Thursday, January 06, 2011

Two exceptions

Of the difference between travel writers and travelling writers: the former write of the experience, of the joys and sorrows, of travelling as an end in itself. The place they travel to is of no more importance than the phenomenon of their presence there. Travelling writers, on the other hand, will write about the place they are in.

Travel writers are generally harmless. Like an aimless gust of wind sweeping over a pile of turd or an open-air barbecue, they only carry ephemeral impressions. They have short memories and are, in turn, forgettable.

Not so with travelling writers; be skeptical of their opinions. These will stay in a place long enough to pick up the 'authoritative' badge, then offer a pedestrian report burnished with that very badge. Travelling commentators supposedly have an edge over native ones because they write about things with an external perspective that the latter do not have. The problem is, perspective is of no use without good sight, and unfortunately most travelling writers fail to properly see things before rushing to put them in perspective.

Dissing travelling writers is not what this post is about; I have recently been taken by surprise by a couple of delightfully insightful accounts of India coming from drive-by observers. These are what this post is about:

1. A Village in a Million is an excellent account of Shahabpur in Uttar Pradesh by Economist correspondent James Astill.

"Demeaning, divisive, dismissable", my friends in the There-Are-No-Two-Indias camp will sneer. Perhaps so. But notable just for the richness of vision and detail of observation. Little, unimportant details like why it makes sense to walk along the middle of the street in Shahabpur to why Jokho Lal may be the last of his calling.

2. India Calling: The New 'Land Of Opportunity'? by American writer Anand Giridharadas is interesting for the author's sharp vision, and equally so for the intelligent placement of observations within an American perspective.

Both worth a read.

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