Esther Elias catches Colin Thubron and William Dalrymple in conversation on the art of writing travelogues. "When you can’t talk to people with guns; you talk to them with poetry," says Easterine Kire during a session with Rahul Pandita
“There are writers who travel, and then there are travellers who also write. I began as the first and then the two worlds coalesced into one,” said Colin Thubron, author of numerous travelogues and novels. “It was Colin’s writing that first gave me the smell of a wider world. So I’m here as a star-struck teenager,” confessed William Dalrymple, novelist and travel writer too, during their discussion on the art of writing the travelogue.
Travelogues are one of the rare forms of literature that have indigenously sprung up in cultures across the world simultaneously, observed William. “China, Japan, India and Europe have their own traditions of travelogues. It’s only later that travel writing had gone through its colonial, post-colonial, modern and postmodern phases.” The present age is one where the “empire is writing back” believes William. He cited Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City as one of the millennium’s best travel pieces.
The interesting catch to the travel writing genre, is that “one believes one is writing a contemporary chronicle, but years later, you realise that you’ve recorded history,” said Colin. His book Behind the Wall: A Journey Through China described the China of the 90s, which today is almost unrecognisable. Yet, beneath the veneer of standardised Westernisation, lies a Chinese culture that is still “profoundly itself”. “Change is superficial,” says Colin. “There’s always something new to discover.”
William and Colin differ in their methods of travel writing. While William jots down notes in interview style while talking, Colin prefers to write from memory, but usually almost immediately after his conversations. Both writers have guarded their notebooks with almost paranoid security; William frequently sent home photocopies of his notes in the time before the Internet age, and Colin remembers once being chased and strip-searched by the KGB in the then Soviet Union for his camera and notebooks. “The officer asked me to read aloud from my illegible handwriting, and after he’d heard me through, he said ‘This stuff is quite poetic; you should publish it’!”
For all its hard knocks, Colin believes travel writing will survive, for a good travel writer can provide a snapshot of a place in the time it’s living through, which is often far more reflective of the age than blunt facts. “It’s a different kind of knowledge,” he said. The genre is also one of the few, besides autobiography, that lay the writer open before the reader. “It reveals as much about the culture of the writer as it does of the culture he writes of. The writer shares his humanity with you.”
Easterine Kire remembers growing up amidst constant turbulent conflict in Nagaland. “There was shooting in the neighbourhood once. My parents were away. I put my arm around my brother, and told him we’d be okay if we stayed very quiet.” Such memories of the “Dark 50s” during which Nagaland was occupied by the Indian army constitute the backdrop of her novel Bitter Wormwood. She had earlier authored A Naga Village Remembered which is the first published Naga novel in English. For Rahul Pandita, who authored a memoir of the Kashmiri Pandits Our Moon Has Blood Clots, the stories arise from the lives of his people who fled Kashmir during the ethnic cleansing of 1990.
While Easterine pens poetry and fiction, and Rahul writes from his journalistic training, their works come under the broad banner of conflict writing. “Kashmir in the 1990s was the ‘sexy insurgency’ among journalists, but he spent those years in Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Chattisgarh. I recall an Adivasi man telling me his son had died of the ‘disease of hunger’. To an urban world talking of trillion dollar economy and inclusive growth, it seemed absurd.” But these stories came to be Rahul’s book Hello Bastar which tracks “India’s greatest insurgency” — the Maoist movement. For Easterine, historical facts form the skeleton over which she fleshes out the fiction of her novels.
Writing about conflict walks a narrow path that threatens to invoke slighted emotions, uncover buried memories and front inconvenient questions. “I wrote Bitter Wormwood because it is about forgiveness and love. I have soldier friends now, who call me ‘Didi’.” Her poetry and novels have always been a fight against what she calls the ‘mega-narrative’ — the beast of war — that silences all other narratives. “I want to voice that silence.”
Rahul wrote Our Moon… for similar reasons. “The media has portrayed the Kashmir story in black and white. Yes, the brutality against Kashmiri Muslims has caused much pain; but the pain of the Kashmiri Pundits exists too. Their pain has a right to co-exist. Easterine puts it best when she says, “The answer isn’t to demonise the soldier. Our writing is for when you can’t talk to people with guns; you talk to them with poetry.”
Keywords: The Hindu Lit for Life, The Hindu Lit for Life 2014, Lit for Life, LFL 2014, Hindu lit fest, chennai lit fest, literary festival, Colin Thubron, William Dalrymple, Easterine Kire, Rahul Pandita