Jaipur Literature Festival 2021: In this year's Travel Session, an examination of what writing in the domain might accomplish
All travelled up.
Among the few recurring sessions at the Jaipur Literature Festival is The Travel Session. The premise is simple enough — a few travel writers (or just your plain ‘ol writers who have written something related to travel) share the stage to read from their books, followed by a general chat on the subject. Festival Director William Dalrymple not only helms the proceedings (almost always), but also reads the same passage from From the Holy Mountain when he takes over the mic, in what one can only hope is his attempt at some long-running joke.
This year, if you hadn’t noticed, things have been a bit different. And so was the travel session, for better or worse. Apart from the obvious, the first noticeable difference was the missing Dalrymple (no complaints there; let the new blood flow). British journalist and travel writer Monisha Rajesh sat in the driver's seat, and joining her were not six-seven (as is the case usually) authors, but only three — Jeremy Seal, Taran N Khan and Samira Shackle.
The session began with (surprise!) each reading a passage from their books. Shackle, British journalist, read from her new book Karachi Vice: Life and Death in a Contested City. A rather nonchalant Seal (the group’s ‘Turkey expert’) read from his 2012 book, Meander: East to West, Indirectly, Along a Turkish River. Khan, a journalist based in Mumbai, read from her new book, Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul. And finally Rajesh read from her 2019 published Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000-Mile Adventure.
While the session never touched upon one of the suggested topics from its description – discussing “the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on travel writing”, it did cover some ground regarding the role of travel writing in a technologically advanced world and what makes for a compelling travel read.
In the age of the internet, social media and Google Maps, Seal suggested that it’s the quality of travel writing that cannot be reproduced by the tsunami of easily available information, which is produced with little thought put into it. Agreeing, Shackle said that it is important how travel writing manages to show places in a new light, while exploring history and politics. Khan, who travelled through Pakistan between 2006 and 2013 for her book and recorded Kabul’s transformation, pointed to the crucial difference between a narrative and just plain information. Travel writing is never going to go away, she added.
But does one need to have a relationship with a particular place to write compellingly about it? In Seal’s opinion, while it’s not necessary to have a previous connect with a place to write about it, one certainly needs a reason to be invested in it. Shackle, whose mother hails from Pakistan, shared the notion, while Khan talked about the importance of having the right intentions behind the writing and a sense of curiosity.
The session closed with a Q&A round, interrupted by an almost obligatory technical glitch. Guess travel, and the resulting writing, will endure after all.
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