‘Pia? Pia? Pia!’
I open my eyes, in the middle of the night, to see my mother shaking me awake, repeating my Bengali nickname. I am horizontal on the lower bed of the compartment. There isn’t another person I can see awake or another sound I can hear – the soft chugga-chugga of the train that we are aboard from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer has stopped, and there is a soothing silence in the air.
I sit up groggily and look at my mother. She is staring out of the window; an expression of bewilderment is coming over her face. I follow her gaze, and though I do not think much now of what I see, this image will still be etched distinctly in my mind six years later – that is when I will realize how simple and yet how gorgeous my view was: the train is standing still on a platform, but what enchants us is that this platform is entirely covered with sand. Beautiful sand, mind you, almost silver in the moonlight. Heaven bless the timely sandstorm that brought our eyes this feast.
‘Pia, this is Jaisalmer,’ said Mum. ‘The Shonar Kella awaits.’
The above is a memory of mine from six years ago. In Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, we saw that more than half of its tourism industry’s business was made because of Satyajit Ray’s fantastic detective book and movie – ‘Shonar Kella’. It is about a mystery regarding a boy with memories of his previous life, many of which involve a certain “Golden Fortress”, or Shonar Kella in Bengali.
The bestselling book of the Feluda mystery series is the reason for all those scores of Bengalis (and non-Bengalis) visiting Jaisalmer every year to see the fortress, generation after generation.
Mum had been there with her parents as a pre-teen, after she’d read the book, and I was thus most thoroughly informed before our trip of the stunning city and its stunning fortress, as well as of the phenomenal tale written around the two. Wonderfully strange it is, the amount of service that Satyajit Ray did for Jaisalmer as a city.
I could not possibly think of a better example to give of how it is not merely the travelogues and guidebooks that lead to hordes of people being interested in exploring a certain destination. Those few novels of fiction and adventure where the LOCATIONS are crucial parts of the stories are the novels I adore more than anything.
In my opinion, successful promotion of a city in a subtle yet effective way is done not through the pages of facts and the lists of places to visit there that we all see in travel books, but by turning those places into the settings wherein all sorts of bizarre happenings may unfold in a story.
It is this technique of writers – that of slipping in all of a place’s interesting facts within a fictional tale – which made me so curious about and so fascinated with the country of Afghanistan, after reading Khaled Hosseini’s heartbreakingly fantastic book, ‘The Kite Runner’. It indirectly showed me some very interesting sights of Kabul, Herat and Jalalabad, leaving behind in me the adventurer’s want of witnessing this relatively non-touristy country.
Our night train to Jaisalmer reinforced another aspect of travel writing which appeals to me: How important the JOURNEY to a place is. Simple as it may be to hop onto a plane, whizz past clouds and land at your terminal, there will be certain scenic rides by road, rail or sea to that same place, that may turn out to become the highlights of your entire trip, which so many travel books fail to lay emphasis on.
If you open, say, a Lonely Planet Guide or a Rough Guide To Travel, you shall rarely see mention of the train rides and ferry rides that go to the places that the books advertise; many of these rides, as a matter of fact, are lovely on their own, and it would be a shame to miss out wholly on what they have to offer.
For instance, last summer, on a holiday around the US with my family, we had taken a two-night train on the Amtrak called the California Zephyr, which took us from Chicago, Illinois, all the way across the continent to Emeryville, California.
Many were taken aback by the fact that we chose the Zephyr over a simple airplane, that would’ve taken five times less the travel duration, though I cannot say how unforgettably beautiful the journey was.
From the California Zephyr:
In 52 hours, we rode through seven different states, and each new landscape showed us how blessed the country was by nature. We passed the length of the Colorado River and marveled at the snow-capped mountains of Fraser-Winter Park. We had the somehow-divine experience of witnessing the prettiest sunset ever over the desert of Utah from the window, while devouring our dinners in the dining car. We gawked at the various magnificent lakes, gorges, canyons, glaciers, farms and small towns of America. Had the fortune of seeing a big, clear rainbow somewhere on the Colorado-Utah border. Went by what seemed like hundreds of stations along the way, all with queer names such as Winnemucca, Somonauk and Truckee.
Basically, no number of sermons on the significance of saving precious time will convince me or my family that journeys to holiday locations are ‘unimportant’ or ‘need to be cut short as much as possible’. Hence emerges my second recommendation for travel writers who have stumbled upon this article: there must exist thousands of visually enchanting travel routes such as that of the Zephyr, waiting to be published about and discovered further. Why not increase the joyful experiences of your readers by describing to them these routes and stressing the fact that journeys are as much a part of one’s holidays as the activities carried out therein?
That brings me to the final recommendation on my wish list. We all travel tons, to big cities and peaceful countrysides alike. However, we tend to mainly visit the places that are universally familiar and suggested by other travellers. But it is the unknown gem hidden in a known city that fascinates me.
Nerul River, Goa:
Millennium Park, Chicago:
Did you know that you could go crab catching in the Nerul River in Goa AND have your catch cooked into a delicious Rechad? Or that you could lay out an elaborate picnic table on the greens of Chicago’s Millennium Park while watching a jazz concert? Or that Zurich hosts the Zürifäscht every three years, which has a spectacular air show with planes zigzagging the sky all day in mind-boggling geometrical patterns? I sure would love to read about such unusually non-touristy and local events at places that we supposedly know a lot about…
For me, travelling is one of the most heartwarming, magical things one can indulge in. So, fellow travel writers, let us consider a little fiction, to sprinkle over and enhance our descriptive guides. We shall undoubtedly have a larger audience if we do. Let us also think of our most memorably scenic road trips, railway experiences and sailing adventures, so we can write about those and provide our dear readers with their pleasure too.
I am looking forward to the Kahaani festival to go off the beaten track and talk about little known corners of OUR towns and cities that we experience as locals. There is no greater satisfaction than to have seen and explored another part of your native planet, and neither is there a better way to encourage this than by means of literature. At Kahaani, I am going to give a loud shout-out to the writers within us who can tell tales of lands unexplored, spin a yarn around them to make us hold our breath as the stories unfold.
– Lavanya Sinha
Delhi Public School, RK Puram, New Delhi