Books inspire armchair travel, but they can also shape our real-life adventures, by helping us understand a culture, telling us about a place’s secrets, even helping us to cope with difficult experiences. These are a few of our favourites.
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
– Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
It took a single book for me to fall in love with a city. And while I have not had the good fortune to live in Paris, I have walked its streets during a perfect summer with my partner. We stood in the yellow pools of light cast by the iconic lamps. We spent hours watching the world go by as we sat in the tiny cafes in Rou Mouffetard. We kissed under the Eiffel Tower, rummaged through books in the old shops along Pont Marie bridge, and admired the flying buttresses of the Notre Dame cathedral on jaunts along the Seine. Just as Hemingway wrote, so we did, “We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other”. And as we wandered through the city, all along the way, bumping along my thigh, carefully tucked away in my bag, was one slim volume—A Moveable Feast. Hemingway described his time in the city as a lively pastiche of experiences and taking cues from the writer, I stopped to enjoy the small pleasures, unexpected encounters, the many books and magnificent art all around me. In my mind, Paris will always be a luminous fairy child born of the collective genius of Woody Allen and Ernest Hemingway. It is a moveable feast waiting to be indulged in time and again.
Several years ago, as I read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, the swaying palm fronds and rice fields of Kerala came bursting into my room and imagination. I was particularly moved by Roy’s description of a night-long kathakali performance. With remarkable tenderness, she describes the turmoil and plight of the artists who have to perform truncated versions of the art form to cater to the limited attention spans of tourists.
Her vivid descriptions returned to me two years ago, when I signed up for a cultural performance of theyyam, kathakali, and mohiniattam near Fort Kochi. All three are dances traditional to Kerala. I couldn’t get Roy’s story out of my head so instead of taking my seat, I slipped backstage into the green room to meet the men behind the masks. Thankfully, one of the theyyam artists spoke fluent English and I spent the next two hours chatting with the performers, watching them smear greens and vermilions on their faces, and wiggle their eyebrows in last-minute rehearsal. One of the artists admitted that he wouldn’t tell his friends back home in Kannur about shows like this, but that it paid the bills. Another told me that on some days, after he’d scrubbed the paint off his face after a performance, he would travel by bus to a temple nearby, and ready himself once more, for the real thing: an all-night performance meant for the gods.
I first became acquainted with the writings of Viktor Frankl on a trip to Poland some years ago. Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, was a Holocaust survivor. His book Man’s Search For Meaning about life in the concentration camps of World War II is not just a story of his struggle for survival, but of the triumph of hope.
When we were in Krakow, my husband and I were deliberating about the ethics of visiting a place of mass murder. Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp where some of the worst atrocities of the Holocaust occurred, was about 62km away. Eventually, we decided that we would. Upon entering the camp, we first saw a documentary film and walked through a small, simple museum. It was one of the most gut-wrenching history lessons I have ever been taught. To this day, whenever I recall the photographs of emaciated men and women on the walls, or the mountains of confiscated spectacles, suitcases, hair, and shoes kept at the location exactly as they were found, it makes my hair stand on end. No matter how many Hollywood movies you’ve seen recreating the scenes, when you’re at Auschwitz the scene is jarring.
Travel isn’t always about fun and play. It can also be about bringing reality to history, making us ask deeper questions, or feel deeply for strangers and those beyond our immediate circle. The lessons from that trip were numerous. The message at Auschwitz is clearly that one must never forget or allow such hatred to gain control of society, and naturally I left there with a sense of anger, sadness, horror, and shame. In stark contrast to those feelings, I found myself also taken in by Viktor Frankl’s discussion on how one can “make victory of bad experiences, turn life into triumph”.
As prep for my holiday to Barcelona last year, I bought myself a copy of Colm Toibin’s Homage to Barcelona. The book, which draws on Toibin’s life in the city in the 1970s and ’80s, sheds light on the city’s past—from its Roman ruins, through the history of Catalan nationalism, all the way to the city’s expansion in the 19th century. I had the book in my bag on the whole trip—on my flight, on the beach—but I didn’t get past the first 20 pages. Something always came up, and the guilt kept gnawing away at me. But on a train ride back from Ocata Beach, 17km out of the city, I realised that not knowing all about a place’s past is also okay. I was having the most beautiful time, and falling helplessly in love with the city. I spent that day on the beach picnicking by the waves, and napping as the sun shone down warming us up. Over the next few days, we relished platefuls of seafood paella, drank homemade vermouth in a rustic little restaurant, and spent hours walking around the city taking in as much as we possibly could. Little did I know that now, a year later, opening Toibin’s book would release an avalanche of those sights and sounds. And this time around, I have bits and bobs of historical facts to enrich my memories of the same streets I walked down. Barcelona cast its spell on Toibin (he visited the city repeatedly over two decades before moving there to write the book), and stole a piece of my heart too.
Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities—and true to form, bristles with history, mythology, and all of the cacophony of human existence. I’d scrabbled far for books on the ancient Indian city before my journey dates, rather daunted by having to penetrate the spirituality of such a layered city in four days for my story. I picked up Banaras Region: A Spiritual & Cultural Guide by Rana P.B. Singh and his son, Pravin S. Rana, after I met the erudite professor at Banaras Hindu University. In the early 1980s, Singh had plotted the city’s 84 ghats, and had spent decades comparing its sacred sites with details from mythology, and documenting the region’s importance across religions. The 400-page book is a highly recommended, excellently researched gateway to the luminous city, packed with the most intriguing legends, precise pilgrimage paths you can follow, and little-frequented places of worship for Jains, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. There’s also a section on nearby locations like Allahabad and Khajuraho. Varanasi has inspired endless literature; this book eschews overblown perspectives and slippery details to give a sure foothold to meet a city that has besotted the gods and men for centuries.