I have just finished reading Vikram Seth’s travelogue “From Heaven Lake: travels in Sinkiang and Tibet” (1983). It’s an unusual travel book. Steering clear of all Lonely Planet Guides and regular travel routes, Seth manages to sketch a picture of China, Tibet, and Nepal from a hungry (quite literally) student traveller’s perspective. He was at that time a student at the Nanjing University. Taking time and money off from the Standford University, Seth stays in China for 2 years. When the time comes for him to return home, he decides on a mega unconventional route. Abandoning all idea of taking a flight out of Xian or Chengdu (cities other than Beijing and Shanghai that we are not familiar with). He decides to take a rather long, hungry, cold rounadabout hitchhiking trip that takes him into the world’s least known areas. The time is the 80s. Seth knows Chinese so well that at one point in time during the trip he had to speak it badly with effort so that people come to his aid.
Seth has been called the “pin-up boy” of Indian Writing in English partly because of his rugged good looks and partly because of “A Suitable Boy.” But in this lesser known work, he shines through both as a writer and a humourist. Unlike other travellers, Seth concentrates on the inner journey as much as the outer.
Seth writes like a song. The flow in uninterrupted and he has amazing control over his words. Each word has been chosen in keeping with what precise emotion he wants to convey. As Arielle says, he is a classical writer, no gimmicks.
A litany of places with sing song names like Turfan, Tarim, Changau, Antioch, Yarkhand, Khotan, Urumqui, Kashgar, Kuche, Xian, Liuyuan, Dunhuang, Sichuan, Qinghai, Nanhu, Chengde, Germu, Lanzhou, Xining, Chaidam, Naqu, Anduo, Liaoning, Jokhang, Drepung, Norbulingka, Chengdu, Zhang mu, Dingri, Chamdo, Shigatse, Nilamn, Zhangmu pepper the travelogue but the writescape starts to get less exotic and more familiar by the time Seth reaches Lhasa and then Kathmandu.
Reading Seth is always a pleasure: like sipping iced tea in hot weather. It refreshed my city-weary mind. It’s all the travelling that I can do without getting bee-stung, flea-bitten, and frozen-toed not to mention altitude sickness. There is one phrase that I can’t get out of my head: “delicious calm.” It makes me taste “calm” like some specific cuisine. Salud to the delicious calm of reading Vikram Seth!
Rating: * * * * * Khallas (Deadly)
My Rating System:
* * * * * = Khallas (Deadly)
* * * * = Bindaas (Great)
* * * = Jhakaas (Good)
* * = Timepass(Okay)
* = Bakwaas (Avoid it)