After reading a fairly large number of books of the genre, good Travel writing I have concluded, is mostly about how well you get to know the author while she recounts experiences of far away places. And to get good travel writing to become great, the only additional ingredient necessary (other than the obvious pre-requisite of the writer having reasonably felicity with language) is an interesting author.
Jaswant Singh’s ‘Travels in Transoxiana’ is about his visits to various places in Central Asia, mostly as a commoner, except in one or two trips where his official status as one of India’s leading politicians does get about (after all he was India’s foreign minister for almost a full term and by most accounts a pretty good one).
Central Asia is the stuff of legend. And for most Indians with a sense of history, the region is particulary interesting since most of our invaders came from there in waves throughout history. And also because, as the eastern edge of the old Soviet Union, it was fairly inaccesible to most people for a long time.
The sweep of history is very much the primary fodder for this book. Babur & Akbar. Changez & Taimur. The Eastern Moghulistan & Chaghatayid Khanate. All of these are woven into the early pages, setting this book right in the middle of Central Asia’s most alluring feature – its violent, nomadic, ‘alive’ history. But it goes beyond.
The author’s visceral dislike (and indeed disdain) of the soviet state is one of the most obvious threads running through this book. And since I cannot bring myself to like the State under most circumstances, I can empathise with this view. Interestingly, in some of the writing clearly pre-dating the momentous events of 9/11, jaswant Singh speculates that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would have big consequences for the Soviet state as well as as for the wider world – a perceptive man. As we know, Jaswant Singh (along with Strobe Talbott of the US) was the prime architect of a new dynamic of co-operation between India & the United States. After reading this book, one understands the convictions in the man that shaped this substantial transformation in Indian foreign policy.
And soon the book elevates itself to become a good travel book – for every so often, the man inside the statesman shines through. A wicked sense of humour peeks out at various points. I have often wondered what goes on behind the facade of the grave, baritone of impeccably argued speech that one saw from Mr Singh on TV. And now that I have read this book – a gurgling laugh, welling up inside, chortling at the absurdity of things, is what I suspect it was.
The book starts a bit stilted – other travel writers I am sure have been better at the craftsmanship of writing. But in spite of that, I think this is an example of pretty good travel writing. For in the end, this book has clearly been an account of the travels to far away places of a very interesting man. And that is not something one can say of a lot of travel writing.