When book and travel go hand in hand

Roman Forum in Rome

Roman Forum in Rome   | Photo Credit: Rajshree Rajmohan R.

Here we look at some avid readers whose ticket to travel was some of the books that they read

Sometimes, a journey starts with an inspiration. And, often, books inspire us. In between the pages of a book are adventure, triumphs and tragedy, love, longing and loss. MetroPlus speaks to some voracious readers who were influenced by books to embark on an odyssey in the footsteps of their favourite authors or places the masters so vividly brought to life on page

A Hellenic chronicle

Anees Salim, novelist

Award-winning novelist Anees Salim, whose works in English are noted for their delightful blending of wit and pathos, first came across celebrated Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis’ works by chance.

Acropolis Greece

Acropolis Greece   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“I was barely 18 when I found two books by Kazantzakis on my father’s table, and those books looked an extension of each other because of the charcoal illustrations on their white glossy cover. One was Zobra the Greek and the other The Last Temptation of Christ. I was just beginning to take up reading seriously and, awed by the cover illustrations, I decided to read them without delay, starting with The Last Temptation of Christ because of the controversies the book had kicked up then. But I abandoned the books almost immediately, realising that I was either too young or too ill-educated to understand them. I did not touch them for many years and when I finally did, I fell in love with his prose and everything that was Greek,” Anees says.

Anees Salim

Anees Salim   | Photo Credit: H. Vibhu

However, it was more than two decades before he could finally visit Greece. “My plan was to write the first few chapters of my new book in the Greek capital, take walking tours through the city and then spend at least a week in Heraklion where Kazantzakis was buried. But I found myself struggling with the opening chapters and decided not to travel out of Athens until I saw some promise in the new manuscript. I panicked when I realised that I had only one day left in Greece and I made a quick trip to the port city of Heraklion. His tomb was a humble monument, highlighted by an unassuming wooden cross. The epitaph looked hurriedly written – like everything in Greek appears to me – on a rectangle piece of marble. Darkness had already fallen on Kazantzakis’s hometown as I started my journey back to Athens. I found the translation of his epitaph on the Internet as we pulled out of Heraklion. I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

In the footsteps of Robert Frost

Vikram Kapur, novelist

For novelist Vikram Kapur, his desire to visit the American state of Vermont was fuelled by the poetry of Robert Frost. The iconic American poet moved there in 1920 at the age of 44 to make the state his home until his death in 1963. Vikram says much of Frost’s poetry during those four decades is rooted in the landscape of Vermont, which is also called The Green Mountain State.

Vikram Kapur

Vikram Kapur   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“In 2006, I was offered a writing residency by the Vermont Studio Centre. I was unable to take it up at the time. When the offer came again in 2018, I jumped at the opportunity. It is easy to see why a nature poet like Frost should find so much inspiration in Vermont. The state is proudly rural. The earth is a luscious green wherever the eye travels and the landscape is dotted with creeks, forests and rolling hills. The sky changes minute by minute and it is not unusual to experience all four seasons in a day. The place is quiet enough for the slightest noise to make you sit up and after the choking Delhi air, breathing in Vermont feels like taking in something sacred and pristine,” says Vikram in an email.

Vikram Kapur’s most recent book is The Assassinations.

The Russian rendezvous

Perumbadavam Sreedharan, author

In 1993 came Perumbadavam Sreedharan’s novel Oru Sankeerthanam Pole that broke all publishing records. A poignant take on 21 days in the life of Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky and his love, Anna, it is now in its 101st edition. But the irony is that the author wrote the novel without ever travelling to Russia. Years later, in 2015, when Sreedharan set foot in Russia and St. Petersburg, the city where Dostoyevsky lived, it was a dream come true for him.

“I found Russia, its people, places, society, relationships and culture in the classics of Tolstoy, Gorky, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky…. It dawned upon me that we were no different from them. That gave me the impetus to write about Dostoyevsky, the city where he lived, its lanes and streets, the churches, the Neva river and its banks. The writing process was a trial by fire as I could rely only on my imagination. The Russian travelogues were of little help,” he says.

Perumbadavam Sreedharan in Russia during the shoot of ‘In Return: Just A Book’

Perumbadavam Sreedharan in Russia during the shoot of ‘In Return: Just A Book’   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Sreedharan admits that he wished to see the city one day, but never expected to fulfil it 22 years later. Sreedharan’s tryst with Russia was made possible when filmmaker Shiny Jacob Benjamin made the docu-fiction, In Return: Just A Book.

“Except for the banks of Neva river, the city and its streets were just like as I had portrayed. I visited Dostoyevsky’s apartment, now a museum, the churches he went to, and several other spots related to his life and characters. As I placed flowers and stood by his grave, it was an unforgettable moment. I was moved by the extent to which Russians admire and take pride in their authors. People congregated around his statue to read his books. Some simply sat there in meditation. Have we ever done that for our authors? Dostoyevsky had his weaknesses and struggles. But, for me, he is the greatest author ever and his work The Brothers Karamazov is the best book I have ever read.”

The enchantment of Florence

Manu S. Pillai, author

A post-graduate in International Relations from King’s College London, Manu shot to fame with his very first book, The Ivory Throne. His new book Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji will be released this month.

Manu S.Pillai

Manu S.Pillai   | Photo Credit: R. Ravindran

Instead of choosing a book of fiction, Manu talks about a book on the Medicis that inspired him to see Florence in a new light.

In an email, Manu writes: “For me, a book led to the rediscovery of a place I had already once seen in a different light. Towards the end of my visit to Florence a year and a half ago, after I had walked for days exploring galleries and historic squares, I met a painter who told me something few tourists ordinarily discover. He said the only reason Florence has continued, down the ages, to retain its splendid collections of art, is a command issued by one 18th century woman — without her, the heritage of the city may well have fragmented, leaving at best a pale shadow of its past glory as the Mecca of Renaissance culture.

This got me interested, and I picked up Christopher Hibbert’s book, on the Medici family, The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall. The Medicis were, of course, patrons of the arts, but in the 18th century, the line was about to die out. The last of them — Anna Maria Luisa — was determined, however, to protect the magnificent artworks her ancestors had bequeathed her. And so, she signed the ‘Family Pact’. Under its terms, the Medici collection would remain forever in Florence and could not be alienated. In essence, she was leaving it to the people, and ever since, it is this art that has sustained and nourished the city and its economy, providing it its enduring appeal and character.

So on my second visit this year, therefore, everywhere I went, I looked for signs of this unsung woman. She isn’t prominently commemorated but there was a moment in the Uffizi Gallery, where when a tour guide shepherded a group past her portrait without so much as a glance, I looked up and smiled to myself — most may not remember her and her role in preserving Florence, but I was now enlightened, and for this I was glad.”

An architect’s pilgrimage

Rajshree Rajmohan R., architect

If author Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek took Rajshree to Greece, her ardent admiration of Picasso transported her to Spain soon after she finished her architecture course. “I was a penniless student. I borrowed money from my parents and relatives and went to Spain and saw the places and people that inspired Picasso. It was a memorable journey, though there were times when I had to skip meals and scrimp on transportation,” she recalls.

Rajshree Rajmohan

Rajshree Rajmohan   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Then it was The Ten Books on Architecture (De architectura) by Vitruvius that took her on flights of adventure. “It is the oldest and first treatise on classical architecture theory. It’s difficult not to fall in love with the architecture of Rome, it’s scale and aesthetics. Visiting the Acropolis in Athens and the Roman forum in Rome was more of a pilgrimage for me. An unforgettable journey where I visited all the places I had studied about. I sat on the steps of the Acropolis and wept, so overwhelmed was I by the historic structure,” says Rajshree.

Counting on Dracula

Vinayan, film director

The filmmaker has been a fan of horror novels ever since he “encountered” Count Dracula in late Kottayam Pushpanath’s novels as a school student. “Years later, when I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the 1,500 km-long Carpathian mountain ranges, the Count, his mysterious castle located high above the valley, the landscape, the eerie setting... all piqued my curiosity. I couldn’t wait to see Transylvania and the Bran Castle,” says Vinayan.

The opportunity came when he decided to make a film on the fictitious Transylvanian count and shoot some portions at real locations. “I chose the subject because that was when Malayalam film organisations had banned me and leading actors had refused to work in my movies. I thought if I made a movie on Dracula, I wouldn’t need them!” he laughs. So, in 2012, his 15-member crew, with newcomers in the cast set off to Romania.

“I was so excited that soon after our flight took off from Dubai, I kept looking out of the window hoping to see the Carpathian landscape. By the time we were in Transylvania, I realised that Dracula was a source of livelihood for many there,” he says.

Filmmaker Vinayan at the Bran Castle

Filmmaker Vinayan at the Bran Castle   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Vinayan remembers that the tour of the castle started on a spooky note, with a man dressed as Dracula appearing out of nowhere to scare the tourists. “I was taken aback when we were shown the cup from which Dracula drank blood, his cot, the place where he dumped corpses, as if it were all real,” he says.

Although Hollywood films had been shot in the place, Vinayan’s was the first Indian movie to be filmed there. “We were allowed to shoot only a few scenes, that too with a warning that unnatural things might happen and that the shoot should be wound up before midnight. We ignored that. But our crane operator, a Romanian national, fell ill, after he apparently saw Dracula and a black dog! After this, the women in our crew refused to shoot after midnight!”

And the memorable moment? “Sudheer Sukumaran, who played Dracula, was taking a nap in full make-up and Dracula costume. A few hours later, we saw coins and currency notes in front of him, placed by the tourists. He gave us a treat with that money!” recalls Vinayan.

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Printable version | Apr 9, 2020 4:27:32 PM |

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