looking for one. If there ever was one close to it, it was when I first stepped on Indian soil, undertook that quick tour of the country that began with a train ride, the Puri Express.”
The urge to capture all his impressions in one volume, however, lets Vassanji down in terms of structure. He often gives in to the temptation of appending extracts and fragments of memories drawn from his trips over the years. The intention, that of encompassing all of his experiences, may be laudable but the book’s focus becomes diffused.
Vassanji also spent some months at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla, writing parts of what was to become The Assassin’s Song – the first of his novels to be based in India -- and he speaks with warmth of the hill station and its sights and sounds. In particular, there’s an affectionate remembrance of his meetings with Bhisham Sahni and his wife, as well as details of his treks to the Hanuman and Tara Devi temples. There’s also a recounting of briefer visits to Bombay and Calcutta, and his meetings with Mulk Raj Anand and Asghar Ali Engineer, among others.
Naipaul’s book ended in Kashmir; towards the end of A Place Within, Vassanji takes us to Kerala. Here, he examines the origins of the Moplahs, visits litterateurs -- Basheer, T.S. Pillai – and towns such as Calicut and Trivandrum, in each case assiduously and inevitably providing historical anecdotes. Then, he pushes on south to India's tip, Kanyakumari, where Swami Vivekananda’s memorial is more peaceful and awe-inspiring than the other temples in the vicinity. And then he segues into a brief account of a short visit to Dharamshala -- once again succumbing to the impulse to move away from a central spine and provide as comprehensive an account of his journeys to India as possible. At one point in A Place Within, referring to Ibn Batuta, Vassanji calls the Moroccan scholar’s travel memoir “intimate, expansive, unpretentious”. Much the same can be said of Vassanji’s book itself.
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