From Heaven Lake is a brilliant, classic account of Vikram Seth’s 1981 journey through China when he was a 29 year old student at Nanjing University. That country was on the verge of relaxing its rules towards foreign visitors, but in 1981 Seth still needed police permission to travel anywhere in China, even major cities, let alone sensitive areas like Tibet. While on a university excursion, he is encouraged by his fellow students to try his luck at getting a Lhasa permission stamp added to his travel pass. Despite none of his friends having any luck, Seth is given the much sought after stamp, something he down to his earlier rendition of a Hindi film song popular in China. Making use of the stamp, however, proves even more complicated, as he has only a few short weeks before he is due back in Delhi, and getting permission to enter Nepal from Tibet so he can travel overland is not so simple. Such are the quirks of travel, and reading Seth, like Eric Newby or any other good travel writing, makes me wish I was just a bit more adventurous when travelling. The rewards of not being afraid to spend the night in a local home, of trying your luck with police and visa officials, and of taking completely untouristed routes seem to be so high. But alas, India is my destination of choice, and it’s hard to get far off the beaten track here.
Being an India-scholar (if I can get away with calling myself this now, it does seem a bit immodest), I am always faced with the inevitable contemporary comparisons of India with China. The two biggest countries in the world are so different. Despite their close proximity, the mutual understanding between Indians and Chinese is slim, and this is something that Seth meditates on, a bit. I found it very interesting to get this Indian perspective on the region, not filtered through the west as I am used to hearing, though by now From Heaven Lake is over thirty years old and likely rather out of date. Seth compares and contrasts the successes and failures of India and China in the second half of the twentieth century:
“I remember reading a question in an economics textbook: ‘If you were to be born tomorrow, would you prefer to be born in China or India?’ If I could be guaranteed the lucky place in the Indian sweepstakes that I at present occupy, there is no question as to what my answer would be; even if I were poorer than the average Chinese child, I would still prefer to be in India. But if I were born to the inhuman, dehumanising misery in which the poorest third of our people live, to the squalor and despair and debility that is their life, my answer would not be the same. Man does not, of course, live by bread alone, but with so little of it he can hardly be said to live at all.” (pp. 104-5)
As all good travel writing should, Seth’s writing evokes not only the pleasant and stimulating aspects of travel, but the hardships and humiliations, too. Sometimes the humiliations remind of one’s own behaviour in a foreign place, when too tired, too hungry, too out of one’s element to know or remember how to behave properly. Sometimes they are the behaviours of others. In Lhasa, looking at the tourist sites, Seth tags onto an American tour group so as to be let into one site. This comes after he has been reflecting on the remarkable kindness of ordinary Chinese people, most of whom will go out of their way to help a foreigner, with no expectation of anything in return:
“The guide finally decides to ask me where I’ve come from, and I confess to my subterfuge. We get talking; Nanjing, as it happens, is his hometown. When the minibus is about to leave, he asks me if I would like a lift into town, or perhaps to go with them to the carpet factory, their next stop. He checks to make sure it’s all right with the group leader, John. But as I am about to board the bus, a heavy-set woman hisses at me, so that only I can hear, ‘How dare you get onto this bus with us; this is a Lindblad Tour, and we are paying more than ten thousand dollars for this trip.’ I am so shaken by her remark that I am about to get off, but then John says, ‘Hi! Get on—you’re very welcome to join us,’ and pushes me on. He hasn’t heard her, and I decide to stay to prevent a scene. It is curious how wealth makes some people pleasant, by doing away with worry and petty frustration; and how it makes other abominable.” (p. 141)
I was reminded of such an abominable Belgian woman I was on a bus tour to Kanyakumari with. Our guide suggested we eat lunch at a certain place in town, a decent, cheap hotel with local food. The Belgian woman accused him of getting commission from the restaurant owners—possible, but at 75 rupees for a thali, I wasn’t going to worry—proclaiming very loudly that she hated it “when they do that”. She set off to find somewhere else to eat, which she did, and made a big fuss of how good the alternative food was. She later accused him of wanting to pocket her change when he suggested that rather than all of us line up individually to buy tickets to a palace we were visiting, he could collect our money and do it himself. Though she quibbled over every last rupee that was spent on her behalf on the tour, she proceeded to buy all sorts of tacky tourist junk along the way, including, memorably to me, some plastic flowers on a string to put in her hair.
Seth’s A Suitable Boy is one of my favourite books, and the intelligent humour of his writing really appeals to me. Fluent in several languages, he is able to do a rare thing (though not so rare amongst Indians, it seems): make multi-lingual puns and word play. As a New Zealander (when it suits me), I liked the following passage:
“The carriage contains travellers of different nationalities: Han, Uighur, Kazakh, Mongolian. There are young people, returning resentfully to their far-flung outposts after a rare visit home to Shanghai. ‘We have been sent to New Zealand for life,’ says one bitter young man. ‘We could just as well be on the moon.’ ‘New Zealand’ or Xin-xi-lan, is an acronym for Xin-jiang, Xi-zang (Tibet) and Lan-zhou. To be posted to any of these places, is, for most Han people, to be condemned to an uncomfortable and barbarous limbo.” (p. 39)
New Zealand is, after all, perhaps like Tibet, what we would call the wops.