Under my byline

Ticket to rise

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 21 October 2008


The book is now only a minor classic among the backpacking community, but Third-Class Ticket (1980) deserves greater renown. In it, young American Heather Wood writes of the trip she took by rail around India in 1969, along with 40 Bengali villagers who had never before left their home soil. The story begins as follows: a rich, widowed landowner leaves her entire fortune to her village, and stipulates that it is to be spent on travel — she wants all the villagers, down to the children, to be able to see their country with their own eyes. “They do not know that India needs them to do so,” the widow tells the railway official.

Wood accompanied the first group for 15,000 km and seven months, and recorded their experiences, both hopeful and tragic. Without Wood, we would not know about this wise and far-sighted act of generosity, as well as its consequences.

In some ways many of us are as ignorant of places outside our ken as Srimati Sen’s villagers were. Indians of all classes travel all the time, in-country or abroad, yet the travel seems to have only a passing impact on our imagination.

Consider how few Indians have made good travel writers. Vikram Seth’s From Heaven Lake (1983) is among his most memorable works. Until Seth, any visions of far-western China in Indian readers’ minds were mediated by earlier European traveller-writers, and by the extreme patchiness of information about the People’s Republic.

Two others, also of the same generation, should sit atop any list of great Indian travel writers. Amitav Ghosh’s writing on south-east Asia is more illuminating than any Bangkok weekend or Nat Geo documentary. And Pico Iyer is another blockbusting pan-Asian wanderer and explicator.

But what is there to compare with the classics of European travel literature? There is no Indian Patrick Leigh Fermor, no Eric Newby, Colin Thubron or Norman Lewis. At the age of 18 in 1933, Leigh Fermor started a walk across Europe from Holland to Constantinople. He was much too precocious and well-read to waste time at school, and travel became his further education. Two beautiful and influential books came out of this journey, a third is (still!) on its way. And this was only the start of a lifetime of adventure.

More than adventure: without Leigh Fermor’s books we would have no access to a first-hand experience of the world of pre-war south-eastern Europe. The Second World War would have coloured our knowledge of the time and the place in both directions — past and future — forever obscuring the essential reality, and the human story that there is little space for in the history books.

That is one function of great travel writing: to juxtapose slow-changing background with fast-moving history. It’s a critical correlation that historians often present as either preamble or aside, before moving on with a sigh of relief to event and process (which make a better story). Another, and related, function is to tie history to cultural geography. Thubron does this brilliantly, by knowing history wherever he goes, and thus being better able than even the locals to guess what is truly new, and what merely a new permutation. Read him on China or Cyprus, and then read the news.

Who will do this important work for India and Indians? So far, it has only been outsiders. Bill Aitken, Scotsman by birth but Indian by choice, has written irreplaceable travel books in which he crawls across the face of his chosen land in an intimate encounter which makes the idea of linearity in history seem foolish. Nothing is past, all times coexist — we already know this, but Aitken does the work that makes it an Indian truth. Seven Sacred Rivers (1992), for instance, shows how usefully “modern” rationality, scepticism and wanderlust can be married to a deep-seated sense of religion to, in effect, give form and outline to an idea of nationhood (not just Hindudom) only inchoately expressed by us in our veneration of rivers.

Twenty years ago, as we began to shed the Hindu rate of growth, we had national integration music on TV. Now, we need a culture of learned adventure. Historical self-awareness is a critical enabling tool for long-term national success, and it begins to be sought (history has shown) after the economic growth curve has started steepening.

What can we do? Assume we are villagers, and do as Srimati Sen did. Buy ourselves a ticket to ride. Indian Railways: offer six-month travel scholarships. Universities: make two months of travel a requirement to graduate. Publishers: pay travel advances to more potential writers, young and old. Rich people: set up bursaries along the lines of the New India Foundation. Schools: please teach students how to write and speak. India needs us to do so.


2 Responses

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  1. mekhala said, on 8 December 2008 at 8:16 am

    Thank you for pointing to Third Class Ticket. It is truly a wonderful account of an astonishing journey!

  2. Rrishi Raote said, on 16 December 2008 at 11:45 pm

    Thanks Mekhala. There must be lots of such stories that simply don’t get told.

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