Two things have to be made clear here. By travelling I don’t mean taking the four-day bus tour of the Golden Triangle. By reading I don’t mean the flight safety booklet or that ‘Stardust’ you picked up at Warangal junction just because the train had stopped for longer than you liked.
And I definitely don’t mean travelling with aunts and uncles and a brood of kids. I agree, there is a lot of reading to be done here outside of a book. Which brings us to a boring aside of a confession. I cannot read a book while I travel; that is while I am actually moving from place A to place B. I am the kind who reads after reaching. When there is movement, there can only be music. But I do carry a book with me. It gives me a strange sense of security. When there is any unease, I can duck and hide into it. A book is your very own tortoise shell. Always handy.
But there are millions who do. First up on my mind is a friend who matter-of-factly said she reads even while she walks (to her college that is) as if that was the most natural thing to do. “It passes time and if the road is mapped out in your head and does not have too many bumps, it is comforting.” Those were her exact words. And she has even read Alice in Wonderland while walking! Just think, I would have definitely stumbled into a rabbit hole myself if I ever attempted this.
There are those who buy Lonely Planets by its weight and swot it by heart by the time they reach Prague or Tokyo. And there are the kinds who believe that when they are travelling, they should read travel literature. Which is quite stupid if you ask me. Most travel literature is wonderfully happy experiences, full of joyous endings, amazing discoveries, written in descriptive splendour. You will only end up feeling miserable and envious because you lost your way in a smelly dingy alley in London while your exuberant writer had effusively described London as being infested with magical rabbit paths or when you clearly don’t feel as spiritual as the author when the Ganga comes into sight in Varanasi.
If you ask me, I would rather read fiction set in the place I am going to. I wish I had read Alexandar McCall Smith’s brilliantly evocative mystery series — ‘The Sunday Philosophy Club’ before visiting Edinburgh; or one of Kurt Wallander mysteries that are getting so popular in India before stepping into Stockholm. I have read William Darlymple’s City of Djinns twice in the hope of falling in love with Delhi the next time I go. I haven’t. Yet. And there are so many books set in London and New York that most book lovers feel eerily at home in these cities.
There is another way to do this. Go travelling in search of things to read. There is nothing more pleasurable than finding yourself in a new city, a map sitting snugly in your pocket, mind open, bright sunshine and the prospect of browsing through second hand bookstores in the hope of serendipity.
That is why travelling is reading and reading is travelling.
Have you noticed the irrational warmth that eccentric bookworms feel for one another? Or that flash of grudging liking that solitary travellers convey, and to be sentimentally literary here, “when they pass each other in the night”?
All are signs of acknowledgement — of indulgence; of a primordial love for the self and funnily enough, a kind of convivial tolerance for humanity. These two magnificent pursuits are always merging, in a hazy, hard-to-define way. Travelling is reading the world and yourself and reading is travelling around the world and into yourself. But for this to really occur, you should be willing to love yourself fiercely and love humanity equally strongly. Both need what an author whose name I now forget calls ‘imaginative generosity of the heart’; both are curiously passive activities that require all your heart and soul and energy and passion to make them worthwhile.
Unfortunately, this cannot be explained further. For one, I have not understood it completely and I hope I never will. For those who understand, explanations are unnecessary. Bon Voyage!
Published in Sunday Herald on 14.02.10