Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Travel Books: Go Places, Sitting at Home

It’s in the books!

Armchair travel takes on a special charm with the right books.


Sitting in the cosy confines of your favourite easy chair and going places, seeing sights, meeting all sorts of people, all without having to don camping gear, resort to insect repellents or learn a foreign language. Bliss, indeed.

All you need is to be a reader. And those clichés are true, you know: places do come alive if the words are evocative, if the writer knows his craft, if he takes some lifestyle observations, some travel reports and comes up with a great stew. So much so, when you reach the last page, it’s like coming home to reality at the end of a great journey where you got to doff your everyday life and live the life of an adventurer.

Then again, not all travel books are the stuff of great journeys. Here’s a list of what must rate arguably as some of the best travel literature. I say arguably because lists like this will be argued from Vadapalani to Vauxhall, Kotturpuram to Kiev.

Why hasn’t she included P. G. Wodehouse, a voice will plaintively ask (rural Shropshire, anyone?). What’s a list without Colin Thubron, Pankaj Mishra or V. S. Naipaul, another voice will pitch in, derisively. But for what it’s worth, this is my line-up.

“Bon Appetit” by Peter Mayle. No one can describe the food of foreign lands, namely France, like Peter Mayle. In books like “French Lessons,” “A Year in Provence” and “Bon Appetit” (a delicious masterpiece, indeed), he has melded info on the not-so-strange eating habits of Gallic territories with long and luscious details of meals he has eaten. Fairs, fetes, food… an unbeatable combination.

Books by Bill Bryson. The irrepressible Bryson, a native Iowan, brings good clean wit to his writings, be it about garbage disposal units in the United States, deconstructing the quintessential Aussie slogan `No worries, mate’ or the evergreen constant, tea, high and low, in Britain. And of course, after you finish chuckling, you realise every word is true.

“City of Djinns” by William Dalrymple. There’s history. The history of Delhi and its people. Of Delhi’s Mughals. Of Delhi’s White Mughals. And chronicled by William Dalrymple, the writer-turned-unofficial historian par excellence,  “City of Djinns” is quite the most definitive book on the Capital you will ever read.

“Ooty Preserved” by Mollie Panter-Downes. Closer home, there’s the history of the Nilgiris. Of Ootacamund, now Udhagamandalam, in particular. Englishwoman Mollie Panter-Downes chronicles an Ooty that, alas, now is long gone, Ooty in the late 60s. The ivy-covered cottages, the genteel clubs, the stately churches, the very air that the hill people breathed, are all described in a charming manner by someone clearly charmed by all she saw.

“Tales of the Open Road” by Ruskin Bond. If it is the hills of Uttaranchal, it has to be Bond, Ruskin Bond. You get to see Mussoorie, Lansdowne, Doon with his clear incisive eye which nevertheless misses not one bit of magic that wreathes the hills and dales. “Tales of the Open Road,” written in his matter-of-fact style, is vintage Ruskin Bond.

“The Great Railway Bazaar” by Paul Theroux. This is another writer whose device is a most matter of fact, even dry, style. Here he takes us (by train, of course) into lands we have never seen and not even known we wanted to see, as well as lands we have seen but just not with the eye of a seasoned adventurer.

“The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen. Man goes seeking the fabled snow leopard in the Himalayas and finds himself. Some excellent travel writing mixed with some nuggets of Zen Buddhism. An enduring favourite.

“Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin. All of the late great Chatwin’s works are wonderful but “Songlines,” where he traces the rich lyrical history of the songs sung by Australia’s Aborigines, is a compelling read. It’s not the land, it’s not the people, it’s the way the two come together to tell a story that does the trick. This is song in prose by a master.

“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Persig is a cult novel and millions of readers have ridden alongside Phaedrus as he battles the elements outside and the demons inside.

“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac. Beat writer Kerouac and the ultimate carpe diem travel book. These are days of heaven, Americans chasing the American Dream, by road, of course. Diverse places, diverse people and some radical thoughts.

“Video Night in Kathmandu” by Pico Iyer. Our not-home grown Iyer boy with his peripatetic pen goes places (mainly East and South East Asia, our neighbourhood) and the result, as always, is a great read. Here’s wry charm and an intensively descriptive trove of words in Iyer’s travel writing, as indeed in his eyes.

“City of Falling Angels” by John Berendt. Berendt brought his excellent reportage skills to full effect when introducing us to Savannah, Georgia, in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Here, he shows us a Venice not seen by the hordes of daily trippers and camera toting tourista. My advice is, read this book, then go visit the Queen of the Lagoons.

This ran in THE HINDU of 15 Jan 2007.

Related Links:

Feature: On Books and Bangalore

Books: Is India Reading?



book reviewMetro PlusPeter MaylePico IyerRobert PersigRuskin Bondtravel booksWilliam Dalrymple

Sheila Kumar • January 15, 2007

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