Having chanced upon a travelogue of sorts written by the late, celebrated poet, Dom Moraes, I wondered at the quirkiness of reading a book well past its sell-by date. Even quirkier is reading a travelogue after more than forty years of its writing. Gone Away was written by Moraes covering his travel in India from August-November of 1959, a year after he had become the youngest recipient of the Hawthornden Prize* while studying at Oxford. By his own admission, having very little knowledge about the place he was born, and its people, Moraes set out on an impromptu journey that covered such places as Calcutta, Kathmandu, Gangtok and the Nathula Pass, while meeting people from varied backgrounds, like Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister and the Dalai Lama.
If the tag of “An Indian Journal”, bunged with the title doesn’t convince you that the book was meant for a western audience, the narrative certainly would. This was around the time that India was being speculatively viewed as a country of the proverbial snake-charmer, and Moraes’s experiences might only have legitimated a few myths. For instance, his meeting with an ailing poet on the banks of a Nepalese river, where he is left to die, is a reality of the past which might seem incredulous now to us, just as it might have been fantastical to a western audience then. Or take his meeting with Nehru for instance, where an icon of independent India presents himself as what he is; an aging politician, and slightly frustrated at that perhaps.
It is this quirkiness in the book that makes it fascinating. Had it been read in 1960, the year of its publishing, an Indian reader would have had to rely on the underlying humour to carry him through and past the pages. While the readers to whom the book was meant for, the non-Asians in this case, would have experienced astonishment at the events themselves. Yes, as a travelogue the book is dead in parts. Gangtok must have more hotels now and Chinese spies would have gotten better at shooting and traveling has become tourism, ceasing to be just travel. What will remain is the past, etched poetically by a man believed by many as the best English poet of India.
* The Hawthornden Prize is a British literary award given to the “best work of imaginative literature”. After Moraes won it in 1958, V.S. Naipaul was to win it in 1964.
About the Author: http://www.hindu.com/mag/2004/06/13/stories/2004061300080100.htm
PS: Outlook opened its celebration of Sachin Tendulkar’s 25th birthday edition with a poem by Moraes called “For the Cheap Seats”. When he was 12, Dom Moraes began writing on cricket.