Published: Verve Magazine, Features, Travel, March 2008
With 27 novels and 14 books of criticism and non-fiction under his belt, Paul Theroux, American travel writer, who has spent extensive time in Asia and Africa, is ready to release his latest travel chronicle later this year. On his recent visit to the city, the writer of the best-selling The Great Railway Bazaar, and the winner of many an award, regales fans in Mumbai
I wonder what a prolific travel writer would be like – well read and engaging? Paul Theroux is all of that and more, poetic at heart, and likely to espouse on his literary influences rather than his own work. Able to look at himself with humour and reticence, he remarks after being warmly introduced to the audience at a panel discussion, “Now, I begin to believe in myself.” Visiting Mumbai by chance when the Calcutta Book Fair got cancelled at the last minute, Theroux decided to tour the country for three weeks as a guest of the State Government.
Dreams of India began in the early 19th century, in the neighbourhood where Theroux grew up and are alive to this day. Ralph Waldo Emerson circulated copies of the Bhagwad Gita amongst his friends. Henry Thoreau and Mark Twain were both inspired by India. Twain’s Following the Equator, in turn, was a great source of inspiration for Theroux. Richard Henry Dana served as his role model, the perfect travel writer – bold, brave, uncomplaining, with an ability to survive discomfort. “When I thought of my first travel book, I thought of going to India and in the most interesting and unforgettable way – by train instead of plane.” Wanting to connect it to where he lived earlier–London–Theroux, studying a map, figured it was as simple as joining the dots. The journey turned out to be memorable enough to make for a fascinating travel book.
Paul Theroux’s recent visit to India is all about second comings. As he often notes, there are exceedingly few travel writers who have been able to return to a destination after having made a journey there once. In fact, all the great ones haven’t been able to do so. “When you get older, the world changes – in ways you cannot guess – it is possible to make predictions, but one cannot see into the future.” He remarks, tongue-in-cheek, that he had a choice – to take his own trip again, or leave it up to some 20-year-old in search of a book, who would write it, probably, not as well!
Theroux points out, ironically, in the age of globalisation and in a flat world, what was possible the first time around is often, impossible in the next journey. This was particularly the case with India, where it was no longer possible for him to take the Great Train Journey, like he did many a year ago, with the problems in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
He jokes about a time in Chennai when everyone there could tell him how to get to New York, but not a soul knew whether the ferry to Colombo was running! Taking a realistic perspective he notes, “The world isn’t a village you can go to, and not everyone are brothers and sisters! Over time, some countries close up and others open up.” While Vietnam and Burma may still have oppression, Laos is booming, and Singapore is heralding the brave new world. Taking a ‘prison tour’ in the ‘free world’, however, was enlightening – Theroux chose to see a Stalinist Labour Camp from the ’30s instead of Swan Lake or churches.
Travelling overland, one can really see how people are living, how they are displaced – and it’s many hours (over the quicker air route) well spent. China is unrecognisable – there are ‘ancient charming towns in a big fat city’. According to him, China is the difference between cultural revolution and money, where history hasn’t been kind: ‘Get out of the way, or we’ll run you over – a road is coming up over the pagoda!’
Theroux feels that India is not in the same boat. Attached to its past, there is a certain ‘changelessness’ about India – like the three-legged dog that will eternally roam the streets of the country. “It is like a hall of mirrors, looking down to see if it is continuous.” And the change is positive – the traveller determined to see the new India is certain to visit a call centre to meet Tarun aka Tony from Vikhroli.
As any traveller realises, their perspective of a place they visit is entirely different from that of the locals, or people who live there for long stretches of time. Vociferous about the subjective role of travel writers, Theroux agrees that the experiences could have been very different for any of the travel writers (including himself). Quoting Henry James, “The house of fiction has many windows,” Theroux insists that he is not an objective traveller. “I leap to conclusions and make wild generalisations for a living!” Travel writing isn’t a geographical survey – it is a ‘strange beast’ – its very false and speculative nature is what makes it amazing, autobiographical, and in a sense akin to life.
Words flow easily, as Theroux remarks on his role as a travel chronicler, “I wander aimlessly like a dog, but the writing has to be truthful. A travel book isn’t a love letter – it is the truth as I see it – reconstructed ‘above all to make you see’.’’