Reading Room, National Geographic Traveller India’s recurring new series, uncovers classic and contemporary reads that go beyond the established norms and tropes of travel writing. In our inaugural dispatch, novelist and academic Aruni Kashyap (His Father’s Disease: Stories and the novel The House With a Thousand Stories) lists his four favourite works of LGBTQ+ travel writing from around the world.
I would never get tired reading Less by Andrew Sean Greer: another novel that flirts with the conventions of the travel narrative. Less, which won the Pulitzer Prize (fiction) for 2018, follows the experiences of a gay, middle-aged writer. The brilliance of the novel lies in making us laugh at the most tender moments but at the same time feel sad for the narrator or for ourselves.
Part of it is set in India, but other parts are also set in Germany, Italy, and Mexico, as the narrator tries to nurse his wounds from a recent break-up. This is a novel about a not- very-successful, white, American male writer who is having a midlife crisis, and yet, with the sensitive and funny prose, with deep insight into the follies and strength of our humanity, the novel tugs at your heartstrings. I laughed reading it at its darkest moments due to the comic and satirical vision of the writer who doesn’t take anything too seriously and, perhaps, that’s the biggest lesson the book leaves us with. Greer has been working on a sequel titled Less is Lost, expected to come out later this year.
I read Damon Galgut’s In A Strange Room during a snowy Minnesota winter and it filled me with warmth and hope. But this is a novel about three journeys, and all of them are unsuccessful and sad in some way or the other. This is sometimes due to the narrator’s inability to act on his desire (like his attraction to a character called Jerome in the second segment), or some other kind of dysfunctionality. The dysfunctionalities are either on a social level or on a personal level, such as a character suffering from acute depression in the section on India. Even though it is a foreign author writing about India—which I have learned to be suspicious of due to my training as a literature student at Delhi University, where I was exposed to this long tradition that is often botched by white writers—I found a lot of empathy, sensitivity, in Galgut’s vision. Finally, the novel often breaks rules: it reminds me of a memoir, but it is sold as a novel. It is written mostly in the third person, but it keeps shifting beautifully into the first person.
I can’t recommend this book enough. Even though the riveting events of this book take place in another country, another city, I felt as if the book was depicting the experiences of people I know in Delhi, or Atlanta, or Guwahati. Impeccably translated from Korean by Anton Hur, this is a memorable read, full of bittersweet events, and characters that you will want to hug: a thoroughly entertaining book. I think many young queer people would see themselves in Young as he balances his life between failed relationships,
friendships, and responsibility for his sick mother. “The world was just not ready for the boundless energy of poor, promiscuous twenty-year-olds. We met whatever men we wanted without putting much effort into it, drank ourselves torpid, and in the morning met in each other’s rooms to apply cosmetic masks to our swollen faces and exchange tidbits about the men we had been with the night before,” writes Young in the book.
Originally written in Assamese, this is a meditation on how the ancient text of Ramayana is read, studied, and remembered in the folk or cultural imagination in India and other countries. The scholar, an Indian woman, goes to Sri Lanka to attend a conference on Ramayana Studies. Before the era of literary festivals, such nerdy conferences attended by pugnacious and curmudgeonly scholars seemed to be like the spaces where it was somewhat acceptable to have ugly fights about books and ideas. However, our Indian scholar is quite a non-confrontational person. She is a great observer, and as she makes her way through dinners, journeys, and panel discussions, we get to know about her interesting life. When I read the wonderful essay, The Murder of Leo Tolstoy, by Elif Batuman, concerning a bunch of Russian Literature enthusiasts debating about Tolstoy and Tolstoy- related stuff, I often found myself thinking about Goswami’s novel. It is not only metafictional but also auto-fiction, and borrows conventions of the travel narrative.
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.