“It is the pain and not the pleasure of travel that produces great travel literature.”
—S. K. Pottekkatt
Anybody with even a passable interest in travel writing—our access to adventures in faraway lands, revelatory train journeys and voyages, culinary explorations, anthropological quests and historical expositions—knows that the genre’s cup runneth over with predominantly Eurocentric voices. Among books by Indian writers and journalists, those known best are often in English, and seldom offer outrageously new perspectives. In a country that is profuse with a fascinating polyphony of languages, subjects, and narrative styles, surely travel writing cannot be restricted to the same body of tropes. We spotlight ten works of travel literature written in languages from all over India, including philosophical classics, intimate travelogues, humorous sketches and much more.
The Malayalam travelogue—the first ever written in any Indian language—follows a hazardous journey undertaken by two representatives of the Kerala Catholic church, from the Malabar coast to Rome. P. Thoma Kathanar, along with Mar Joseph Kariattil, sets off for a historic voyage in order to achieve unification of the divided Syrian Christian Church of Kerala with help from the Pope and the Portuguese queen, travelling first to Madras on foot, and then sailing for the Cape of Good Hope from Kandy, Sri Lanka. Thereafter, the duo reach the Latin American coast instead of Lisbon, to which they are bound. The travelogue, a seminal work of travel writing in India, documents their arduous eight-year voyage, during the course of which they also return to India, staying in Goa for a while.
Published in 1968, this work by one of Malayalam’s foremost voices, traces his peregrinations in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania in the late 1940s. Pottekkatt, whose works have been translated into several languages, wrote close to 20 published travel accounts, including three of the major ones on Africa (Simhabhoomi, Nile Diary and Kappirikalude Naattil), and Pathira Sooryante Nattil, an account of his travel in Finland. The recipient of the Jnanpith and the Sahitya Akademi awards is often regarded as a pioneer of travel writing in India, and his books about Southeast Asia (Indonesia Diary and Bali Dweep), are widely read works as well. Contrary to what one might imagine, Pottekkatt undertook his travels on very modest budgets, preferring economically prudent means of transport and lodging, and abstaining from air travel altogether—which also shaped the realism of his accounts and his unfiltered portrayals of the residents of the places he visited.
Many know Chintha Ravi as a tireless writer of travelogues, and he did write a handful of them, apart from creating travel-based shows for television. While Swiss Sketchukal is a heartwarming look at his wanderings in Switzerland, Akalangalile Manushyar documents his visits to India’s remotest hamlets. In Buddha Patham, he writes about his visits to Europe in addition to travels within the country. Ravi’s work is always informed by the pitfalls of the traveller’s gaze, and his love of rural settings and communities living in close harmony with nature, is well known.
This Hindi opus, written by a scholar who liked to call himself a ghumakkar, has been translated into several global languages and enjoys widespread popularity. Here, Sankrityayan charts the course of human civilisation from 6,000 B.C. up to the present, that is, the early 1940s, when the inveterate itinerant had to pause his travels (he travelled extensively, especially to Russia, Korea, China and Japan). The narrative unfolds through 20 stories, each from a different era and geographical location, headlined by a unique protagonist. Sankrityayan has other works of pioneering Hindi travel literature to his name, too, including Tibbat Mein Sava Baras, Meri Europe Yatra, and Asia Ke Durgam Bhukhandon Mein.
One of the most significant books about the northeast to come out in recent years, this Hindi title chronicles journalist Anil Yadav’s six-month stay in this part of the country with great wit and candour. Laced with a strong political undercurrent, Wah Bhi Koi Des Hai Mahraj addresses linguistic and cultural differences and is remembered for straying from the beaten path that only romanticises the region’s relatively unexplored natural beauty. The use of Hindi strips the travelogue of its otherwise affected, whitewashed trappings (a trite rite with books set in the northeast), revealing another, completely different side to the region. The 158-page book has been dubbed a powerful new voice in the canon of contemporary Hindi literature.
It was 1977. Novelist Nabaneeta Dev Sen had just attended the Assam Women’s Literature conference in Jorhat. And on a whim, the maverick writer set off for a trip to Tawang in Arunachal after a brief chat with a driver—without adequate clothing and information of the Inner Line Permits! Truckbahone McMahone is a rollicking, madly hilarious ride undertaken in a series of trucks, more so because the professor doesn’t really have a concrete motivation for the trip, just a whim. For those who don’t read Bangla, Arunava Sinha’s English translation is available, but that’s not the point, is it?
There’s something fascinating about writing about a place in a language it has almost nothing to do with. Syed Mujtaba Ali’s acclaimed memoir Deshe Bideshe follows three years of his life as an academic in Kabul, a place that travel writers often return to. Ali’s book, however, is one of the rare works that have documented a turbulent period in Afghan history under King Amanullah, the social reforms the latter sought to bring about and the displeasure that they caused among the conservatives. Working with a lively cast of characters, Ali fleshes out a touching portrait of life in the region. He employs humour and satire skillfully, and eschews the Eurocentric gaze that often colours travel accounts of the country.
Tinsukia resident Rupam Dutta found his lady love after a chat he had with her in the cabin of the bus he was driving. This is just one of the numerous exhilarating moments recounted in Dutta’s recently published memoir. Few other recent works within the regional landscape have made waves like Dutta’s notes about the life of a night super driver following the roads of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh for the past decade and a half. The book, running for 488 pages and written originally on his mobile phone in everyday Assamese, started off as an anecdotal series on Facebook where Dutta, who comes from a family of teachers, would relate the hazards and sweet happenings aboard the sleeper bus he drove.
The noted litterateur’s name is synonymous with the Konkani language movement, and to imagine reading a Konkani book about the grand mountainous terrain stretched across India’s northern flank, is a delicious proposition. Philosophical and rich with references, Himalayant was the first work of Konkani to be chosen for the Sahitya Akademi Award.
The multi-hyphenate star of films such as Do Bigha Zameen and Garam Hawa, Balraj Sahni was born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, 34 years before the second nation was created. In 1960, he returned to the country for a brief period and penned his book detailing his experiences, called Mera Pakistani Safarnama. In a nostalgic account of his return to the place of his birth, Sahni, who was also a noted writer and columnist, evokes raw emotion with deft use of the inherent plaintive quality of Punjabi, creating a travelogue both film and culture buffs enjoy devouring to this day.
Pardesi Punjab (Punjabi) by Waryam Singh Sandhu: The writer of Wagdi Ae Ravi and the short story collection Chauthi Koot, takes a tender look at the Punjabi diaspora across the world.
Nungshibi Greece (Manipuri) by Saratchand Thiyam: The Manipuri travelogue is one of the three Thiyam wrote on his travels in Greece, Bangladesh, and Kerala. It won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2006.
Hasiru Honnu (Kannada) by B. G. L. Swamy: An account of the famous botanist’s field trips, to which he was accompanied by his students. Swamy also wrote Namma Hotteyalli Dakshina America, a thoroughly engaging culinary guide to South America.
Brahmajatrir Diary (Assamese) by Ananda Chandra Agarwala: An iconic work in the body of Assamese travel writing, this book follows the author during his time in Burma.
Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.