LITERARY REVIEW

Footloose

CIRCA 1950 B.C. had its share of people with restless feet. Sinuhe, an Egyptian traveller, reveals the inner state of many compulsive travellers: "This flight which I undertook I did not anticipate...it was those shudderings of my body as my legs kept scurrying and heart kept impelling me, for the god who ordained this flight kept drawing me on." Robyn Davidson's anthology, Journeys, is not just any other travel anthology.

She abhors most travel writing and detests travelogues "written with the intention of satisfying a market". She considers travel writing a "literature of restlessness", describing it with unfashionable clarity as "a non-fiction work in which the author goes from point a to point b and tells us something about it." The wide net Davidson thus casts draws in the unexpected alongside the usual suspects. She includes extracts from letters and diaries as well as autobiographies. Of course there is V.S. Naipaul on India, but also Din Mahomed, a subaltern in the East India company army; and the Buddha, who says he "went forth from the house life into homelessness" to exist as "perfect and pure as a polished shell". Pianist Clara Schumann sledges over the snows of Russia from concert to concert in the 19th Century. Elizabeth David is acerbic about daily food in French families while Robert Antelme tastes afresh the sour dog biscuits he ate as a prisoner of war marching through defeated Germany. Not your usual travelogue description of Berlin nightlife. This is a witty and imaginative anthology, opening our minds to the possibilities of writing about travel.

Its coda is a NASA report. The space shuttle Atlantis lifted off on schedule, it records, and contacted the Russian space station Mir, 11,500 miles west of Australia. The astronaut aboard responded to this historic event with the eloquence Americans are renowned for: "That's great!" he said. Imagine the exclamatory brevity that space travel writing might bring.

Journeys: An Anthology, Picador, Rs. 295.

ANURADHA ROY

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