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Travel Writers' Perspectives on India

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3354 words Published: 28th Sep 2017

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To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.

Aldous Huxley

The quote by Aldous Huxley stands relevant for all the travel writers, and it is not done consciously. While representing another country, the travel writer is actually reproducing his own ideas and perspective through series of events and encounters. These ideas can no way be separated from presumptions and prejudices. However, the travel writer does not every time tend to exhibit his prejudices but human psychology is not created over a year or so, but the ideologies are set in a course of centuries. These ideologies works as a steering force for the traveller. At the time of imperialism, India was represented by English authors with a need of authenticating their rule; moreover, it was the representation of ruled by the ruler. Hence, the early English travel writings exhibit conscious reproduction of the prejudices. With the change of time, India ceased to be the imperial colony and so ceases the need of deliberately contesting and detesting, everything and anything present in Indian society and Indian culture. Though, the travel writings witnessed a shift, still, India was represented under a guided rule of ‘imperial nostalgia’. English society kept on looking at the subcontinent through imperial eyes. The separate identity of India was never set up. By the time the travellers moved in 21st century, things changed drastically, there was an upheaval in critical theories and economies of all the countries. This changed the travellers’ outlook towards the british colonies. The travellers could now be divided into two categories; one is that of historians and anthropologists, the other is that of creative writers. William Dalyrymple, can be put in the first category, and this category viewed India not only through their perspective but through the well researched facts and events. Dalyrymple witnesses India as the history buried in ruins and his travel writings showcase his attitude of making sense of present in the light of past through ruins. The second category caters to their needs of creative writings, they present India through the series of stories, and the authenticity of these stories can always be contested. Both Naipaul and Theroux come under this category and both of them present India through series of stories either encountered by them while travelling or told to them by the natives. None of their narratives produce the proof any authentication to the details as actual encounters or the concocted story to give life to some effect. Moreover, the traveller is always aware of his ideas and the theme of his writing; he is well acquainted with the writing to come, and the narrative to construct. This somehow encourages the traveller to look for, and gather the events and encounters under the heading of one general truth. It is unquestionable fact that the travel writer’s vision is already objective. He is well aware about the story and the effect his book is going to produce and in taking up one goal or theme for the work, he obviously take care of so many things like the market and readers, and his stories, events and encounters are centralized to produce a book for his market. Therefore, much of the travel books ends up making a countable encounters and affects, the clichés of their book. It is always that the projected narrative structures the very process of his travelling and not the vice versa. However, it cannot be denied that the narrative produced by the travel writer is not merely the representation by the author of his encounters but the writer himself is very much available throughout the narrative. It becomes his representation also, his personality, his tastes and ideologies could be seen through his travel narratives. For instance, Darlymple’s references to various literary and non – literary sources prove him as a “New Historicist” who intentionally chases the principles of ‘New Historicism”, a theory initiated by Stephen Greenblatt. Darlymple’s narrative skills demonstrate him as an exact delegate of new critical theory. Though he plays a dual role in exposing British towards Indians, he tries to bring the real history at every touch. It appears as if he believes that a striking event or anecdote has the effect of arousing skepticism about grand historical narratives or essentializing descriptions of a historical period. So he has taken into consideration countless views without neglecting any micro details. He tries to comprehend the present in the rocks and records of past. His simplicity at confering both the physical & temporal spaces of the capital of India makes him an ideal guide to its past and present. Concisely, one can attribute him as the true follower of the concept of ‘New Historicism’ with no second thoughts.

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It is through colonial nostalgia that western travel writers of the postcolonial era perpetuate the colonial ideology of British benevolence and superiority. Though British Empire has retreated from its former colonies since long, the stereotypical and derogatory representation of India in Western travel writings still exist. Although contemporary travel writers attempt to undermine the colonial discourse, they cannot help adopting a superior approach while describing their former colonies and people. This can be prominently seen in the travel narratives of V.S Naipaul and Paul Theroux. William Dalrymple, whose account is delightful narration of Indian history through the ruins of monuments and Indian tradition, his writings on India are no exception to it. He presents hijras as ruins of historical eunuchs in City of Djinns. Through this, Dalyrymple could be seen representing the country as exotic and technologically backward to that of European countries. He claims that, “Yet today eunuchs have apparently died out everywhere except in the subcontinent… In all there are thought to be some three-quarters of a million of them are surviving” (Djinns 170) presents the country as unchanging and mysterious despite globalization. He narrates the story of Indian backwardness and European advancements in technology through his unconscious comparison; he quotes such eunuchs “…….have full sex change. But in India the technology for this does not exist” (Djinns 180). Such representations reflect the ideology where West is viewed as innovative, modernized, followed and superior to the East and this western consumerism is seen as a weakness of the non-western people. This establishes a fact that no one can totally snap out the relation with his past. Countries are travelled, interpreted and represented through the comparisons with more powerful and this immediately puts the weaker country at a place of neglect and ignorance. This however, does not mean that the representations are always wrong or myths. The biggest reality and hard luck of the subcontinent is the faulty Indian bureaucracy and the administration, this finds high ranking in the list of negatives in all the travel writings about India.

The travellers could see the faults more prominently than any development or the fight for identity by the Indian subcontinent, could be explained through the following quote.

The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked. Did they not, in India, to borrow an expression of that great robber, Lord Clive himself, resort to atrocious extortion, when simple corruption could not keep pace with their rapacity? While they prated in Europe about the inviolable sanctity of the national debt, did they not confiscate in India the dividends of the rajahs, who had invested their private savings in the Company’s own funds? While they combated the French revolution under the pretext of defending “our holy religion,” did they not forbid, at the same time, Christianity to be propagated in India, and did they not, in order to make money out of the pilgrims streaming to the temples of Orissa and Bengal, take up the trade in the murder and prostitution perpetrated in the temple of the Juggernaut? These are the men of “Property, Order, Family, and Religion.”

Karl Marx, The New-York Daily Tribune. 22 July, 1853

The hypocrisy of west has been an important part of their rhetoric. It is through this hypocrisy that they have succeeded in establishing an ideal face back home while being atrocious and ignorant about the rest of the world. They have established themselves as superiors and the role has now transformed with time from that of rulers to the helpers still maintain the supremacy and travel narratives has ever played a vital role in doing that. No doubt with time the prejudiced side of the travel writers has eventually faded out giving birth to new unbiased travel writers like William Dalyrymple but still the imperial nostalgia could be sensed guiding their writings. The problem actually does not lie in the representations but the tag of non-fiction given to them, a reader immediately tends to consider the narrative as something which has actually happened with the authors and thus the book becomes an authentic representation of the visited society by a person of high intellect and the first hand experiences. The reader starts looking at the narrative as the fact file about the place. This is evident in the travel narratives about India, all the three writers’ repeat almost similar events and problems in the country hence emblematising them for the nation. Failure of beauracracy, traffic rules, might is right, VVIP system everything is given a due importance in the representations. However, not everyone has encountered these problems, Theroux has seen India through the window of train and on the platforms and there only he starts comparing the caste division in Indian society with the class system in trains. All the three writers can be seen witnessing what actually they wanted to see. William Dalyrymple, being a historian sees history everywhere in Delhi and he turns up as an admirer of the city as he goes into depth of the roots of the city. Despite of the fact that all three represents almost the same scenarios but the show amplified gap between the perspectives and the observations made by a historian, which is William Dalyrymple, an Indian Diasporic writer, V.S. Naipaul and a western writer, Paul Theroux. India is seen through different perspectives by different authors, hence represented differently.

Their exist a between cultural translations and the representational fallacies of contact zones. Cultural translations are done while writing a travel narrative and the motive behind them is the key to understand these fallacies which may be understood as misrepresentations or missed representations. It is true that certain factors about the nation can be so generalized by the natives that they go un-noticed by them but are immediately caught by the foreign observer. However, this is to be understood that there are certain factors which are missed by these travellers also, reason may be any. Dalyrymple’s books City of Djinns and The Age of Kali both mentions the problems he has faced while living in India, as a developing country. The problems range from water, electricity, traffic jams to hassles at the passport office, but his books does not concentrate only on these problems. Along with this he unfailingly states about the prospects in this country, he talks about the rich history whereas, Naipaul states it as a country without any history. Theroux rely on his own western knowledge about the subcontinent imbibed by him through books and friends like Naipaul. This becomes an evident truth when Theroux fails to touch even the edges of his detailed studies. Dalrymple agrees that there will always be certain things which he as a writer will not be able to understand but then his curiosity to understand them makes him even a keener observer of his surroundings and a sharp researcher. William Dalyrymple visited India when he was very young in January 1984 and since then, never left India rather he is reluctant to live anywhere else. In an interview he said, “I’ve never looked back… never really left India,’’ and that, “I am obsessed with the country and just cannot think of living anywhere else,’’ The India which seems to be a place of degradation to Naipaul and vulnerable place for westerner to Paul, for Dakyrymple, it has been a country rich of past and enthusiastic towards future. He said , “Living in India has been so enriching. If I had maybe five more lives I’d want to live in India and I’d find more and more stories to write about.’’

No, there are millions of Indias. Everybody has their own India and I think it’s a nonsense construction, “a real India”. The real India might be the India of the villages and certainly there’s a lot to be said of the fact that India’s heart lies in its villages.—–interview

These lines spoken by Dalyrymple in an interview provides the conclusion, that India is such a vast country, with huge diversity that it would be nonsense to state that one person knows everything about the subcontinent. Despite of regular and untiring researches, still something somewhere will always be left worth mentioning. Moreover, the truth of one generation has to become a myth for the next generation and due to this, the travel writings can never be considered authentic for long period of time. Thus, Travel books start losing their authenticity with time, most trustworthy account will turn as a lie or at least will appear as biased representation. All the three writers, detest their own observations on their re-arrival in the subcontinent. Though they give the name of development or change to it, still it points out to the fact that no representation can ever be said ‘true’ or ‘fact’. Moreover, the fictitious character of these non-fictions is defined by these authors themselves.

“……Travel writing is the lowest form of literary self-indulgence: dishonest complaining, creative mendacity, pointless heroics, and chronic posturing, much of it distorted with Munchausen syndrome” (Ghost Train to the Eastern Star 1)

As far as India is concerned, all the three writers represent it according to their need and necessity, V.S. Naipaul’s quest of finding his ties with the subcontinent and finally declaring himself, the man of nation, owing to his alienness to the place, Theroux observations through the window of trains, platforms and railway bazaars, and Dalytymple’s insight in the history of mughal India through its ruins and the colonial nostalgia, could be seen clearly through their works. The development of the subcontinent holds different meaning, therefore different representation for all of them, Naipaul see it as degradation, as the end of Gandhian India, Theroux see it as mimicry of west and Naipaul finds it as change of historical era, with history turning into ruins and new face of India, ignorant of the history, coming forward. All the three authors see India according to their own perspectives which definitely are guided by their cultural, national and scholarly background. None of them could see the subcontinent in isolation, hence unbiased. India has sometimes represented, sometimes misrepresented and majority of the time, it is the victim of missed representations. Things are missed due to either lack of research, over generalisation of the facts and sometimes the traveller could not see some facts ordinarily available around, due to his intensive comparison of the subcontinent to the west. Through these travel writings India has undergone a process of emblematization , certain features have been made the emblem for India like poverty, squatters, filth, dirt and corruption. It is not to say that these things are not present but the argument is there are certain other things too that need a mention. The details about India represented in these narratives were the result of previously chalked out plan of travelling and representing. Each writer has represented exactly what they had decided to represent and this has been demonstrated through the analysis of the texts and titles. India has been translated by the authors and not represented; no country can ever be represented as there are numerous interfering forces which can never allow the representation to be unbiased and accurate. Thus, the narratives are translation as they provide actual translation of whatever is understood by them, word to word, event to event, with no reference to the past and present of the events. They see waters in temples stagnating and they translate this fact as observed by them without even considering the reasons for the stagnation when the sanctity still holds. If it would have been a representation, it would have been a bigger project of finding the roots for this massive shift, from sanctity to stagnation. However, whatever is produced by them has to be taken as true account,

“As Greenblatt reminds us, the eyewitness, real or not, functions rhetorical strategy to persuade the reader of the “authenticity” of what is reported” (Holland and Huggan 16).

Through the reading of these texts one thing that comes as a prominent feature of the study, that there actually are no contact zones available, yes there can be domination zones but the idea of contact zones is itself a myth. The representation fallacies of these contact zones argue for the tag of nonfiction to be changed. India appears to be a country of shift and transformation, though the transformation according to Naipaul and Theroux is much of the mimicry of west. Still all the three authors authenticate the development, positive or negative, through their observations and translations.

The conclusion of the study can be demonstrated through the figure below:

Each of the author exhibits the high prejudiced approach towards the country but to elaborative affect of their previous knowledge about the subcontinent and over the course of time, when the number of visits increases this interference of their previous knowledge is reduced due to their own personal observations and this reaches a threshold after which the perspective of historian is developed. William Dalyrymple could develop a broader perspective and could see a lot which remains unrecognised by Naipaul and Theroux, owes a lot to his scholarly background of being a historian. One or two visits can never be sufficient for understanding the culture and tradition of any country. It requires an intensive acquaintance with the dynamics of myths and lores of the nation to witness and reproduce the society of one country. The present can never exist in isolation; it is always guided by the past, the belief, religions, lores and the tradition. To understand, the present one need to understand the past and the complete architectonics of the forming forces of the past, this does not only include the major personalities and societies but the small tribes and the people who otherwise seem to be unimportant. There exist a relation between visits and prejudices and this relation is inversely proportional. Therefore, scribbling on the paper whatever is seen can no way be authentic representation, as few months of stay in any country cannot be sufficient in reaching the threshold. This point towards the major fault of translations and that is, these translations are made after giving an ariel view to the people and their society. Representations, somehow needs much extensive and intensive digging of the past for making sense of present.


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