Travel Writing and the Empire

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Item Code: NAG623
Author: Sachidananda Mohanty
Publisher: Katha
Language: English
Edition: 2003
ISBN: 9788187649366
Pages: 208
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 290 gm
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The Empire has had its mechanisms of perpetuating itself, of ensuring its stability and growth. And in the context of a colonial set up, travel is one of them. Travel has been a mode of assessment of territory, of knowledge gathering, and of putting a discursive system into place. This volume, edited and introduced by Sachidananda Mohanty, brings to you the range of hidden discourses that constituted the classificatory grids of the project of colonialism.




Though travel and travel writing have always fascinated human beings ever since the dawn of human history, travel literature as a genre has been traditionally regarded as a form of entertainment and relaxation rather than as a matter worthy of serious scholarly or literary attention. True, we have always been captivated by travel narratives - Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and R L Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey, to mention only two examples. We might even confess in more honest moments that travel books of an Aldous Huxley, a D H Lawrence, or a Graham Greene might edge out other heavyweights in their sheer magic of appeal and power of captivation.


It is not just its universal appeal to human nature ‘across all cultures that makes travel literature powerful and irresistible. In recent times, newer approaches to literary studies such as colonial discourse, gender, postcolonial, and translation studies have brought travel and travel literature to the forefront of the mainstream academia. Such approaches have contributed to a radical revision of our understanding of the literary texts and the social contexts, the politics of representation and more fundamentally, the way in which disciplines, previously seen as compartmentalized and at odds with each other, appear to mutually reinforce in terms of the gathering of knowledge and the understanding of social behaviour.


While travelling is often seen as synonymous with leisure, there are many forms of travel that are prompted by considerations other than leisure - matters of exigency and survival, for instance. Bands of hunters and food-gatherers from early human history, travelling in search of prey or fresh pastures, have been a universal phenomenon. Although it has been valorized, at times as a conscious and significant act carrying moral, intellectual and spiritual Significance, it would be far from true to suggest that all travelling is exclusively or precisely of this kind. Whether at war or at peace, travel has always gone hand in hand with the march of human civilization. The image of the journey or voyage, as in The Illiad, The Tempest, The Ramayana, or in “The Ancient Mariner,” has often served as a universal archetype for the human condition and man’s turbulent passage through the world.


Indeed, if we were to think of one single term that would sum up the sustained and near-universal drive for cultural travel throughout the world ever since recorded history, it would perhaps be the ceaseless human urge for exploration. The drive for exploration is an insistent fact of life, constantly observed. It is repeatedly inscribed in all the great literatures of the world - the Miltonic Adam looking down on the beatific earth, Ulysses’ ceaseless voyages to strive, to seek to conquer and never to yield, Prospero’s magical creations in Shakespeare’s island of imagination, Rasselas’ yearning to leave the “Happy Valley,” the epic journeys of a Dante and Virgil; or Nachiketa and Orpheus’ entry into the World of the Dead. Similarly, the great Middle Eastern narratives of the Arabian Nights and Sin bad the Sailor, the travels of the spiritual pilgrim in the East, the time travellers of an H G Wells, or the scientific adventures of Jules Verne’s fantasy world - all underlie the universal desire for travel. I It must he man’s deep idealism and endless longing that make him a perpetually dissatisfied wayfarer. Indeed, following Susan Sontag we may say that all serious thought struggles with a feeling of homelessness. The traveller’s deliberate denial of roots makes him a ceaseless wayfarer.


Travel writing as a genre has moved out from the earlier periphery of guide books and has come centre stage today. It has accommodated within its fold, while simultaneously critiquing the various social, cultural and ethnographic discourses that lend it a richly textured significance. It is instructive to find in this context Paul Fussell in his book Abroad: British Literary Travelling; between Wars making a useful distinction between an explorer, traveller and tourist. As Fussell suggests:


“Explorers,” according to Hugh and Pauline Massingham, “are to the ordinary traveller what the Saint is to the average Church congregation ...” No traveller, and certainly no tourist, is ever knighted for his performances, although the strains he may undergo can be as memorable as an explorer’s. All three make journeys, bu t the explorer seeks the undiscovered, the traveller, that which has been discovered by the mind working in history, the tourist that which has been discovered by entrepreneurship and prepared for him by the arts of mass publicity. The genuine traveller is, or used to be, in the middle between the two extremes. If the explorer moves towards the risks of the formless and the unknown, the tourist moves towards the security of pure cliche. It is between these two poles that the traveller mediates, retaining all he can of the excitement or the unpredictable attaching to exploration and fusing that with the pleasure of “knowing where one is” belonging to tourism.


While much of postcolonial theory today tends to equate travel invariably with empire, recent works such as the one by Joan Pao Rubies entitled Travel and Ethnicity in the Renaissance. suggests that there is actually a sense of diversity in the European perception of the rest of the world from fourteenth to the nineteenth century, “that travellers may reproduce local knowledge and prejudices as much as import some of their own ...” What Rubies allows us to see is the pre history of an imperial discourse without allowing us the lazy comfort of a teleology which sees Renaissance travel accounts as a prelude to the Orientalists’ imagination.


It is, however, noteworthy that the advent of large empires, beginning with the early nineteenth century in different parts of the world, gave rise to special forms of travel. Of course, it would be erroneous and plainly unhistorical to suggest that colonial travel did not exist prior to the nineteenth century. In Europe itself, the exploits of conquerors such as Alexander the Great, Hannibal and Napoleon inspired travel for conquest and subjugation. Not all individuals were motivated by the spirit of exploitation and appropriation, however. Several had more honourable intentions, and undertook journeys braving formidable obstacles for the sake of building cultural bridges as Huen Tsang did in seventh Century AD. It is true that the question of motive is analyzed critically within the academia today. However, we may be making a serious error by ignoring the issue or treating it as completely suspect.


However, it testifies to the power of the colonial state and not so subtle systems of rewards and punishments that the colonial administrative apparatus was capable of promoting cultural travel of a select kind. The collusion and coalition between the colonial state and cultural institutions such as are manifest in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) begun by George V, reveals points of contact between knowledge and power. It is instructive to note that institutions like the SOAS that are recognized today for carrying out valuable research had earlier enjoyed a colonial mandate.


It is only now that we are beginning to understand the full extent of this interface and its debilitating influence. The “willing consent” of the ruled based on the internalization of colonial values at the deeper psychological level offers us instructive lessons for understanding colonial travel, then as well as now. Narratives of the nineteenth century, both adventure as well as science fiction, repeatedly enact their stories on a soil that presents itself as remote and exotic. H Rider Haggard’s adventure novels or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ celebrated Tarzan tales set in the deepest forests of Africa, recurrently punctuate the narrative with the mines of a King Solomon or civilizations of the Lost Whites in the heart of black Africa, just as Starship Enterprise’s journey into outer space may represent the ultimate in Western imagination for conquest and colonization.


Indeed, Mary Louise Pratt in her pioneering work Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, formulates the important concept of “contact zones.” These zones, according to her, are “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination.” Thus, travel writing is viewed as one of the ideological apparatuses of the empire. Pratt uses the term “transculturation” to describe how subordinate groups absorb dominant cultures. Contact zones, according to her, are determined by the extent of transculturation.


Thus, sponsored or institution-backed travel in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, even when carried out under the guise of a more honorific study and research, often concealed a set of aims, objectives and agenda ulterior in motive. The rapid growth of area studies in Western universities often went hand in hand with the colonial enterprise. The introduction of foreign language schools for the study of regional cultures was prompted, for the most part, by the need to generate a favourable climate for conducting diplomacy, commerce, business, and also war.” The institutional history of many such centres in Britain, France and Belgium, the major colonial powers, often parallels the trajectory of their overseas missions and their cultural empire in the postcolonial period - French-speaking enclaves in North and West Africa, Anglophone nations in Asia and Africa, and Spanish-speaking Latin America. Knowledge of the history of colonial institutions adds immeasurably to our understanding of power and patronage behind cultural travel. While culture is ostensibly treated as a soft option, the mobilization of colonial resources, both by the State as well as through private efforts, indicates the historic role actually played by sponsored travel in the domestication of the colonial empire.


While it would be sweeping to push all travel literature under an all- purpose political or imperial design, the fact remains that it is during the consolidation of large empires in the nineteenth century that we see travel literature betraying a particular awareness of the ideological and political. That is how travel writing often became a site for the collision and contestation of power. Such accounts could be variously read as a means of cultural domination and appropriation, and alternately as identity formation under colonial rule.


Indeed, it is only now that we are beginning to realize in India, thanks to the new scholarship in the field of gender, tribal, minorities, ethnic and subaltern studies, the disturbingly pronounced use of the travel motif for cultural appropriation. The exhibition of our tribal population, their lifestyle and heritage through safari-like travel, results inevitably in cultural tourism, just as the display, sale and consumption of ethnic ware, through the pan-Indian cinema and advertisement campaigns, result in the commodification of culture. The passage of our exotic North East through the Republic Day tableaux may bolster the Indian State and its increasing reliance on the military, but it conceals the many wars of attrition and insurrection, pervasive in our near-breakaway provinces.


We see a similar pattern in the use of the travel motif of the colonial kind in the world of advertisement. The sex appeal evoked by the exhilarating puff of a Charms cigarette or the welcome sip of Nescafe always precedes in cinemascope a controlled adventure in the cinematic jungle. The hero’s destined encounter with a domestic man-eater forever wins gratitude from the maiden in distress around the glowing campfire, just as the advertisement for Bajaj Sunny, the popular two-wheeler, shows the White traveller merrily riding off into the distance as the group of blacks gape helpless, stupified.


Several categories are often seen embodied in travel motifs that are deployed in the advertisement world and elsewhere: orality-literacy, nature-nurture, primitivism-civilization. Similarly, the celebration of the exotic through such recurrent images as vacation cruises to Tangiers and Casablanca or voyages to Congo, Sierra Leone or India reveal the working of the “Orientalist” and other fantasies. These could range from the enormously popular tales like The Sheikh set in the Middle East and other texts mentioned by Ketaki Dyson in a A Various Universe, to those by sophisticated travel writers such as D H Lawrence, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, Mark Twain, Harriet Tytler, Carlos Fuentes, Pico Iyer, as well as British and American travellers in India.


With the advent of colonial modernity in the nineteenth century in India, we see a form of colonial travel within India as a geographical space. The element of keenness and curiosity evidenced by those who took the early Indian railways, for instance, can be seen in early travelogues in the various Indian languages. In the Oriya author Sashibhushan Ray’s Dakhinatya Bhramana, (Travel to the South), 1897, for example, we see precisely such a trend. There is much of local colour here, aside from a discovery of new lands and regions. But there is also the self’s encounter with the mighty power of the British Empire. Similar narratives, many of which have been discovered by archival research, would clearly enhance a better understanding of travel and colonial rule in British India.


Twentieth century travel writing by Western authors displays richly complex and often rewarding ways of dealing with the exotic. Michael Wood’s The Smile if Murugan or William Dalrymple’s Delhi: The City of Djinns are interesting examples of this trend. Components of John Master’s fictional narratives are open to an Orientalist reading. Similarly, diasporic Indian academics and physicians like Abraham Verghese offer travel narratives that serve as a typical rite de passage to a new world. On the other hand, according to some, even “progressive” travel writers are not free from the colonial gaze. For instance, Ilija Trojanow contends that “progressive” intellectuals like Gunter Grass and Pier Paolo Pasolini, champions of the Left, “mirror the imperial hegemony of the first world while simultaneously denouncing it. By refusing to enter into a relationship with what they describe, by refusing to lose themselves in the unknown and let themselves be changed, they deny differences and the evolution of a hybrid discourse.”


Travel in the twentieth century thus comes through an amazing variety of ways such as diaspora, migration, exile, excursion and exploration and there is rich literature in each of these categories. One of the significant manifestations of travel in this sense is travel account by women. Following the theoretical formulations of Mary Louise Pratt and Sara Mills, women critics like Margaret Macmillan, Indrani Ghose, and Indrani Sen have critically studied the women travel writers of the Raj. They argue that colonial space was a gendered terrain. They explore the interface between colonialism and gender representation. This is a new and fruitful area of enquiry that opens up newer avenues of research into travel writing from the woman’s point of view.


Another interesting dimension of travel in the twentieth century has been with regard to the issue of faith or pilgrimage. We see in this context travel accounts of writers like Paul Brunton and Sister Nivedita. To what extent their sympathetic narratives of India were free from the colonial bias is a matter for debate and exploration.


That travel writing is more than a geographical account, local colour, spirit of place, or depiction of manners and morals, and is actually a form of a memoir, an autobiography, dates back to Emerson and Thoreau, if not to the earlier masters. What is radically new is perhaps the perception that travel books map out the territories-of the mind, define contours of nations and communities, and determine forms of cultural and political representations. They mediate across disciplinary boundaries and knowledge systems. Thus, while the earlier approaches retain their charm and validity, the newer ones pose challenges to our earlier paradigms. Properly handled, they illuminate our understanding of society and culture.


This volume is based on the assumption that travel writing’s intersection with the empire, especially during the nineteenth century, ends in a unique configuration. Travel narratives especially in the postcolonial context often become self-assuring exercises, a site for the collision and contestation of cultures, and for the natives the internalization of their subject status. India has been a particular site for this kind of writing. Recent developments in theory have also made travel writing a more fruitful area in cultural study. Viewed from this angle, many travel books seem to show an enigmatic mix of conflicting drives. William Dalrymple’s well known novel The White Mughals provides an interesting example of such a cultural mix.


The main focus of this study is the Indo-British cultural encounter through the mode of travel, although there is a comparative perspective from Persia as well.


The volume attempts to bring together a set of reflective essays that straddle many disciplines and newly emerging areas of study such as colonial discourse, gender, and postcolonial studies. It contains ten chapters, all of which are focussed on the imperial dimension of travel writing. While the introduction believes that travel is not always foredoomed to a colonial gaze and can aspire to look beyond the imperial eye, the contributors to the volume negotiate and answer this question in varied ways.


“Travel Writing and British Studies” by Susan Bassnett, explains the primary reasons as to why travel writing has come centre stage today. This essay, it may be said, offers a rationale for the preparation of this volume. As the opening chapter, it unveils exciting possibilities latent in the emerging discipline of travel writing as a genre.


In the next chapter, “Hajji Baba: Ideological Basis of the Persian Picaro,” Pallavi Pandit Laisrarn examines nineteenth century European construction of Persia through a specific novel with a travel motif. There is a rich understanding here of the Islamic world vis a vis the Western perceptions of the Middle East. Following Susan Bassnett’s excellent introduction to the theme of travel, as a corollary, this essay offers an important comparative perspective regarding the colonial gaze of the Orient as manifest in Western travel accounts of Persia.


Continuing the theme of Western travel accounts, albeit of a radically different kind, “Porous Boundaries and Cultural Crossover: Fanny Parkes and ‘Going Native’” by the British travel writer William Dalrymple, underlines hybridities and mixed motives that characterize some of the Indo-British encounters. Dalrymple argues that the earlier interactions between the British and the native Indians, as recorded in travel accounts by Fanny Parkes, prior to 1857, suggest a greater mingling in inter racial terms. This account is in refreshing contrast to some of the recent postcolonial thinking that suggests a more rigid boundary line between the colonial rulers and the natives.


An important dimension of the colonial rule in India was the British Prison system or remote islands such as the Andamans, known as Kala pani that acted as penitentiaries. “Colonialism, Surveillance and Memoirs of Travel: Tegart’s Diaries and the Andaman Cellular Jail” by Tutun Mukherjee relates memoirs of British functionaries with colonial incarcerations. It specifically looks at a very interesting dimension of the machinery of the colonial state. Thereby, the chapter promotes the discourse on colonial travel in India.


In continuation of the same theme with a different subject matter, “Propaganda as Travelogue: A Study of Katherine Mayo’s Mother India” by Mohammed Zaheer Basha, makes a fresh assessment of Mother India, earlier castigated by M K Gandhi. This book, we may recall, became a powerful instrument for the national freedom struggle. It is a critique of Mayo that continues the traditional reading of the text.


The following chapter, “Constitutive Contradiction: Travel Writing and Construction of Native Women in Colonial India” by Sindhu Menon reveals a new dimension to the colonial travel. It offers an admirable interface between travel literature and gender studies. It suggests that Western “male travellers often give lyrical accounts of the appearance and appeal of the Indian women.”


Taking the discussion to a hitherto unexplored area, Pramod K Nayar’s “Touring Aesthetics: The Colonial Rhetoric of Travel Brochures Today,” shows the texts of travel brochures in. India containing colonial rhetoric. It adopts a “literary approach” locating certain tropological features in them. It concludes that the tourist brochures create “both a shikari (hunter) and an aesthete in its tourist.” This chapter deals with an important aspect of the popular sub-culture in India from the point of view of colonial travel.


In recent years, new and fruitful research has been carried out in the field of regional literature and culture in India. In “Empire Writes Back? Kannada Travel Fiction and Nationalist Discourse” by VB Tharakeshwar, we see a fresh dimension that links travel writing with nationalist discourse, especially in Karnataka. It attempts to explore “the process of the formation of a nationalist identity through travels as witnessed in the Kannada travelogues and also in Kannada fiction where travel is major component.” This is an area that is currently under debate in many social scientific disciplines.


A fascinating but little known aspect of colonial travel has been recorded by those who visited the courts of kings and nawabs during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. “Hyderabad Through Foreign Eyes” by Narendra Luther, is an emblematic account of the seat of the Deccan as seen through the eyes of foreigners.


The essays, logically connected, thus deal with the interface between the travel narrative and the empire. They speak in many voices and assume many positionalities. That the empire is alive and well despite political emancipation of the former colonies, is an unstated assumption of postcolonial thinking. And yet, it seems to me that travel narratives can overcome the Manichean divide between cultures and establish bondings across political frontiers.






Introduction: Beyond the Imperial Eye


The Empire, Travel Writing, and British Studies


Hajji Baba: Ideological Basis of the Persian Picaro


Porous Boundaries and Cultural Crossover: Fanny Parkes and “Going Native”


Colonialism, Surveillance and Memoirs of Travel: Tegart’s Diaries and the Andaman Cellular Jail


Propaganda as Travelogue: A Study of Katherine Mayo’s Mother India


Constitutive Contradictions: Travel Writing and Construction of Native Women in Colonial India


Touring Aesthetics: The Colonial Rhetoric of Travel Brochures Today


Empire Writes Back? Kannada Travel Fiction and Nationalist Discourse


Hyderabad Through Foreign Eyes


Select Bibliography


Biographical Notes


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