Narratives of the self

TRAVELLERS have always wanted to tell others at home about what they saw on their travels; and, right from the old travellers' tales of centuries ago, to contemporary reports of "embedded journalists", we are always interested in hearing what it's like out there.

But travel writing has only recently been getting the kind of academic attention it deserves. It is interesting to see how travel writers imagine the world to which they travel, and how their ways of seeing the world can tell us not only about that world but also about themselves. Also interesting is to see the strategies that are available to writers, and how they are used, in their efforts to describe or imagine the world that they are describing.

There has always been a close relationship between writing, conquest and empire building, with travel writing not only facilitating but also itself being made possible by imperial expansionism. The travel narrative was one of the ways for the Empire to assess its territory, grow and gain stability. In Europe, although individual explorers and adventurers were already out there "discovering the world", the culture of travel dated back to the 18th Century, when young men from the English aristocracy were sent on their "Grand Tour" as part of their education, and to emphasise upon them their great burden of colonising the world.

Many travel accounts were written in the language of imperialism, racism, Orientalism and patriarchy; but there were also some travel writers who exposed the violence and insensitivities of Empire-building. Travel narratives, in all their adventure, romance and violence, throw light upon the ways in which the Empire perpetuated itself. Travel Writing and the Empire, edited and introduced by Sachidananda Mohanty, gives us interesting glimpses of this adventure, romance and violence.

In her essay "The Empire, Travel Writing, and British Studies", Susan Bassnett looks at why it is important to study travel writing, and what it can tell us about the ways in which one culture constructs its image of other cultures. Bassnett points out that the discipline holds many possibilities ranging from the areas of literary travel and travel as tourism and diplomacy, the question of the veracity of travel accounts, the question of identity, and of writing the self.

Pallavi Pandit Laisram, in her essay "Hajji Baba: Ideological Basis of the Persian Picaro" takes a look at the 19th Century European reconstruction of Persia through James Morier's "best-selling" picaresque novel The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan (1824). While appreciating the elements that made the story so popular, she says, it is also important to examine its reductive and even offensive aspects. For, she says, "A meaningful, non-hegemonic, crosscultural dialogue can take place only when individuals can sympathetically `travel' into the thoughts and feelings of another culture."

William Dalrymple, in his excellent and readable essay "Porous Boundaries and Cultural Crossover: Fanny Parkes and `Going Native' ", compares the intelligent but rather sterile writing of Emily Eden in Up the Country, which has been long regarded as a classic of British Imperial literature, with that of Fanny Parkes, whose Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque had no second edition. He quotes Fanny's delight in everything Indian, from the Taj Mahal and the Ruins of Delhi to the handsome men and the graceful women. More than anything, she loves the country: "Oh the pleasure of vagabondizing in India!" and is critical of some of the philistine ways of the British, as for example when they organise a band for a dance at the Taj. The boundaries between the cultures, notes Dalrymple — Hindu, Muslim, English — were more porous before 1857, and there was greater intercultural hybridity. Alas, this world was swept away with the uprising.

In "Colonialism, Surveillance and Memoirs of travel: Tegart's Diaries and the Andaman Cellular Jail", Tutun Mukherjee looks at the "Memoir of an Indian Policeman", a compilation made by Tegart's wife of the diaries of Charles Augustus Tegart, British loyalist and Police Commissioner. The Memoir, Mukherjee notes, records a particularly violent chapter in India's colonial history, that of extremism, British repression and brutal colonial incarceration. Travelling to the Cellular Jail in the beautiful Andaman archipelago in 1913, Tegart notes the careful architecture of the prison, recording all the many ways in which the prisoners were kept under control, his eyes ever alert for lapses in vigilance. Such was one of the uses of travel in India's colonial history.

Other essays in the volume include a fresh assessment by Mohammed Zaheer Basha of Katherine Mayo's Mother India, her propagandist and judgemental account of her travel in India; an interface between travel writing and gender studies, by Sindhu Menon; Pramod K. Nayar's examination of the colonial rhetoric of travel brochures today; Narendra Luther's elegant account of Hyderabad as seen through the eyes of 18th and 19th century visitors; and V.B.Tharakeshwar's essay looking at the ways in which Kannada travel fiction and travelogues are "writing back". A readable, intelligent introduction to the interface between travel narratives and the Empire.

Travel Writing and the Empire, edited by Sachidananda Mohanty, Katha, 2003, p. 185, Rs. 250.

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