Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

What Am I Doing Here — Bruce Chatwin — A book review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 12, 2008

I always believed that books should lead to wisdom and more books. Wisdom — I am not sure, but more books — yes that has definitely been happening to me over the last 10 years. The back cover reviews of Pankaj Mishra’s Butter Chicken in Ludhiana mentioned that he was in the league of a Bruce Chatwin. That comparison got tucked away in some corner of the mind. While browsing through the shelves of an old book stall, I found two of Chatwin’s books viz. What Am I doing Here and On the Black Hill. I started on the former with a cursory browsing and by the time I realised a third of the book was read. If ever I can write a book, I would want to write it with the ease and erudition of a Chatwin. I guess it is an art to choose a subject to observe and be objective about it in the representation of that observation. The very fact that one has chosen a subject induces a level of bias. Pure objectivity is probably impossible. The strength of Chatwin is that he comes very close to it and that is what imbues a warm sense of respect for him and his intellect as one reads through his book.

What Am I Doing Here is a selection of various essays, portraits and meditations of Chatwin and each one of them gives a glimpse of the richness of his mind. A mind that is full of essential knowledge and at ease handling a diverse set of topics ranging from the mundane to complex.

The noted essayist Elizabeth Hardwick in a brilliant essay titled: Its Only Defense: Intelligence and Sparkle ( this is her essay on the subject of essay and is available on NYTimes book reveiw section) says: “The essay is not the ground of verdicts. It rests on singularity rather than consensus” . Chatwin’s essays are not only singular but have a style that makes even esoteric topics extremely enjoyable and desire for more.

An aspect that appealed to me is his ability to accommodate vast sweeps of history in a very concise and scholarly fashion. One has to only read Volga to get a sense of Russia and the impact  some of its great sons like Lenin, Gorky and Tolstoy had or George Costakis: The story of an art collector in Soviet Union to get a view of the vicissitudes of art in Russia post revolution. They very clearly demonstrate his immense grasp of the subject and also his ability to make it interesting to his readers. I wonder how many professors of history can do this?

In a similar vein are three essays under the heading China viz. The Heavenly Horses — paints a brilliant picture of the impact of horse rustling in ancient China, The Nomad Invasions — explains the rise and spread of Nomads in China and Middle East and Rock’s world – the impact of China on Tibet as seen from the eyes of a Tibetan family even while intertwining it with the life and times of the American botanist  Jospeh F Rock.

Where Chatwin is at his best is in personal sketches. The one on Andre Malraux – the great french bureaucrat and adminstrator and  Madeleine Vionnet –  the high priestess of the couture are a treat. Chatwin has a knack of being able to portray the history of their times very well and also their wisdom and outlook to many issues and themes. Chatwin while discussing the British Empire with Malraux gets the following from him: “You must not run down the Mogul Empire,’ he said and then rapidly outlines how Akbar the Great was the first muslim ruler to break the anathema and encourage the portraits of himself; how this potent symbol proved him a universalist in the manner of French Revolution; how, therefore, like Napolean he was, and how unlike Queen Victoria; and how this explained why the Muslims made a great civilisation on India and the British never did, comparing the Mogul cities like Agra, Delhi and Lahore with Anglo Indian Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, which he described as ‘transplanted British building suffocated by bidonvilles (shantytowns)’ ….or … in retrospect he believes the most significant fact of the century to be Britain’s abandonment of India and one of its most courageous acts of the Labour Government’s decision to leave in 1947. Once British India ‘a symbol of immense importance’ had gone, any idea of Algierie Francaise was stillborn’ 

Chatwin also travelled in India quite extensively and had a warm regard for the country. In the wonderful piece On the road with Mrs.G (Gandhi) he manages to bring out the personality and a slice of her time immedaitely after emergency to life. Consider this…. I was pro Indira that morning: she seemed so bizarre and eccentric. I felt that anyone who aspired to rule India was bound to end up a bit barmy ….or…. Indira’s views on Margaret Thatcher (which brings out aspects of  personalities of both)….. “Quite a different personality!” she said. ” How that woman wants to be a PM! When she came here to Delhi she was so nervous. I felt like telling her, “If you want to be  PM that badly, you’ll never make it” “  or his wonderful observation of elections in India  ” Atal Behari Vajpayee, the Foreign Minister – perhaps the best foreign minister India has had — was addressing a crowd assembled in the shade. He had silver hair, a square intelligent face, a dramatic use of gesture, and mastery of metaphor. His audience clung to every word. The level of discourse made Western electioneering seem like some barabaric rout. This was true democracy.  He was one of the few people to have recognised the challenges of root taking of democracy in India well before it was a fashion to talk about India (A lot of it has been happening in the recent past — India a super power, India the largest democracy, India a this and India a that…)

(A probably irrelevant trivia: Chatwin does not get the names right. Indira’s private secretary was R.K.Dhawan and not R.K.Dharan. It could have equally well been a printers mistake)

Even while talking about others and other things, Chatwin quietly manages to illuminate his own personality and interests. A humanitarian, liberal, enthusiast, scholarly, anti imperial, art loving, accessible and unassuming individual and more than that. It appears that in this world all precious things are supplied in limited quotas and it is a pity that a gifted, restless and vagrant mind like Chatwin died young at the age of 49

If I were ever to be moored on an island or incarcerated and given the option of choosing a few books — Chatwin’s What Am I Doing Here will be first among equals. There are in all 34 pieces in this selection and each one of them is a gem.

An afterthought: In the past I have read pieces by V.S.Prtichet, Pankaj Mishra and now Chatwin — all of them seemed to hold the American literary crtic Edmund Wilson in high esteem. Looks like I found the next area for my literary explorations

I am coming to realise that as a genre Travel Writing can be a flexible and a protean entity. A lot is there to be read and enjoyed

2 Responses to “What Am I Doing Here — Bruce Chatwin — A book review”

  1. sasikala said

    i would like to read the full text of BUTTER CHICKEN IN LUDHIANA. could you help?

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