Can a few sentences make a place you never imagined to be within your orbit occupy your imagination so utterly that it becomes, for a while, the only thing you can think about? I found the answer to that question some years ago, while reading Bosnian writer Dzevad Karahasan’s book Sarajevo: Exodus of a City (1993). Karahasan writes about the Hotel Europe, which sits in a part of Sarajevo that has long been the invisible border of the two cultures that haunt the city: the older Turkish part, which holds within it the city’s Ottoman past, and the Austro-Hungarian part, which followed it (from which sprung World War I). “The Hotel Europa,” he writes, “is therefore the semantic centre of Sarajevo. Bearing elements of both the East and of Central Europe, this hotel is like a prism that gathers within itself the diffuse rays of what Sarajevo truly is. I know that one cannot say what the Sarajevan spirit or the identity of Sarajevo is, because it cannot be defined, although it can be learned aesthetically, through experience. Hence one goes to the Hotel Europa for a cake or an ice cream, not because of the cakes (which are, honestly, much better elsewhere) but because of the Hotel Europa, where Sarajevo can be felt with one’s fingertips, where it can be smelled and sensed. To know Sarajevo means to need to go to the Hotel Europa quite regularly.”
That need had gripped my heart so tight that I became absolutely obsessed with the idea of going to Sarajevo for the express purpose of eating cake at the Hotel Europe. A mad craving, considering that till this point, Sarajevo had been a mythical city, a city far far away not because of the distance but because for me it existed only as news — the result of having watched the war in Bosnia on television during my teenage years. Karahasan transformed that place, made it real, and showed me a way I could enter it for myself.
And I did. I sat in the grand halls of the Hotel Europe and ate Viennese sachertorte with thick Turkish coffee, in the company of ancient women who wore green sweaters and smoked long cigarettes, their paper skin catching shafts of sun through tall windows. I explored the city over the next days, through tunnel tours and war museums, meeting people, making friends, and all the other things that you do when you arrive in a city other than your own. But my experience felt different because I had come to the city with Karahasan, and it made Sarajevo and I open up to each other in a way that would not otherwise be possible.
If books are guides, they are also a record, a stick in the ground to measure distance — not of how far you have come but how much the place has changed. When I started writing Myanmar in the World: Journeys through a Changing Burma (2018), I had borrowed the itinerary for one of my first trips from Paul Theroux. He had travelled through bits of the country for The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) with “only one objective in mind” — to see the Gokteik viaduct, a “monster of silver geometry” built in 1900 by an American steel company and riveted in place by Indian engineers over a gorge in northern Shan State, close to the China border. At the time, it had held the promise of bridging China to India, a prospect of great commercial import to the British who wanted to send Indian goods to China.
Theroux visited in the early 1970s, a fundamentally different time in the life of Burma than when I was making the trip, in 2012. Theroux’s Myanmar was ruled by Ne Win, a military autocrat who nearly bankrupted the Burmese economy with his socialist programmes and demonetisation policies, and who instituted much of the machinery that the armed forces continue to use today to control the civilian administration. It was also a time when communist insurgencies were rife, the fallout of a long-running civil war between the socialist government in Yangon and communist groups funded by China. Offensives and counter-offensives were common and travel on this route, therefore, was restricted. “The legality of the trip,” Theroux notes, “was questionable.” He is proven right when he is interrogated by army officers and told not to take the train to Gokteik again, for “there will be trouble”. But in 2012, the year Aung San Suu Kyi won a by-election and kickstarted a long (and still incomplete) transition back to democratic ways, the country was more open than it had been in six decades and the world couldn’t wait to pour back in. I took the train to Gokteik, one among a phalanx of tourists. The only armed men I encountered were affable policemen wanting to take selfies with us.
It didn’t remain that way. When I travelled to the borderlands five years later, violent conflict between ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar military had once again rendered the legality of travel questionable and made it more inaccessible than even author Norman Lewis found it in 1951, two years after the Communist takeover of China and at the height of full-scale fighting between the People’s Liberation Army and the Nationalist Kuomintang forces that had fled to Burma. The Communist Party of Burma had imploded in 1989 but from splinters and shards of that history had risen a completely different set of armed actors whose interests were methamphetamine, heroin and autonomous rule, backed by rocket launchers and a standing army. And so, in February 2017, I found my experience of travelling through Lashio in northern Shan more akin to Lewis’s in Golden Earth: Travels in Burma than Theroux’s in Bazaar.
Sometimes, however, instead of showing us how a place has changed, a book can wholly change our minds about a place. Curfewed Nights, Basharat Peer’s 2008 memoir about growing up in Kashmir, penetrated the thick fog of rhetoric and stereotypes that cloak that place and impelled me to go see for myself — for the very first time — what is what and what is not. It made me willing and able to see another point of view, a view that could no longer see Kashmir as flatly political but instead as a full-bodied place peopled with those who live their lives in it. It was a beginning that made it possible for me to read other books, take other journeys and build a personal understanding that allowed me to have my own relationship with Kashmir. That is really the greatest gift of a literary companion: instead of telling you where to go or what to do, it fills you with yearning to find your own passage.
(Abhijit Dutta is the author of Myanmar in the World: Journeys Through A Changing Burma)