For some, being a traveler can be a tiring business. Forced by an automatic reflex, they are compelled to record in words everything they see; continuously making little scrolls of descriptions and burying them inside the numerous crevices of the brain, flagged with “stickies” as an aide memoire. The problem arises when he or she decides to make a book of it.
The book under review is a travelogue of Spain and as its author testifies in the preface, it is a “diary of sorts” and, also by her own admission, “insignificant perhaps, compared to great travel books by great travel writers”.
Leave out the “perhaps” and perhaps these are the most convincing words that author Ranjita Biswas writes in the book.
Trinidad-born, Oxford-educated V. S. Naipaul spun his trilogy on India out of a poor, recently-freed country and he had his sensibilities sharply tuned to the borrowed prissiness of the new elite and the nervousness of being left alone (by the British) of everyone else below them.
We have now here a book where the author — third world witnessing first world — finds nothing bad to write about in the country she is visiting, going on and on about how beautiful everything there is and doing it in dazed, arid, unidimensional prose, which never lifts off the page.
The book presents to the reader a series of undistinguished sights, recorded with an uncannily indiscriminating pair of eyes. She describes a church she visits in Barcelona as “beautiful”, another at another place as “fabulous”, a garden as “beautiful”, same garden as “beautifully tiered” in the next line, and so on, alternating between the two adjectives, leaning in favour of the former.
Elsewhere, at a house, she is introduced by a guide to “richly embellished” quarters with “fabulous” tiles in the room, complete with a “richly worked” balcony. The word “white” is seldom allowed without it being stalked by “pristine”. She has a neat way of describing buildings as “renaissance”, “baroque”, and “neo-classical”.
If only we all were art history students.
She continues, for most part, in the same pastel-shade monotony — unless when some genuine work of art or nature takes her “breath away”, an occasion which happens often enough for one to notice.
Every time the author begins a new chapter with a new place she has visited — Cordoba, Barcelona, et al — the reader waits like a hungry supplicant at the door; all he gets is a faint echo of clanging promise wafting out as the mistress potters about.
To pad up the text, Biswas has written snatches of local history, peppered with interesting trivia related to local bandits, religious sects, artists (Picasso, Goya) and local cuisine. But while with one hand she laboriously sketches a scene out of the past, with the other she tends to ruin it with what seems like a childhand scrawling, the hard pressing of the pencil or colouring out of lines. Consider:
“In its heyday, Cordoba was the most modern city in Europe. Accounts say that the streets were well-paved, with raised sidewalks for pedestrians. During the night, the main streets were illuminated by lamps. This was much before capitals like Paris or London in Europe had the same privilege. Cordoba also had 900 public baths. The story goes that a Moor would go without bread rather than soap.”
Continuing, she writes, and this is the other hand at work: “All you out there, marketing teams of MNCs and creative teams in ad agencies, think of the market you’d have had those days selling personal products!”
Notice the exclamation sign. Stuck like an epitaph at the end of the paragraph.
The text drips with pop emotion — “call me a sentimental fool” she says once — and cliches and, after a point, one is no more interested in reading what seems like a 200-plus page brochure of a travel company.
The prose trundles on towards the quotidian. The author parades the magnificence of Spain before one’s eyes as cardboard floats on a tableaux, one after another in quick succession, hurling mute adjectives at this building or that statue, and fails to touch even once the viativ nerve of the reader who has spent an evening in the vain hope of eye-touching the hem of the fabled peninsula.