While the Gods Were Sleeping by Elizabeth Enslin (2014)

'While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal' by Elizabeth Enslin. Berkley: Seal Press, 2014. Provided with a review copy by the publisher.
‘While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal’ by Elizabeth Enslin. Berkley: Seal Press, 2014. Provided with a review copy by the publisher.

I devoured this in about three days when I had lots of other work I should have been doing. ‘While the Gods Were Sleeping’ is a wonderful, honest account of a young woman’s encounter with an alien culture that she hadn’t been all that interested in coming face-to-face with, and it was that honesty from the outset that made me like, and empathise with, Elizabeth Enslin.

A young anthropology student in the 1980s, Enslin meets her future husband Pramod while at grad school. She had intended to specialise in some part of Africa, but as Pramod becomes an increasingly important part of her life, she switches academic tack and forces herself to become interested in South Asia. Her descriptions of the confusion and desperation of finding your path through grad school is so relatable to anyone who has been through this themselves.  Her attempts to combine her research and love interests leads her to the Nepali Terai–the plains bordering India–where her husband’s family live. She admits never having been drawn to Nepal, even while her peers were taking themselves off on pilgrimages to the mountains, and this is something I feel an affinity with. After having lived in Kathmandu for a year myself, I feel a strong attachment to the country now, but while I loved India and was constantly drawn back to it, I still am, it was really only my job in Kathmandu that took me there, and it might have taken me several more years to make it there if not for the job. I still don’t entirely understand the stereotypical hippy-trail pull of Nepal, and neither did Enslin.

While the Gods Were Sleeping is Enslin’s account of how she trod the very tenuous line between Nepali daughter-in-law and foreign anthropologist, how she had to make enormous compromises and sacrifices in both roles, but was ultimately successful–in that way that ambitious, talented women often are–in making it all work, imperfect as it was.

Although the sub-title of this book–‘A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal’–is actually perfectly descriptive of what transpires, as Enslin is involved with some women’s movements in Chitwan, knowing what I do of Nepal, I thought it meant the Maoist insurgency. In fact, the book is set some years before that, in the 1980s, but it was only when I was quite a long way into it that I realised that particular rebellion had no part in the story. It’s a minor thing which might not bother a reader who knows less about the country, but I thought it was unnecessarily misleading.

Anthropology is a discipline that, as a student of literature and history, I was always taught to be suspicious of, and I admit that I still am, even after completing a PhD at an institution in which it was strong. While the Gods Were Sleeping, while not an overt critique of the discipline, certainly raises a lot of the issues that we should be suspicious of, particularly those concerning neo-imperialist attitudes. Even as a pretty savvy young scholar, Enslin had some rather naive beliefs that can be largely attributed to the need for an academic to structure their work in a particular way to meet funding requirements and so on. For example, Enslin writes:

“When I switched from Africa to India, I had hoped to base my work in an area where there would be a clear divide between oppressors and oppressed, and some grassroots movement welling up from the latter. When I gave up on India and resigned myself to Nepal, I knew the grassroots movement would be hard to find but still hoped for some line between the haves and have-nots.” (p. 89)

Enslin was approaching Nepal as somewhere that didn’t fit the parameters that she required for her PhD study, that failed to rise up and meet her, rather than vice versa. But, to her credit, she recognises this in hindsight and that’s what makes her account the nuanced, self-reflexive study that it is. She writes, later:

“I grew to love that concept of culture the way I loved my Swiss army knife. If culture, rather than human nature, made us who we were, there was nothing natural or inevitable about racism, hate, war. With a concept of culture, we anthropologists could fix anything, or at least explain it. But too deep a love can disappoint, and that concept of culture had so far mostly failed me in Nepal. Ever since my first arrival, Pramod’s family and village had offered a perfect opportunity for intimacy with another culture. My pregnancy offered even more. Even when I didn’t plan research there, I should have been more curious. Yet all along disappointment nagged at me: these Brahmans I lived among were not the kind of Others I had in mind when I decided to become an anthropologist.” (p. 120).

Enslin is the author of an influential academic essay, ‘Beyond Writing: Feminist Practice and the Limits of Ethnography’, which I have been encouraged to read after reading this book.

While the Gods Were Sleeping is not a ‘mainstream’ book that a large number of readers will be able to identify with, but anyone with an interest in real South Asian issues, feminism, athropology and the developing world will find it immensely satisfying.

Shopping for Buddhas, Jeff Greenwald (1990)

Shopping for Buddhas, by Jeff Greenwald. Originally published by Harper and Row in 1990. Ebook edition published 2011, purchased for Kindle.

I first read this travel narrative about ten years ago. I was studying at the University of Otago, and aside from the books I had to read for my English major, I would select my reading material by browsing the library bookshelves and picking whatever appealed. I haven’t read like that for a long time, my habits dictated by firmer intentions now. But this system set me on the path of South Asian literature, as it was usually the Indian books that caught my eye on the shelf. One can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can be attracted by it.

Shopping for Buddhas was selected this way, I remember it clearly as it made a strong impression on me. I knew very little about India then, let alone Nepal, and there are three things that I clearly remember from this book: being surprised to learn that Nepal was a Hindu kingdom (it still was, in 2004), as my half-baked impressions of it were of a Buddhist country; being fascinated that in Hindu belief, Buddha was an incarnation of Vishnu, and that the first few incarnations were lost to human memory–I didn’t, and still don’t, really understand Hinduism, but there was something revelatory about this fact; and finally the visual image of Kathmandu that the book conjured stuck with me–until I came here! I imagined a city perched on snow-capped mountains, and when Jeff Greenwald wandered them purposefully on his hunt for the perfect Buddha statue, the streets were steep–probably a result of my living in Dunedin at the time, the city home to the world’s steepest street!

I probably should have left this book in my fond memory. It is not that I know so much more about Kathmandu these days that led to disappointment, but that I have read so much more travel literature, most superior to this. The basic premise of the book still holds–Jeff Greenwald is a young writer and traveller, who has spent a lot of time in Kathmandu from the late 1970s to ’80s, and embarks upon a mission to find the ‘perfect’ Buddha statue to buy. The more he learns about the iconography and craft of religious statues, and of the Nepali antiques business, the harder his quest becomes. I still liked this part of the narrative, but Greenwald’s forays into the Nepali politics of the time seems forced. Not just that these parts were out of date (that is inevitable), or basic (if one doesn’t know much about Nepal then they’re not basic at all, as my twenty-year-old self found) but they felt like padding, like the author had intended to write a story about shopping for Buddhas, and some editor along the way told him that this narrative alone wouldn’t pass muster.

It’s a light and enjoyable read if you’re in Kathmandu–I read it primarily whilst hanging out in a cafe near the Patan Durbar Square, so near to many of the shops that Greenwald would’ve perused, so it was easy to visualise the world he was trying to invoke. But ultimately the author’s overly-flippant tone (meant to be humorous, but sometimes just not) and meanderings between the world of politics and that of traditional art, with no real integration of the two, left Shopping for Buddhas very flat.

Mustang: A Lost Tibetan Kingdom, Michel Peissel (1968)

Mustang: A Lost Tibetan Kingdom, by Michel Peissel. London: Futura Publications, 1979 (1968). (Purchased in Nepal).

This was the perfect book to accompany me on the Poon Hill trek in the Annapurna region that I did a couple of weeks ago. Not only because Frenchman Michel Peissel’s account of his travels to and stay in the northern Nepali region of Mustang in the 1960s passed through some of the same spots that we did on this trek, but because I realised how comparatively easy the trek I was doing in 2013 was in comparison to how he had travelled in the 1960s. (To read about the fun/ordeal of my trek, take a look at my post on my other blog).

Mustang is an ethnically and culturally Tibetan region of Nepal, and access to it is still restricted to outsiders. Trekking permits to Upper Mustang cost $500 for a ten day period, and you can only go on an organised trek, meaning that it is inaccessible to all but wealthy foreigners. The place has interested me since I read Manjushree Thapa’s Mustang Bhot in Fragments (https://southasiabookblog.wordpress.com/2012/09/24/mustang-bhot-in-fragments-manjushree-thapa-1992/), largely because it does seem very romantic and mysterious. I know this is an inadequate perspective to have about a twenty-first century society, but lack of information feeds such impulses, as do books like Peissel’s Mustang: A Lost Tibetan Kingdom.

Michel Peissel had been learning Tibetan with the aide of a grammar book for some time, and while living in Kathmandu fortuitously gained permission from the king of Nepal to not only travel to Mustang, but to stay there for a few months to research its history. He claims to be the first foreigner to be granted permission to reside there, and much of the rich description of the book revolves around the meeting of two different civilisations, for Peissel is as curious to the residents of Mustang as they are to him. With the help of a Tibetan-speaking friend and guide he stays in Lo Mantang, the kingdom’s capital, for several weeks, meeting the king and important religious figures, and later travels around the kingdom searching for written records of Mustang’s history housed in monasteries.

First published in 1968, this book is reminiscent of other male travel writing of the middle decades of the twentieth century, particularly the slightly earlier Eric Newby, and the slightly later Peter Mathiessen. Peissel is much more earnest than Newby, and more detailed than Mathiessen. The nuances of the three writers are very different, but the general gist is that white man is explorer, his duty is to inform other white men about quaint other cultures elsewhere. Added to this is Peissel’s case is the fact that he’s an anthropologist of the traditional type, and this comes through in much of his categorical language. He is a reflection and a product of his times, and this leads to a large number of cringe-worthy moments in Mustang, such as the following (although I rather liked the naive enthusiasm of this one, despite its seriously problematic conflation of the medieval and the non-western):

“One thing that pleased me very much during my stay in Mustang was that I was not obliged to imagine what this lost kingdom had been like in the past. I have spent most of my life imagining what things must have been like… how the Tower of London had looked in the Middle Ages… what Versailles was like in the time of Louis XIV… the appearance of New York when it was a Dutch colony… All the buildings I have admired in Athens, Mexico City or Rome, have needed to be seen more with the imagination than with the eyes. […] In Mustang, nothing disturbs the general harmony of buildings and objects and also of people. There were no intrusions of foreign objects to mar the beauty and charm of the land.” (p. 231)

Peissel desires purity from his exotic land, considering foreign influence corrupting, yet at the same time seems to delight in comparing the ‘civilised’ west with the ‘uncivilised’ east. It’s that old colonial-era paradox. Yet it is clear that Peissel really loves Mustang and Tibetan culture on more than just the level of curiosity:

“As we gradually left the Hindu world behind, I felt more and more in my element, and could not help making a comparison between the sturdy, open-faced Tibetans and the timid, ragged Hindus.” (p. 48)

As old-fashioned as this turn of phrase sounds, I hear a contemporary equivalent of it a lot in Kathmandu, from western ex-pats and travellers who proclaim how much they prefer Nepal to India “because the people are so much easier going”. This judgment arises, I have found, from a fear of India and Indians, from an inability or unwillingness to learn the codes of behaviour that one needs to have a comfortable time travelling in that country. As an Indiaphile I cannot agree with the assumptions that make it so easy and acceptable to praise the Nepali character by shunning the Indian. But I digress.

All this aside, Peissel’s Mustang is an impressive and engrossing book, and very informative. Though almost half a century old now, it still contains a wealth of historical detail, even if it couldn’t be used as a guide book any longer. And it cleared up questions I had about horses:

“At one time I had wondered whether the name ‘mustang’, for the wild horse of North America, might not have been derived from the fame of the horses of Lo Mantang [the local name for the kingdom]. But this idea, I soon found out, could not be correct, as the name ‘mustang’ was used for the wild horse before the name ‘Mantang’ was deformed into ‘Mustang’ in 1850. ‘Mustang’ comes from the Spanish word ‘mostrenco‘–wild one. As for the quality of the local horses in Mustang, I learned from the King’s son that the best of them came from the Amdo region of Sining in northeastern Tibet.” (p. 144)

After my brief encounter with trekking in Nepal, I have sworn off ever travelling by public transport on Nepal’s mountain roads again. Taking three hours to travel the twenty kilometres between Tatopani and Beni was far too traumatic an experience to repeat. I would be very reluctant to take certain flights, too (particularly those to Jomsom and Everest Base Camp, which have appalling safety records). So, if I am ever to travel to Mustang, which I’d love to, it looks like it’ll be on foot, just like Michel Peissel.

The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen (1978)

peter matthiessen the snow leopard
The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen. New York: Penguin, 2008 (1978). (Gift, purchased in USA).

I did not read this because it is available everywhere in Kathmandu, but because I was given it as a gift before I came. Yet it transpires that it’s the Shantaram of Nepal: “all foreigners read this book”, in the words of an enthusiastic Bombay street-side book peddlar. I have an aversion to reading things presumed to be popular amongst foreigners, considering distance from point of origin a poor arbiter of taste, so it was lucky I went into reading The Snow Leopard blind.

Originally published in 1978, The Snow Leopard is the account of author Matthiessen and field biologist George Schaller’s trip through the Inner Dolpo mountains, on the Tibetan Plateau in western Nepal, in search of the rare, beautiful and elusive Snow Leopard that was said to inhabit the region.

I found it a lovely book, but alienating in many respects. Matthiessen was a student of Zen Buddhism, and while much of the text is dedicated to recounting the physical journey and the landscape, much is also spent exploring the inner changes wrought by following this spiritual path. I found myself skimming over these parts, not entirely comfortable with the easy –and all too common– conflation of physical travel and personal awakening. The Snow Leopard sits at the tail end of hippy trail travel, and because of this feels dated, but at the same time should be read, and appreciated, as very much a product of its time.

Furthermore, at times this book read like a David Attenborough nature documentary. The environment, the elements, the topography is described in rich detail, and many locals are too, but the people are generally treated as part of the landscape, or even the wildlife. At one point the text reads:

“Through Jang-bu, we question everyone about Kang La and Shey Gompa, as the crowd gives off that heartening smell of uncultivated peoples the world over, an earthy but not sour smell of sweat and fire smoke and the oil of human leather. Goats, a few sheep, come and go. Both men and women roll sheep wool on hand spindles, saying that blizzards have closed Kang La for the winter. On the roofs, culled buckwheat stacked for winter fodder has a bronze shine in the dying sun, and against a sunset wall, out of the wind, an old woman with clean hair turns her old prayer wheel, humming, humming.” (p. 138)

I wanted to know more about this isolated region in context with the rest of the country. Honing in on details can result in beautiful, specific writing, but fails to be informative, and I think all travel writing, at least to some extent, should be informative.

My edition of The Snow Leopard, published by Penguin Classics in 2008, has an introduction by Indian author Pico Iyer, a long-time admirer of Matthiessen. The year before Matthiessen traveled to Nepal, his wife died of cancer. To embark on this journey, the author left his eight-year-old son behind in the US. Throughout The Snow Leopard, Matthiessen is still grieving for his wife, and feels a lot of guilt about his son, remembering his son’s anguish at the prospect of being parted from his father for so long, and re-reading a letter from him. Iyer writes that the honesty with which Matthiessen divulges his own shortcomings, his readiness to write about those left behind, is uncommon in travel writing:

“[W]hat moves me, every time I read the book, is that Matthiessen elects to include in his story a letter and a moment that will show him in a highly unflattering light. Most travelers are guilty of a kind of infidelity when they leave their homes and loved ones, their other lives, in order to undertake a long and perilous journey–and almost all of them (I know as someone who writes about travel myself) choose to keep out from their records the less exalted, human trade-off. We like to present ourselves as conquering heroes, or lone wolves taking on the world in all its terror; we will use any literary device we can to keep out of the text the ones waiting for us at home, or the truth of what is always an uneasy compromise.” (p. xxii)

I was reminded of reading about an Indian revolutionary, I don’t remember which, who in his meticulously kept personal journals recorded the birth of his children simply as “A daughter born today.” Not because he didn’t love his children, or that he wasn’t dedicated to them, but because his journal was a space to record his political struggle. I can understand why authors may want to separate their personal lives from their subject-matter, but I agree with Iyer in feeling this is rather disingenuous in the case of travel writing. I have been writing about my move to Nepal, but I hope not to erase signs of what I’ve left behind, a palpable presence in my own mind so I would hope in much of my writing, too.

The Snow Leopardis considered a classic of travel literature today, and I think not just because of its age. Matthiessen’s influence is evident in the last book I reviewed here, Joe Simpson’s The Water People— another example of adventure meeting spiritual and personal discovery. I can’t say I’m a big fan of the sub-genre, but there are enough big questions and beautiful writing in The Snow Leopard to warrant its recommendation.

Stupid Guy Goes to India, Yukichi Yamamatsu (2012) Translated from Japanese by Kumar Sivasubramanian

Stupid Guy Goes to India
Stupid Guy Goes to India, by Yukichi Yamamatsu. Translated from the 2008 Japanese ‘Indo e baka ga yattekita’ by Kumar Sivasubramanian. Chennai: Blaft and Tranquebar, 2012. (Purchased from Book Depository UK).


As I’m fairly intimate with both Japan (having lived there for nineteen months some years ago) and India (numerous research trips and travels), the clashing of the two cultures in Stupid Guy Goes to India appealed to me. And they really do clash! In 2004, manga author Yukichi Yamamatsu, 56 and never before having left Japan, decided that the best way to revive his stagnant career was to take Japanese manga to India: “If I take manga there, I’m sure to be able to sell it!” Naive last words. I still don’t understand why Yamamatsu chose India of all places for his first adventure out of Japan. After a year and a half living and working in Japan, I felt thoroughly stifled and jaded, so immediately after leaving made my first trip to India. It was exactly what I needed, the complete opposite in every way, and, you could say, I never looked back. Yamamatsu didn’t have such a positive trip, but I respect his adventurousness.

Stupid Guy Goes to India is Yamamatsu’s account of his several months in India trying to translate, print, and sell Hindi translations of his best-selling samurai manga. He achieves minor successes, yes, amongst a great deal of hardship and a lot of humour–he can’t speak or read either English or Hindi when he arrives, he can’t tolerate spicy food, and he has some rather serious problems with his colon.

Page from Stupid Guy goes to India

Humour aside, it is not really the plot that is most interesting about this book, but rather its format: an English translation of his Yamamatsu’s Japanese account of his time in Delhi. I never understood the attraction of manga when I lived in Japan, couldn’t get past the fact that it looked like picture books, and found the genre strangely earnest despite its preference for the fantastical. I’m not entirely sure I get it still, but Stupid Guy Goes to India did help me appreciate the visual comedy of the form. I loved the characters’ mouths especially. Yamamatsu, when agitated or excited, and Indians most of the time, were illustrated with their mouths wide open, tonsils visible, bellowing their emotions. I loved the incongruity of some of this–Japanese people, on the whole, do not respect public displays of negative emotion, getting angry in public (for instance, at bad service) being one of the quickest ways to lose respect. That Yamamatsu is depicted on the cover open mouthed and arms raised skyward is perhaps a sign of the depths of frustration he plummeted to in India. I can empathise–I think I spend most of my time in that country with the same expression, but I feel the more empowered for it. I’m not sure Japan would take me back these days.

Yamamatsu’s trials are not resolved at the end of this book, and though we are left with an image of an Air India flight back to Japan, we are also promised that Stupid Guy Goes Back to India is coming soon. As amusing as I found this book, I’m not sure I’ll be reading the sequel. The novelty of the concept had largely worn off by the time I’d finished this, and there is little more than novelty to attract readers other than manga fans. Also, non-Hindi speaking readers be warned that as Yamamatsu becomes more competent at Hindi, the translation includes more and more of that language (transliterated into Roman script, not Devanagari) which could be quite alienating if you can’t understand it.

Stupid Guy Goes to India. Translated from Japanese by Kumar Sivasubramanian. Chennai: Blaft and Tranquebar Press, 2012. Originally published in Japanese as Indo e Baka ga Yattekita in 2008.

Hidden Bhutan: Entering the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon, Martin Uitz, 2008. Translated from German by Nathaniel McBride

Hidden Bhutan

Bhutan is a country unknown to most of the world, but if there is one thing most people do know about the small Himalayan mountain kingdom, it’s their concept of “Gross National Happiness”, as opposed to Gross National Profit, as a goal for development. Sounds lovely, I know, but I’ve always been skeptical of it. It’s all very well for leaders to say that their people are more concerned about happiness than about material wealth, but what do the citizens themselves think about this? I don’t know the answers, and as far as I can gather, too little outside research on Bhutan as a twenty-first century nation (rather than as some timeless Buddhist shangri-la) has been done. An interesting, recent opinion-piece by Chettria Patrakar on Himal Southasian‘s blog (http://himalmag.com/blogs/) also questions these common assumptions and calls for better language and scholarship from non-Bhutanese reporters and writers.

Martin Uitz’s Hidden Bhutan: Entering the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon doesn’t pay a lot of attention to this common trope (somewhat mercifully) but he does question it subtley. This simple, charming travel account of contemporary Bhutan is most valuable in its descriptions of Bhutanese traditions and contemporary as well as traditional ways of life. It does read as rather anthropological at times, and hence makes for a rather old-fashioned style of travel writing, but for a reader who has very little prior knowledge of Bhutan, I found this mostly interesting. Uitz’s attention to detail in his descriptions made some of the language quite beautiful, particularly in his almost erotic description of a traditional Bhutanese hot-stone bath, where one sits in a bath and one by one hot stones are placed in the water, heating it up to steaming temperatures.

Despite all my research on South Asia, there are clearly major gaps in my geo-political historical knowledge, and Hidden Bhutan filled in some of these gaps. I didn’t know, for instance, that in 1975 Sikkim (now a state of India) became the last Himalayan country to lose its independence when it was annexed by India. Nepal and Bhutan are the only two kingdoms (or, in the case of Nepal, recent ex-kingdom) not to have been absorbed by their more powerful neighbours, with Kashmir being fought over by India and Pakistan and currently being ruled by both; the formerly independent Ladakh and Spiti now belong to India, and Swat, Gilgit, Hunza and Chitral to Pakistan.

There were other new discoveries to be found here, too. It’s funny how you can go your whole life not knowing something, and then just when you learn about it, that same thing seems to pop up everywhere for a little while, prompting you to ask how you had not known about it earlier! I was watching David Attenborough’s Planet Earth on TV in Australia a few weeks ago, and was horrified by a segment on these fungi that inhabit the bodies of other creatures, such as ants, drive them bad, kill them, and then grow out of the carcass. It really looked like something from a horror movie. Well, this demonic fungus featured in Hidden Bhutan, too, and if I hadn’t seen it animated in Attenborough’s film I don’t think I would have had the imagination to picture it. Uitz describes how the fungus, Cordyceps Sinensis, is used in traditional Chinese, Tibetan and Bhutanese medicine, as it has curative properties which can also improve strength and athleticism. As such, it was associated with some Chinese doping scandals in the 1990s. With the memory of Attenborough’s film in my mind, I shudder at the thought of drinking such a potion.

Amongst all of the fascinating details, I would have liked a bit more information on the author. In my last post on Patrick Marnham’s Road to Katmandu I did criticise his over-emphasis on the characters and not the places being traveled through, but here there was perhaps the opposite problem. I would’ve liked to know more about what Uitz was doing in Bhutan, his everyday life as a foreigner there, and the major challenges he faced. But, overall, this was an informative and enjoyable short book on a little-known country.

London: The Armchair Traveller at the BookHaus, 2008. Originally published in German as Einlass ins Reich des Donnerdrachens. Verborgenes Bhutan, 2006.

Road to Katmandu, Patrick Marnham (1971)


I had seen this book for sale in Canberra’s Academic Remainders Bookshop while I was waiting to hear whether I’d got the job I wanted in Kathmandu. I was tempted to buy it right away, but decided that if I heard the very next day that I hadn’t got the job, I wouldn’t want to read it after all, I would likely feel resentful. Fickle, I know. So, when I found out that I’d got it, I bought it on my next trip to Garema Place.

However, I found it quite disappointing, not least because the Kathmandu of the title–really the only reason I noticed this book–makes a minimal appearance at the end. Patrick Marnham traveled from Turkey to Nepal, overland through Iran and Afghanistan and India, with few resources but an adventurous spirit. Road to Katmandu has been described as a classic, but I think developments in travel writing since its publication in the early 1970s–particularly changes in ideas about the role of the author–means that it has aged poorly. This was a very character-driven travel narrative, perhaps unsurprisingly as the author does note that it was a fictionalised account of the travels he undertook. But, I learned too little about the places being traveled through–even from a biased perspective, as one expects from travel literature–and too much about the young westerners who were, ultimately, pretty uninteresting and vapid people despite the amazing adventures they embarked upon. Nowadays, such self-indulgent travel to “find oneself” is normal for middle-class youths from many first-world countries, it has been thoroughly commodified and normalised. The gap year, or the OE (is this a New Zealand-ism? I never heard it in Australia) is a right of passage. I have some respect for those who blazed the trail, but perhaps nowadays it’s what we (or I) are trying to resist in travelling to exotic lands. Or at least convince ourselves isn’t the goal.

There were some aspects of Road to Katmandu that I found interesting. This was a book that was actually written quite a long time ago now, and it was easy to forget this. I was able to put this back into perspective when I read the following passage, on travelling by bus through Iran:

“The dispute continued well beyond the point of reason or experience and was followed by an hour of determined silence broken only by a youth immediately in front of us. Now and again he popped up over the back of his bench and beamed the beginning of an announcement. ‘Bobby Kennedy kaput.’ He ran his finger across his throat and disappeared still beaming. Apparently the ex-President’s brother was not popular in Persia.” (p. 80-1)

I’m an avid Mad Men fan, and several weeks ago watched the episode where Bobby Kennedy is assassinated. This seems like another age, when people wore different clothes and spoke differently and had different values, and re-contextualising the journey narrated in Road to Katmandu as also of that age is necessary to put it into perspective, to realise that young western travelers like Marnham really were being radical.

The hippy trail was, ultimately, a masculine adventure. The tokenism of female travelers in this journey–whether we are speaking of the actual journey this fictionalised account represents, or the fiction–put me off side from the start. This was not necessarily Marnham’s fault, as a writer or a traveler, as it was a sign of the times, but it prevented me from empathising with the journey. Marnham describes a rare female traveler he meets:

“Ann was a self-contained person with a devastating ability to unman the natives if they got a little out of hand. Like Maud’s brother, she simply gorgonised them from head to foot with a stony British stare. She was one of the few girls we met on the road. Not many travellers wanted to expend that much energy in guarding them. In Istanbul, rape stories had been exchanged like football scores.” (p. 41)

The 2006 edition includes an up-to-date (2005) foreword by the author, in which he does reflect on personal and political changes since Road to Katmandu was written. It should go without saying that some excellent literature provides the reader with an unfamiliar perspective on life, rather than merely reinforcing the known, and this is why most of us read. But, I couldn’t find enough in this to empathise with to really enjoy it. So I’ve been looking for books on Nepal elsewhere. Watch this space.

This edition: London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2006. First published 1971.

Kolkata Book Fair 2013


On this unpleasantly overcast day I made my way out to the 33rd annual Kolkata Book Fair. And remembered why the Delhi metro has been a transformative god-send to that city. The Kolkata traffic, grid-locked at times so that I pulled out my book and read in the back seat, made the journey from Park Street to Science City much longer than it should have been. And I’ve been reading in the papers that no extra provisions have been made this year to ease the jams. Until a few years ago this event was held at the central Maidan, and I imagine that would have been great, right in the middle of the city, accessible by Kolkata’s small metro and close to other things that people might want to visit in their leisure time.

The focal country of this year’s fair is Bangladesh. So, unsurprisingly, the majority of books on display were in Bangla, from both Indian and Bangladeshi publishers, as well as a lot of English books, from academic and mainstream publishers. But, I was here in 2010 as well, when the focal country was Mexico, and I don’t recall seeing all that many Spanish books. Today, at one of the stalls, a small shelf of Hindi books were put in the “international literature” section! I think that a dominance of Bangla books is par for the course at the Kolkata Book Fair, and that’s great because that’s the main language of the region, so makes sense. I hope it means that the event is truly accessible to those who would not consider themselves the socio-economic elite, but who are interested in books. But it does make the event a bit inaccessible to non-Bangla-reading tourists. Is it ironic, then, that the only purchase I made today was a pocket English-Urdu dictionary!? Lonely Planet lists the book fair as a highlight of visiting Kolkata in January, but, unless a tourist has a strong interest in Bangla literature, I wouldn’t highly recommend going far out of one’s way to attend. There are a few talks by international and Indian authors put on in the evenings and weekends, though, which would likely have caught my attention more if I hadn’t seen most of them speak last week in Jaipur—Ahdaf Soueif, Jeet Thayil, Amit Chaudhuri, among others.

The Book Fair is on now, until 10th February.


From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet, Vikram Seth (1983)

From Heaven lake cover

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.


Daryaganj Sunday book market, Delhi

Every Sunday, hundreds of thousands of books (mostly second-hand and very dusty) are sold along the main street of Daryaganj and around the corner to Asaf Ali Road, Old Delhi. The nearest metro station is Chawri Bazaar, but it’s a bit of a walk, or a fairly short auto ride, through the bazaars of Old Delhi and past the Jama Masjid from there. I had read mixed reports–Fiona Caulfied thinks the idea is better than the reality, but Ajay Jain’s Delhi 101 recommended it, as did The Dilliwallah. So I took a look for myself. As I was starting out, an over-passing bird dropped one on my head (and I don’t mean a book), so I took that as a positive sign to keep going. While there are a large number of textbooks and magazines, there was some pretty good literary fiction, too. A lot of people were taking lists around and asking the sellers if they had copies of the books they wanted. While it was no Lifeline Book Fair, the books were cheaper and the surroundings a lot more interesting. I’m especially pleased with my Hindi copy of Maximum City–I’m a long way off being able to read it competently in Hindi, but I’ll add it to my shelf for motivation to keep studying!