Friday, October 08, 2004

William Dalrymple's comments on travel writing

The sunshine was perfect for a game of cricket. And in those circumstances a lecture would have been the last thing on the mind. Even William Dalrymple acknowledged that at the opening of his talk. “Thank you so much for coming here on a brilliantly sunny day when you could have done something more interesting,” he remarked.

The critically acclaimed and, more importantly, popular author shared his thoughts on travel writing as a genre of literature at the Centre for Gandhian Studies on Saturday. Despite the absence of proper indicators to the venue, a fair number of Dalrymple fans gathered to listen to the witty scholar. And they did not return disheartened.

Terming travel writing as one of the oldest forms of literature, he traced it back to writers-cum-explorers like Marco Polo, Ibn Batuta and Hieun Tsang. “Even the Odyssey is a fictional travel book that documents Ulysses’ return and the pilgrims’ journey,” he said. “It is only in the 18th century Europe that the novel emerged as a dominant form of literature,” Dalrymple added.

He trifurcated the progress of travel writing into medieval, colonial and the period onward from the 1930s. “The first was characterised by myths and accounts of pilgrimages by saints, like the book Voyage of St Brendan,” he informed. “Whereas the second period was dominated by colonialism where British writers travelled to places like Africa and wrote about spots where bauxite and slaves could be found,” Dalrymple added.

But things changed beginning from the 1930s. “There were a few places left to explore and the writer was no longer gathering facts. He was not the National Geographic, neither the Internet,” he said. “They became more interested in human beings. The writer became the narrator and the people he met the subjects,” Dalrymple added. “The Road to Oxiana” by Robert Byron, which is one of Dalrymple’s favourite travel books, was written in this period.

According to him, the travel writer today has to “lift the sheet from the veneer of globalisation and point out the enormous differences”. “The Devarala Sati case where an educated girl burnt herself should be of interest to the travel writer today. It is fissures like these in the trough of globalisation that he has to bring out,” Dalrymple concluded.


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