Updated: January 24, 2016 1:00:42 am
Perhaps the most entertaining of diplomat and writer Navtej Sarna’s travel stories traces his return to Cairo after the mandatory sojourn to Giza, in search of the Ali Baba cafe in Tahrir Square. The anecdote dates from before Arab Spring, before the square became a shrine to the spirit of revolution. At the time, international pilgrims sought it to venerate older gods like Naguib Mahfouz, who was a regular at the improbably named Ali Baba. Unfortunately, Sarna found the place boarded up and about to be transformed into a fast food place. Devastated to learn that the shishas and backgammon tables would give way to the global pandemic of extra cheese and fries on the side, he allowed himself to be led away to another old cafe which, his guide claimed, Mahfouz also visited sometimes. Literary pilgrims, he reasoned, must make realistic compromises.
Second Thoughts (HarperCollins), a collection of Sarna’s newspaper columns, traces many such pilgrimages. Many of them do not work out, like a mad dash out of Moscow to Leo Tolstoy’s estate, thwarted by an impassive Soviet official with some 90-minute eggs boiling in a dish by his side. That archetype had stood like a wall at least from Stalin’s time, preventing visitors to Moscow from wandering into the districts and confronting the less edifying aspects of communism. But the romance of literary travel lies in the itinerary in the mind, not the certainty of arrival.
Incredible India seems to be oblivious to this flourishing segment of the tourist trade, though Indians overseas number among the most enthusiastic literary pilgrims, particularly in the UK. Stratford-on-Avon positively teems with them, and those of us who had Macbeth dinned into us in school tend to steal away from trips to Inverness to brood upon the battlements of Cawdor Castle, though the doomed thane never actually trod them. TS Eliot fans drive to the unreal solitude of Glencoe on account of a single poem. Arthurian types go to Tintagel, which is really, really out of the way. And within London, travellers jaded with Theatreland (if such a thing is possible) go in search of the district of Fitzrovia, which is nearby but invisible on the map of the city. Fitzrovia exists only in the literary imagination.
The continent, too, teems with literary trails. Admittedly, Indian visitors prefer to descend on Interlaken — it seems to be hardwired, like the instincts of migratory waterfowl. But there are huge numbers who, instead, veer off to places like the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris, where almost the entire creative and intellectual leadership of French culture lie buried. The most famous attraction is the grave shared by Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, which are usually found littered with personal notes, bouquets, trinkets, bottles of wine and vials of tears. The most extraordinary note I have seen was addressed to De Beauvoir, and translated into something like: “And so, after everything you’ve been through, you’re still sleeping with the old bastard?”
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Unfortunately, there isn’t much excitement about literary trails in Incredible India. The only metro which draws attention to literary landmarks, like many English and European cities, is Kolkata. The municipality has marked the homes of the city’s departed poets, writers and playwrights with baleful yellow signs. People do stop to gawk at the buildings, which are mostly in a picturesque state of disrepair, for Bengali literature did not pay the bills in the 20th century.
Sarna’s chapters set in India do not generally describe a literary landscape, excepting a couple set in the hills — one about Ruskin Bond, Stephen Alter, etc, and the other about the discovery of a set of the Illustrated Classics in childhood. And his rumination on Mumbai, written shortly after reading Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, contrasts his own memories of the city with the grittiness of the book.
Shortly before his death, Arun Kolatkar drew a poetic map of the southern reach of the city, from Nariman Point to Kala Ghoda, where he was a regular at the iconic Wayside Inn, which was boarded up like Cairo’s Ali Baba. He was preceded by an illustrious list of patrons hatching stratagems of all sorts. BR Ambedkar used to pore over certain papers at a table, and lore has it that they became constituents of the Constitution. And it is said that Russi Karanjia and friends met over the dhansak to conjure up Blitz.
India’s literary pilgrimages await cataloguing. And, since English contributes only a tiny fraction of the nation’s literary culture, the signposts must first be translated. It will require the cooperation of hundreds of contributors in a process which cannot be centrally controlled. But someone who can tease out all the stories out there would make India considerably more incredible.
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