studies in travel writing

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Jacob, Rahul, Right of Passage: Travels from Brooklyn to Bali (New Delhi: Picador India, 2008).

This book is essentially a compilation of mostly travel articles I wrote as travel editor of the Financial Times, London. A couple of years ago, I began to see that in an era when more and more people travel, there was a need for a fresh approach to travel writing and for more historical research when travelling to well known destinations like Bali. With that in mind, I began to write more articles that tried to get beyond the more obvious travelogue journalism - “I did this, I saw that.” I also began to write more essays that reflect on experiences we all have as travellers – is economy class travel really so bad or what are the real risks/rewards of travelling to a place hit by a terrorist attack when these places need tourism more than ever?

My book, Right of Passage includes travel writing on places as diverse as Beirut and New York, Senegal and the Maldives. These articles almost always have an angle – the piece on New York is written from the perspective of a young man arriving in that wonderful city and through sheer luck finding a job in the heart of Rockefeller Centre. The article on Dakar in Senegal is an examination of the huge following that pop music of such stars like Youssou N’Dour and Cheikh Lo have, not dissimilar at all to the role Bollywood plays in India. I went to wonderful concerts there as a result. In Lyon, a foodie capital to end all foodie capitals, I tell a story about one restaurant - or rather a meal at one of France’s best restaurants in a way that tells you why eating out in France can be such a pleasure.

There is a separate section on Asian cities that are full of ambition at the moment – everywhere from Bangalore to Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur. This is an exciting time to be in Asia and I have tried to communicate that from the perspective of someone who grew up in Calcutta. That is because so often in travel writing, we hear only about the perspectives of a Westerner visiting these tropical lands.

The book also features a section on writers who have created a strong sense of place in their writing. I have interviewed authors such as Vikram Seth, Jan Morris and Joan Didion. Since these interviews were usually over lunch, the setting became informal and are more revealing. Vikram Seth, for instance, told me this wonderful story about his mother, Leila Seth, checking her results after the prestigious bar exams in London where she was living with her husband. She examined the results sheets posted outside The Times’s office starting from the bottom. Her husband had to gently guide her finger all the way to the top – she had finished first, a tremendous achievement for anyone but especially for a young mother.

Even though my interviews were not related to travel writing, one of the central themes of this book is that travel writing can also include memories of a place – The Golden Gate still seems to be one of the best ‘travel books’ on northern California because you learn so much about a way of life through this poem.

The final section of my book looks at what it is like for an Indian to live in London today. Having grown up resisting these myths about how efficient the railways the British built for India were, it is amusing to see how bad its transport system is in comparison to other developed world cities. I am, however, full of praise for London’s tremendous diversity and openness to outsiders but dismissive of its obsession with property buying and C list celebrities.

Among the most enjoyable trips I remember San Francisco especially - a city of big ideas, warm and friendly people, great cityscapes and some of the best food in the world. It is also a city I have been in love with for a long time because it was the first place I landed in when I came to America on a scholarship to study in Illinois. I also liked Santa Fe for its stark scenery that travel writers cannot do justice to. I “enjoyed” cutting through all the silly myths about Dubai and its shopping malls and fancy hotels. I don’t care for shopping and did not go to a single mall and in a perverse way this helped me see more of Dubai. Although I would argue that one has to be blind to miss how badly they treat the Indians and Pakistanis who work as construction workers there.

One of the main reasons I wanted to put this book together is that more and more Indians are travelling within and also outside India. Not a guide, the book explores the romance of many places. It also seeks to hark back to an era of armchair travel writing – where people read about places without necessarily wanting to travel there or make hotel bookings.

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Studies in Travel Writing (journal)
Centre for Travel Writing Studies (Nottingham Trent University)


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