Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Travel Writers: India, England, and the U.S.

I'm teaching the following course in the spring. It's an introductory course, geared at people who are not necessarily English majors.

Travel Writers: India, England, and the United States

The philosopher Augustine is reported to have said written that "the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page." He was right: travel enlarges the world, and exposes us to how other people think and live. Travel also shows us things about ourselves we might not have known, as we are forced, when abroad, to confront our particular prejudices and limited knowledge about the world. This course examines written narratives (mostly non-fiction) by literary travelers of all sorts, with a special focus on India. It features writing by travelers from India traveling in the west, as well as British and American writers who have journeyed to India for work or pleasure. To what extent is travel writing a 'reliable' source of information about a culture? How is it similar or different from anthropology? Is there a method for producing 'good' travel writing? What is it like to travel as a woman? We will also watch a select number of films that focus on the travel theme.

I'm still working out the actual reading list and syllabus, though I think the course will emphasize writers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries over more contemporary writers. The danger of a "Naipaul and after" course is that everyone is likely to be circmspect and self-conscious. What makes the earlier writers interesting from a pedagogical point of view is that they tend to be less self-conscious about things like racism and cultural preconceptions (or misconceptions).

One does tend to do Naipaul in such a course, and talk about things like exoticization and Orientalism. One might also do something like The Satanic Verses, though the book is almost too much to handle in an introductory course like this. And I'll probably end the course with a brief unit on the recent spate of travel writing oriented to India's high-tech boom (Tom Friedman and so on).

I'm pretty sure I'm going to be ordering the anthology edited by Amitava Kumar called Away: The Indian Writer As An Expatriate. But the rest of it is a bit up in the air.

I'll probably do something in the vein of the "Tagore in America" post I did for Sepia Mutiny this past summer. Other writers who will be in the mix include Dean Mahomet, Mohandas Gandhi, Pandita Ramabai (who wrote interesting letters based on her traveled in the U.S.), Katherine Mayo (author of the infamous Mother India), George Orwell, E.M. Forster, Ved Mehta, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. I might also talk about the early Punjabi settlers in California, as well as American missionary work in India.

Any further suggestions? Writers who might be relatively more obscure? Diarists? Journalists? Musicians/artists? I'm especially curious to find South Asian writers who traveled in the west and wrote about it in languages other than English, but really any suggestions or criticisms would be helpful.

22 comments:

Qalandar said...

What about Ghosh's "In an Antique Land"?

Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

I certainly hope you put your lecture notes on the web. This sounds like a fascinating topic.

Rani said...

Dhan Gopal Mukerji's autobiography Caste and Outcaste and his (so-so) response to Katherine Mayo, A Son of Mother India Answers.

In the second half of C&O, describes Mukerji's arriving in the United States; studying at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1910 to 1913; and laboring in the farms and factories of California to earn money for school.

Sounds like an awesome class. Would love to see the full syllabus when it is ready.

Partisan said...

Bruce Chatwin's 'In Patagonia' and 'Songlines'?

badmash said...

Missionary: the extensive correspodence (detailing extensive sociological studies) between CF Andrews and the leaders of the independence movement is available in print. Bishop Leslie Newbigin is also a good source for mid-late twentieth century. For the reverse perspective, I think Pandita Ramabai's journal while she lived in the UK is also available in print.

General: Nirad Chadhuri's "A Passage to England" should make an interesting source.

Christopher Fan said...

I've got some usual suspects on my mind. Maybe even Ghosh's Shadow Lines? There's a kind of travelling by distant imagining that goes on that might be a compelling dimension to introduce. Also, why not do just a bit of travelling outside of the syllabus and do Salih's Season of Migration to the North and Heart of Darkness? I suggest Salih simply because his book seems to have a lot of purchase in various postcolonialist discourses these days, and the latter's, in my mind, the ur-travel text of colonial/postcolonial studies. And both are short!

Bidi-K said...

Just a suggestion...how about Dervla Murphy? She wrote "Full titlt-Ireland to India on a bicycle" and then "On a shoestring to Coorg". I loved both of them. She is such a courageous and resourceful woman traveler, who writes sharp insightful prose with a empathy and understanding of the places and people.

Anonymous said...

Paul Fussell's book "Abroad" is about British (mostly) travel writing between the world wars. He talks especially about Waugh, Robert Byron, Peter Fleming, DH Lawrence, Auden and Isherwood. It's a fascianting look at the meaning and use of travel, and an elegy for a lost way of life.

Anonymous said...

How would Satanic Verses fit into the travel genre? Part of it is set in London, but thats just immigrant fiction.

Rushdie wrote a travel book about Nicaragua, called The Jaguar's Smile or something similar. That may be worth looking at from the perspective of an Indian writer exploring Latin America.

The Mexican Nobel laureate writer Octavio Paz also wrote a book about India. Cant remember the name off the top of my head though.

Paolo

Ms. World said...

Sounds like a terrific course which could benefit me greatly! Can't wait to see your finally reading list!

Lynn said...

What about Santha Rama Rau's work? When I think of diasporic travel writers, I think of her work.

Lynn said...

Oh, and incidentally - can I take this course through correspondence classes? ;-)

Amardeep said...

Thanks everyone. A number of those suggestions are things I'd never heard of. (I have a lot of things to go look up)

Jenny D said...

Oh, sounds like a great course...

This is somewhat off topic, but Mary Lee Settle's book "Turkish Reflections" is well worth a read (and could be interestingly paired with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Turkish letters if you want early/literary stuff). It does seem to me that keeping the rubric broad is likely to lead to the most interesting course: I really like Caryl Phillips' nonfiction, for instance, and a book like "The Atlantic Sound" might be very useful here.

Mrudula said...

Sounds like a great course. Would you be able to put up your reading list. There is an excellent book in telugu, Barrister Paarvatisam, which has not been translated as far as I can remember. How about Vikram Seth's Travalogue. Can't remember the name off hand.

Mrudula said...

Sorry :) please ignore my suggestion, it is not relevent.

Ravi Bapna said...

sounds like a great course...what about pico iyer?

Anonymous said...

This might be a little nonstandard, but I really love the first two or three chapters of Discovery of India. Or maybe it's very standard...what do I know? :)

-saurav

dhaavak said...

Sorry i missed this earlier Amardeep - one suggestion - The jaguar smile is short enough to be relevant and yet still an introduction to rushdie

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to it. Meanwhile Free India Travel Guide

Satyajit said...

Now this comment comes three years too late, nonetheless...
I found Baboo Bholanauth Chunder's(sic) "Travels of a Hindoo" (Calcutta to Delhi, circa 1869) quite entertaining. Two different kinds of reasons:
- Some radically different viewpoints that left me squirming
e.g. he prays that all tigers be wiped out from the country, his utter obeisance to the British
- The way he has listed out interesting one-page histories of non-descript towns and villages he passes. I never imagined that all those little rail stations which I had seen while travelling to Calcutta could have so many stories behind them!

John Kumm said...

Although I've just found this entry, I do believe that this sort of course offers a real benefit.
One of the shortcomings of so much travel writing today lies on its strictly narrative nature, often with little understanding of or incorporation of the culture and "sense" of the regions being discussed.
Much of this results from the mode of transport today. In many parts of the world, the traveler is transported into a new city or region in just a few hours by aircraft, then suddenly exposed to the new environment instantaneously.
In the days of "slow travel", the process of assimilation into a different culture was much more gradual, and the traveler (and indeed travel writer) was much more likely to offer an honest interpretation of the destination, with possibly less sense of overwhelm then is unfortunately the norm today.
I'm astonished about the ratio in bookstores nowadays of "destination guides", rather than "travel commentaries". The former seem to be very much formularized, telling the potential traveler where to eat, sleep and visit. However, it seems quite rare to find an evaluation of the people and the culture in such publications.
Anything that can assist people to revert to the concept of travel as a personal growth opportunity must be seen as a real contribution to both travelers and to the travel industry itself. I hope that the culture of "it's Tuesday, so this must be Belgium" is at last relegated to history's trash bin.