Robyn Davidson, Nicholas Shakespeare, William Dalrymple, Isabella Tree and Cheryl Strayed

The travelogue, travel-writing is the topic of this session. Our panel consists of Nicholas Shakespeare, Isabella Tree, Robyn Davidson and Cheryl Strayed, moderated by William Dalrymple. The session starts with each of them taking turns in reading excerpts from their respective travel books, to share with us what they think of travelogue.

We start with Robyn Davidson who reads the introduction to her anthology called, ‘The Picador Book of Journey’.

On travel writing, this is what she had to say, Readers (or rather, buyers) are encouraged to use the travel section much as tourists are encouraged to experience holiday destinations – herded along the usual routes, all wayward peregrinations discouraged,” Robyn’s voice is free from passion or modulation. It is neutral as it flows over the words. She speaks of how even maps, tourist guides, yachting almanacs, photo essays, have been included in travel writing. “It’s not that such books don’t deserve a place here, nor that they may not be well written and entertaining, it’s that they have come to represent the genre as it is generally conceived – that is, a literature to accommodate a longing for the exotic, in an increasingly homogenised and trivialised world,” it is at this point that she decides to stop, as she makes her way back to her seat.

Nicholas Shakespeare is invited next to read excerpts from his book, ‘Bruce Chatwin’, a biography he wrote on the life of this magnificent and phenomenal travel writer, “Chatwin was a storyteller first, but not until the last third of his life did he write the stories down. ‘I’ve always loved telling stories,’ he told Thubron. ‘It’s telling stories for what it’s worth.’ Everyone says: ‘Are you writing a novel?’ No, I’m writing a story and I do rather insist that things be called stories. That seems to me to be what they are. I don’t quite know the meaning of the novel,” Nicholas reads. There is a certain childish and tender animation one can observe in the voice of Nicholas Shakespeare as he reads out from his book, his admiration for Chatwin hardly concealed.

As interesting, contradicting and exciting Chatwin seems to us, the recitation ends and we see William Dalrymple approach the podium with a copy of his book, ‘City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi’ published in the year 1993. It is a travelogue about the historical capital of Delhi. Here is an excerpt from his book which records the conversation between Ahmed Ali, the author of ‘Twilight in Delhi’ and his friend, Shanulhaq Haqqee:

“Before Partition it was a unique city,” said Ali. “Although it was already very poor, still it preserved its high culture. That high culture filtered down even to the streets, everyone was part of it: even the milk-wallahs could quote Mir and Dagh …”

“The prostitutes would sing Persian songs and recite Hafiz …”

“They may not have been able to read and write but they could remember the poets …”

“And the language,’ said Shanulhaq. ‘You cannot conceive how chaste Delhi Urdu was …”

Next, Isabella Tree comes up to read us from her book, ‘The Living Goddess’ which was published only a few days ago. Isabella spent thirteen years in Nepal researching extensively about Nepal’s living goddess, Kumari, as she is called, before she wrote this book.  She reads about seeing the goddess in flesh and how grim the goddess’s expression is at the age of six. She speaks of the importance of the goddess in Nepal. “Whatever the occasion, worshiping a little girl was one of the most powerful ways of bringing the goddess into every home and invoking her blessings. It was also a reminder to everyone in society, for particularly men, of the expected standard of behaviour towards women and young girls. Kneeling was more than an act of reverence. It changed a person doing it,” like a mark of a good journalist, we see no judgement, good or bad, in Isabella’s voice, as it moves along the words, describing her experiences in Nepal.

Cheryl Strayed is called upon next to read from her book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail’. She reads an excerpt from the prologue of her book which is set six weeks into her hike when she loses one of her boots to the other side of a cliff, “I was alone. I was barefoot. I was twenty-six years old and an orphan too. An actual stray, a stranger had observed a couple of weeks before, when I’d told him my name and explained how very loose I was in the world. My father left my life when I was six. My mother died when I was twenty-two. In the wake of her death, my step-father morphed from the person I considered my dad into a man I only occasionally recognized. My two siblings scattered in their grief, in spite of my efforts to hold us together, until I gave up and scattered as well.” her voice quivers and is full of emotion as she ends.

The session comes to a close as everyone reads their part about travel-writing, of what they think of it and of who they find is part of travelogue canon. This session was less of a discussion and more of a sharing of experiences and that is what made it so special. They did not try to convince us or coerce us into believing anything, they only shared a part of themselves they most believed represented travel writing best.

The Penguin India Blog

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