LITERARY REVIEW

Nothing new here

Travel Writing

TEJAS EWING

Nothing new here

We travellers are in very hard circumstances. If we say nothing but what has been said before us, we are dull and have observed nothing. If we tell anything new, we are laughed at as fabulous and romantic.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

IN the world of travel literature, the difference between success and failure is usually reliant on two things: that the travels themselves be interesting, and that the writing be good and above all, insightful. Unfortunately, in Tim Mackintosh-Smith's sequel to his best-selling book Travels With a Tangerine, both characteristics are to be found irregularly. Mr. Mackintosh-Smith is undoubtedly very clever and witty. He is fluent in Arabic, and is a fountain of obscure knowledge. However, his incessant verbosity and relentless name-dropping fail to cover up the relative lack of insight and uneventfulness of his most recent round of travels.

He is on a mission in this book, a mission to follow the trail of the legendary Arabic adventurer known as Ibn Battutah. In this volume, part two of a trilogy, he traces IB (as he refers to him throughout the book) and his journey through the Indian subcontinent. However the question I found myself asking was: why? Unfortunately, the passages where Mackintosh-Smith quotes from IB were far more interesting and enlightening than what the author himself went through. The entire first chapter is taken up by his endless wait for a boat to be built so that he can travel from the Middle East to India in the same way that IB returned home. Perhaps to a reader unfamiliar with the vagaries of life in the East, the continuous delays might prove amusing. But to a lifelong resident of Asia, they just proved tedious, especially when Mackintosh-Smith ended up taking a plane anyway.

Contrast that to the "massive debt, near execution, capture by rebels, shipwreck and an attack by pirates" that IB went through, and I found myself yearning more for IB's 14th Century account: The Precious Gift for Lookers into the Marvels of Cities and Wonders of Travel, than for the one I was reading. Add to that the level of naivety and lack of planning that Mackintosh-Smith shows, (his main preparation was to read a novel-sized travel handbook written in 1962) and we get insights on how the author's "slender reading on contemporary India" had ill-prepared him for the "juxtaposition of sewage and serendipity, hovels and palaces, all cohabited with abandon". Forgive my cynicism, but that is an "insight" that I have read hundreds of times before, in any number of accounts on India.

It's not to say that this book is awful, it just has little new to add to the genre. The gimmick of following IB's travels only serves to highlight how little Mackintosh-Smith contributes besides light humour and somewhat irrelevant references to various works such as M.R. James's The Tractate Middoth or Hitchcock's "Psycho". In scenes that reminded me of numerous other books, the author expresses amazed revulsion at some "incomprehensible, inedible" dish that turns out to be nothing more than roadside chaat, and attempts to seek the truth about the famed Indian rope trick ("whatever the truth of the matter" he says, seemingly unaware that numerous books have been written on the subject, thoroughly debunking it). By the time the book nears it's close, with the author attempting to track down an old Jewish colony known as Kunju Kari, which, for tenuous reasons, the author surmises could also be "Kanjirapuzha" or "Kunnu Karai" or "Kunjunni Karrai", I found myself yearning for the simple clarity of William Dalrymple's writing on India, where the scenes are fascinating, the locals do the talking, and Dalrymple is content to record their insights rather than pound us senseless with his own.

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