Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush – Eric Newby – A review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on November 22, 2008

Book reviews are interesting because it’s necessary to keep an eye on what’s good and what’s bad in the books of a society worked so heavily by advertising, public relations and so on. Writing reviews isn’t really analytical it’s for the most part quick reactions – joys and rages. I certainly never write a review about a book I don’t think worth reviewing, a flat out bad book, unless it’s an enormously fashionable bad bookJohn Gardner

When it comes to reading travel writing I have started to display tendencies of an addict. Maybe my own subliminal desire for carefree travel and the unconstrained freedom that I associate with travel seem to lie behind this craving. Only time, that great healer, will tell if these cravings will be sumptuously fed or starved to wither dry. The more I read, the more I am coming to realise that travel writing is neither about travel nor about places. It is mostly about people. A people encountered on the move. And people come as a package i.e. they bring along with them many interesting aspects related to culture, language, food, living, tastes, outlooks and above all peculiar idiosyncrasies and prejudices. It is this focus on people which is an integral part of this genre of writing that saves it from the levity that it is eminently capable of slipping into. Also what makes reading about these encounters interesting is that very often they bring forth a lurking element of surprise inherent in the alternative worldviews that the writer and the readers are not aware of and are discovering as they go along. Viewed in this context, travel is a mere mechanism that makes this discovery possible. The more sympathetic and sensitive a travel writer is towards depicting these alternative worldviews the more enjoyable it gets. Lastly, societies move on, the writer too moves on. But his observations and encounters are permanently etched as a snapshot of a personal or general history for the posterity. And well depicted snapshots are evocative of a touching nostalgia. It is this aspect of travel writing that I find appealing. As a good example, consider William Dalrymple‘s “City of Djinns” — the Delhi he wrote about and the Delhi of today have no comparison at all, yet as portrait of times gone by, it is a wonderfully endearing and heartwarming picture. It is very reflective of the the old aphorism that one never stands in the same river twice. As an admirer, I am constantly aware of this aspect of travel writing. 

Wanderlust – that willingness to be completely consumed by the vagrant mood is a puzzling behaviour in human beings. It is visible in different forms in different societies. For a long while I reeled under the impression that it is an upper class, urban and predominantly western trait. On reflection it does not appear so. In the East and West Asia, for ages people have been undertaking pilgrimages and atleast this phenomenon appears to be impervious to class categorisation. The words “Yatra”, “Hejira”, “Haj” denote this aspect of travel. There is the “Gap Year” in West which is especially dedicted to travel between end of school and commencement of university. And I think this is a recent phenomenon in affluent and developed societies. However, I am not aware of any engaging travel writing relating to pilgrimage or the Gap Years. The motives behind the desire to travel to unknown climes, braving constraints has always remained an enigma for me – especially when they are spur of the moment kind of decisions. One such spur of the moment decision that resulted in a wonderfully engaging travel and a concomitant travelogue has been Eric Newby‘s “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush“. In the recent past, BBC 4 ran a brilliant 3 part series on travel writing called “Traveller’s Century” covering Eric Newby, Laurie Lee and Patrick Fermor. While the latter two are completely new to me, Eric Newby was familiar on account of an aborted attempt of reading his classic “Slowly Down the Ganges“. The series prompted me into realising that it is an act of remiss that is worthy of correction. While I could not lay my hands on “Slowly Down the Ganges“, I managed to read his “A Short Walk in The Hindu Kush” over the weekend. That it is yet another classic in travel writing is evident from the word go

CAN YOU TRAVEL NURISTAN. JUNE? thus begins the wonderful journey of Newby with his friend Hugh Carless from London to Nuristan in Afghanistan via Turkey, an accidental foray into Armenian border, Tehran, Kabul and then to Nuristan in the mountain ranges of Hindu Kush through the famous Panjshir Valley with an almost successful attempt in climbing (mount) Mir Samir. In car and on foot the destination is reached despite the hard weather conditions and extremely inhospitable terrain. The Afghanistan that successive world powers have managed to reduce to modern day rubble as part of their powerplay appears to be a different world in the 60’s when Newby visited it. Although full of nomadic tribal societies with regular skirmishes, it still appeared to have been a cohesively knit place with semblance of order and sanity –  a so-so economy driven by susbistence agriculture. It is almost redundant to say that the picture is vastly different today. As one reads along Newby provides an interesting but broken glimpses of the historical developments within Afghanistan and its engagement with the bigger world outside. Laced with a lucid narrative and tongue in cheek humor anecdotes around people encounters “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush“, has been a thoroughly entertaining read

A distinguishing character of Newby‘s writing is the constant presence of a gentleman’s approach to commenting on other people, their customs and traditions. Barring a couple of instances, one gets to see the inclusive understanding of a broad, inquistive and a ready for adventure mind throughout the book. Even if there is a disagreement it is at best a grumble at the state of affairs and never a raspy complaining. Contrast this with  Paul Theroux’s writing, although utterly enjoyable there are traces of haughtiness which I could feel as I was turning the pages of his “The Great Railway Bazaar

The author Sam Ewig once said that “Hard work spotlights the character of people: some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses, and some don’t turn up at all” — Newby clearly comes out as the adventure loving traveller willing to turn up his sleeves in the face of hardwork and hardships his short walk entailed. A gem of travel writing worth reading at any stage in one’s reading life

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