Tuesday, October 31, 2000
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Debuts with a flavour 

An unusual travel book that one came across recently is Among Insurgents: Walking Through Burma (Penguin) by Shelby Tucker. Burma or Myanmar is a closed country as far as foreigners are concerned. Recently, Amitav Ghosh wrote a book on the country (The Glass Palace), interweaving its past with its present and he talked about the dangers he faced while travelling through Myanmar. Mr Tucker undertook his walk from China "in the company of a young Swede and units of two armies at war with the military junta that rules Burma".

Why did they undertake this hazardous walk? To quote Mr Tucker, "Our motive in walking across Burma was only adventure. No one backed us financially, and neither of us intended to write a book about it. Indeed, to have walked across Burma for the purpose of writing a book about it would have spoiled both the adventure and the book." True, after this dramatic assertion, he did write a book, and after reading it, one concludes he must have kept some kind of journal during his travels.

The informal, conversational tone of the text has a subtext for those interested in Burma, information about the land and its people, sometimes interwoven in the narrative, at times appended in a footnote. It is interesting to read how American missionaries like Mr Eugenio Kincaid and others spread Christianity among the Kachins, prior to which "Society was riven by terrible bunglat hka (blood feuds), which often lasted for decades and in which the fighting was done by outlandishly tattooed mercenaries with swords and cap guns."

An Indian reader must not however overlook the deeply colonial overtones in passages like the one just quoted, which takes for granted the fact that before the missionaries arrived, Asians/Africans were absolute savages, in dire need of improving/saving. An instance of the Prospero Syndrome, which looks at all indigenous persons as Calibans. And the attitude continues even in the post-colonial time-frame.

One has begun to feel that this holds true of most western writing, especially travel writing about countries that the writer would condescendingly refer as "developing". It would give them a great sense of achievement to travel through these countries, more so if they are politically disturbed areas. Of course, Mr Tucker has read extensively about the region through which he travels, the extensive bibliography at the end and the footnotes bear testimony to it. It is a readable book with maps and a glossary to guide the reader.

The recent launch of The Otherness of Self (Harper Collins), a collection of 48 poems by Feroze Varun Gandhi, was attended by quite a few politicians. Not having read the book, one cannot comment on it. The poems are accompanied by illustrations by well-known artists, including Mr M F Husain and Mr Manu Parekh and are about "looking within and at your other self". The proudest person on the occasion was Ms Maneka Gandhi, who welcomed the guests, declaring that she was the "darban of the day".

Later this month, two journalists will launch their debut novels. They are The Gin Drinkers (Harper Collins) by Ms Sagarika Ghose the first woman writer from St Stephen's, and The Srinagar Conspiracy (Penguin) by Mr Vikram A Chandra, set in present day Kashmir, rocked by insurgency.

Mr Chandra, a newsreader on STAR TV has been a J&K reporter for a long time and his journalistic experience has a lot of bearing on his narrative. To quote from an interview given by him to a journalist, "There were so many incidents that were fascinating to me, but would have been relegated to mere footnotes in historical accounts... the desire to write a book came from a need to share all these experiences that I've had over the years."Ms Ghose got the idea for her book while working on a story about Dalit intellectuals and says that her book is about the "democratisation of knowledge". More about the books when one gets to read them.

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