SECOND THOUGHTS – THE HINDU
Journals of the footloose
BY NAVTEJ SARNA
Yes, he is the best among them, King of the travellers on my bookshelf.
IMMOBILISED by the heat outside, in which only the blushing bougainvillea could dare to sway gently, I spent the weekend among the travellers on my bookshelf. And imperceptibly, the yearning to be footloose again crept upon me. To watch the stars from a train rushing at night across a desert, to wait impatiently for the dawn to break over some pale, rose pink mountain, to meet a stranger in a café and strike up a conversation that opens up a new world. And, as in the past, write it all down in a wire bound journal, desperately trying to capture every inflection, every nuance, every shade. Damascus, Istanbul, the Baltic shore, the blues singers of Memphis, a familiar voice in Berlin, two old ladies on a Sunday bus in New York, Auschwitz on a haunted afternoon... . But now these memories are tinged by a niggling doubt: has the eye jaded, or will the journals ever be filled again? For reassurance, through vicarious experience, I turned to the footloose on my bookshelf.
They step down proudly, stylists all, with their windcheaters and rucksacks and trekking shoes. The scholar sits easily with the humorist, the sharp eye gives a crucial edge to lyricism, the pungent jibe is softened with sudden sympathy. There is the doyen, the 91-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor, who walked from Rotterdam to Istanbul, reciting poetry aloud, when not yet 20. Casting himself in the Byronic mould, and like T.E. Lawrence not satisfied by simply being an aesthete, he has lived a life of action including meeting affable highwaymen in Hungarian forests or helping to capture a Nazi general for the Crete resistance. Fermor started writing about his long trek 40 years later and likened it to reconstructing a brontosaur from half an eye socket and a basket full of bones. Recalling far off memories is obviously difficult; hence my passion for wire bound journals.
The blue-eyed Bruce Chatwin stares handsomely from the dust jacket of In Patagonia. When temporarily blinded by too much staring at impressionist art as part of his work at Sotheby's, he was advised to look at horizons. He needed no further goading and was off to Africa, Middle East, and Central Asia, recording his impressions in chiselled prose. That there was fiction instilled into fact, as in The Songlines, may have disappointed fans but seems to have not bothered him overly.
Eric Newby jostles for attention. To read The Big Red Train Ride in Moscow was to be forever obsessed with the desire to board the Trans Siberian express, a desire that will remain unfulfilled for the Soviet version of that train is now one with the past. But he taught me that a squash ball is a useful water stopper in old Soviet style hotels. And meet Pico Iyer, that lyrical poet of the lonely places, whose Falling off the Map deserves to be read many times. Or Paul Theroux, whose one ghost story has haunted me on every trip through South east Asia, whenever palm tress have bent under coastal rain and low lamps have burned in white houses with red-tiled roofs. Or Peter Hopkirk, Peter Fleming, Jack Kerouac....
Best of the lot
But the one that I stay with most of the weekend is Robert Byron, also cast in the mould of his namesake, describing himself as being "of melancholy appearance" in his passport form. Drawn inexorably by a photograph of an 11th century Persian funerary tower, he travelled across Persia and Afghanistan to produce The Road to Oxiana, which, it has been said, is to travel writing what Ulysses is to the novel or The Wasteland to poetry. Chatwin called it "a sacred text, and thus beyond criticism" and carried his "spineless and flood-stained" copy as he slavishly followed Byron's footsteps through four journeys in Central Asia.
Byron called travel a "spiritual necessity" and believed that the "traveller is slave to his senses, his grasp of fact can only be completed when reinforced by sensory evidence; he can know the world, in fact, only when he sees, hears and smells it." Whether it is Tehran or Isfahan, Herat or Kabul, Byron brings it all alive. The soft dawns and the liquid violet-blue skies, the sweet melons and grapes and the sudden sight of a tangerine tree in an inner courtyard, picnics on carpets thrown casually along mountain streams, "the unearthly treble" of the muezzin's call, the shimmering beauty of turquoise leek-shaped domes, the snow cone of Mt. Demavand and the landscape around "where mountains rippled up and sighed away like the wash of a tide...."
I too have walked the streets of Tehran at dawn and watched the chinar leaves float gently into bubbling water channels. I have stood in the high verandah of the Ali Qappu palace in Isfahan and watched entranced the play of form, pattern and colour of the Sheikh Lutfullah mosque across the massive maidan. I have sat and sipped black tea under the arch of a bridge on the lazy Zayendeh rud not far away. And Byron's descriptions are only a reconfirmation.
Byron's talent for architectural observation and lyrical prose are equally evident in the 1931 special issue of The Architectural Review devoted to New Delhi, a month before the capital's official opening. To read his descriptions is to find new secrets in the familiar creations of Lutyens and the somewhat neglected Baker. Emerging from old Delhi, he sees rising on one side of a plane littered with the remains of former empires, "a scape of towers and domes... lifted from the horizon, sunlit pink and cream against the dancing blue sky, fresh as a cup of milk, grand as Rome". The dome of Rashtrapati Bhavan "seems not to have been built, but to have been poured compact from a mould, impermeable to age, destined to stand forever, to watch the rise of an eighth Delhi and a hundredth Delhi." One may no longer be able to see the Qutub — " an extravagant chimney on the south horizon" — from atop South Block. But a Delhi evening can still be as beautiful as then described: "Dusk approached, falling like a curtain. The lights come out, furlongs of gold dots, suffusing the sky with an electric blue that deepens to black. Stars complete the night, a powder of silver." Yes, he is the best among them, King of the travellers on my bookshelf.