The Possibility of ‘Counter Travel’ in the Age of ‘Belated Travelers’: Tahir Shah as a Counter Traveler in Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Rima Barua is a Ph.D Scholar in the Department of English, North Eastern Hill University. Her doctoral research investigates the travel narratives of the Anglo-Afghan travel writer, Tahir Shah with the aim of analyzing the role of migration as an alternative travel pattern in Travel Writing Studies.
Travel Writing as a genre has received critical attention only recently. The growing popularity of the genre among the reading public led to an increase in its commercial success and academic interest. However, the commercial success and popularity enjoyed by the genre served as the cause of its disapproval by various critics who discarded it as a morally dubious literary form. The popularity of travel writing is believed to come from its ability to promote racial and cultural superiority even in the present global world and for maintaining the rigid divisions between home and abroad, occident and orient, center and periphery. It was for this ability that travel writing became a primary tool in the hands of the European colonizers for the propagation of imperial designs. The use of the genre in Empire building during the imperial period and its complicity with imperialism is an important topic in Travel Writing Studies. What however, this paper seeks to analyze is the present scenario of travel writing which highlights that travel writing is still entangled in its imperial past. This has led to its critique as a genre which rather than paying attention to contemporary realities of the world, tries to escape from it. Gripped by a nostalgia for the days of Empire, where differences between people and places were more prominent, contemporary travelers have turned into ‘belated travelers’ who still knowingly or unknowingly serve to secure the practices of Empire. But what is interesting to note is that if contemporary travel writing is filled with ‘belated travelers’, there are also ‘counter travelers’ trying to come to terms and negotiate with the tainted past of travel writing looking for ways and means to revitalize the genre. If globalization has caused travel writers to believe that there is nothing new left to talk about the world, it has also paved the way for new patterns of travel and new travelling subjects who have problematized the fixed definitions of ‘home’ and ‘abroad’, ‘insider’ and ‘outsider,’ self and other and thus have provided a renewed look at the very act of border crossing. Diasporic travelers or travelers with complex hyphenated identities have contributed new inputs to the area of travel writing. Such travelers being aware of their complex backgrounds defy settled generic categories like borders, self, other, home, abroad etc. The paper thus seeks to deal with the British Afghan travel writer, Tahir Shah whose works have attained popularity for providing alternative ways of approaching cultures and people. His works present a departure from stereotypical ways of dealing with the self and the other and clarify that though travel writing is enmeshed in the history of Empire, yet the present global setup facilitates various ways of negotiating with the past. The paper will try to highlight the major aspects of Shah’s writings with reference to one of his popular texts, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The novel traces Shah’s journey to India and thus serves as an interesting site for analyzing a diasporic travel writer’s representation of encounters, cultural clashes, and interpretation of differences and familiarity in a country which was a former British colony.
Keywords: Travel, Nostalgia, Belated Travelers, Counter Travelers, Globalization
Travelers mostly see the world and communicate their observation through an interpretive framework or through the discourses provided by their cultures. Travel writing is identified by many as a mode of colonialist discourse that continues to deploy imperialist tendencies even after the end of the days of empire. Travel writing is enmeshed in the history of empire and thus the role of empire in the production of travel literature is irrefutable.It is a cultural form steeped in imperialist attitudes and imagery. Both colonization and travel writing function on the logic of ‘othering’ people and cultures. Carl Thomson observes that there are two ways by which the process of othering works:
In a weaker, more general sense, ‘othering’ simply denotes the process by which the members of one culture identify and highlight the differences between themselves and the members of another culture. In a stronger sense, however it has come to refer more specifically to the process and strategies by which one culture depicts another culture as not only different but also inferior to itself.
It is the second sense that relates travel writing to Western Imperialism because the tendency
of travel writers to portray other cultures as patronizing served the primary purpose of imperialism as a justification for dominance and colonization. Travelling accounts of colonial travelers thus not only helped them to present their community as superior over the others they describe but also provided a moral justification for their intervention in these places. The connection of imperialism and travel writing during the imperial period can thus be well understood. But the question is why is the genre not able to come out of its connections to imperialist attitudes, myths and prejudices even in contemporary times?
In the period of globalization, travel writing is assumed to change its tone and depart from the ways and power structures that existed in the imperial period but that does not seem to be the case. Debbie Lisle in her book, The Global Politics of Contemporary Travel Writing (2006) has argued that though contemporary travel writers have incorporated a cosmopolitan approach in their writings whereby differences are celebrated and encounters with the other are shown in a more positive way yet this approach is “not as emancipatory as it claims to be; rather, it is underscored by the remnants of Orientalism, colonialism and Empire”
( Lisle 5).
Such an approach though might be preferable is nevertheless a palatable means
of articulating and reproducing the same hierarchical relations as universal
standards of viewing ‘other’ cultures. This is done by a celebration of
differences whereby those differences are not judged as better or worse but are
simply accepted. Thus, contemporary travel narratives continue to function on
the logic of difference by sustaining the privileged position of the traveler
and his readers waiting to consume images of the ‘other’ that assure them of
their superiority. There however lies an important cause behind this tendency
on the part of the travel writers to fall back upon their colonial precursors
even in contemporary times. An analysis of this problem will help in
understanding Tahir Shah’s approach to travel writing which do not necessarily
use the guise of cosmopolitanism, tolerance and equality to produce accounts of
otherness. Lisle also clarifies that be it colonial or cosmopolitan travel
narratives, both categories “rely on stable geographical borders to locate
difference and secure identity” ( Lisle 9). Shah on the other
hand addresses the ambiguities and intricacies brought about by the very act of
border crossing which question the stability of geopolitical borders as markers
of difference. He in fact shows not just the mobility of people but the
mobility of cultures and most importantly the shift and transgression of
borders of the mind formed during the imperial period which is still being
secured by travel writers.
A troubling question that haunts travel writing in the contemporary times is regarding the relevance and future of travel writing. The map of the world is almost definite at this stage with its blank spaces filled and writers assume that there are no new spaces left to be explored. Globalization on the other hand had made travel banal and common place and no longer a risk and a challenge. Besides the access to the internet and google maps have paved the way for virtual travel and made the existence of travel writing problematic. Modern travel writing thus is believed to be belated devoid of providing authentic experiences that can cater to the needs of the readers. As such contemporary travel writers fall prey to what anthropologist Renato Rosaldo has termed as “Imperialist Nostalgia” is “a particular kind of nostalgia, often found under imperialism, where people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed”
(69). The most
significant aspect of Imperialist Nostalgia is that ituses “a pose of innocent
yearning” to make “racial domination appear innocent and pure” (68; 70). Through this the writer and the
reader mourn the passing of a world, they themselves have altered and engage in
wistful reminiscences of the simpler ways of life. Contemporary travel writers
use this technique to conceal or to mystify their economic motives. Travel Narratives governed by
Imperialist Nostalgia become demonstrations of what Rojek and Urry call, “the
performativity of reminiscences”, a process by which objects lose their
original essence and get layered with secondary images, values and associations”
(14).Secondly instead of being located in
the space and time of the present, such travel narratives take the readers back
to the days of empire neglecting the need to grapple with present issues. Imperialist
Nostalgia thus has made travel writing outdated, redundant and highly clichéd. Travel writers who indulge in Imperialist Nostalgia
are referred to as ‘Belated Travelers’, a term used by Ali Behdad in his book, Belated
Travelers in the Age of Colonial Dissolution (1994). Such travelers experience a sense of nostalgic
desire to explore and discover the Orient which has long captured their
imagination but unfortunately, they collide with a sense of displacement, both
in time and place, after witnessing the complete disappearance of the Orient’s
glamour and enchantment because of globalization. As such they engage in
Imperialist Nostalgia, moving back in time, trying to make sense of places not
in accordance to the present realities but through a former discourse (colonialist
or orientalist) set as a rule for approaching the Orient.
However, writers like Carl Thomson, Pattrick Holland and Graham Huggan are of the view that not all travel writers are alike. While Holland and Huggan point out that “ it would be as foolish to claim of travel writing that it is uniformly imperialistic as it would be to defend travel writers as being harmless entertainers” (9), Carl Thomson similarly highlights a “surge of travelogues by individuals from formerly colonized cultures or, alternatively, by western travelers descendants of formerly subject, ‘subaltern’ peoples” which highlight the presence of other voices and other perspectives on the world (163). These writers seek to challenge western stereotypes and attitudes and are seen to engage in a counter discourse as opposed to the colonialist discourse. As such their travel narratives can to be referred to as “Counter travel writing” a term used by Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan in their seminal work, Tourists with Typewriters to refer to those contemporary travel narratives that run on a counter discourse, in opposition to the dominant tendency of the travel writing genre (50). Counter Travel Writing not only combats centuries of European prejudice that has wholly consumed the genre but also encourages readers to adjust their attitudes and perceptions to the contemporary cultural climate. These travel narratives not only inspire crossing physical boundaries but also mental boundaries as they prefer flexibility, resilience to rigidity and stillness. A special characteristic of counter travel writing is that every obstacle that threatens or would have threatened the existence of travel literature is converted into a strength. Such narratives question the boundaries between experience and imagination, movement and immobility, the virtual world and the real world, self and the other, home and abroad. They also question the relevance of the definitions that are given to the basic components of a travel narrative: movement, space and experience. These texts are difficult to grasp as they encompass different types of writing such as novels. Poems, diaries, pictures, fiction, non-fiction, etc. Thus, counter travel writing push boundaries, are open to change and are challenging to approach. As a diasporic travelling subject, Tahir Shah’s subject position is complicated owing to his hyphenated identity and his exposure to cultural diversity. He is a migrant who has never visited his ancestral homeland, but he frequently visited Morocco which was told to be similar to his homeland (Afghanistan) in many respects by his father. In 2003, Shah uprooted himself and his family to Morocco. The mixed cultural backgrounds, and complex hyphenated identities of diasporic travelers such as Shah make them more conscious of the complex legacies of Empire carried by the genre and networks of power and trade that connect the world today. Their connections with several cultures produce dialectics of attachment and detachment and present ways of inhabiting a space between individual privilege and responsibility. Migration thus facilitates in the production of counter travel narratives that challenge colonialist capitalist discourses and thereby to a greater extent helps in resisting imperialist nostalgia. Besides Carl Thomson has mentioned that these writers with hyphenated identities whose origins are not in the west have some common experience of imperial subjugation or possess knowledge of how it felt to be dominated and viewed as weak. As such they were less inclined to vilify or patronize other cultures though at present they are in some way related to the west (163-164). Shah’s works therefore contribute towards reversing travel writing’s traditional focus on the West.
At the same time however it is also made clear that even travel writers aiming to reveal cultural and historical perspectives which has otherwise been overlooked and suppressed because of the dominance of colonial ideas, must struggle to convey their views through a genre that is in many ways antithetical to such views of flexibility and novelty. This is because travel writing thrives on otherness, is a product of the consumer culture and relies on the most familiar of western myths for its existence. Travel writers thus try to conceal the economic motive though they try to fulfill it through various strategies and means, either by reproducing the same stereotypes and essentialist views directly or by presenting those same views differently from those of earlier times and places. Keeping in view the complexities and problematics of utilizing a genre like travel writing the article aims to showcase Tahir Shah’s struggles with it and his attempts at utilizing the genre keeping in view its limitations to present his new perspectives on the world. He does this by challenging the readers and adjusting their gaze not to the former stereotypical views and hegemonic ideas but to the contemporary climate.
Estrangement and Defamiliarization
Sorcerer’s Apprentice like most of Tahir Shah’s works raises the expectations of his readers by introducing a romantic motive for travel. Shah visits India in search of the conjuror Hafiz Jan in order to learn magic. Hafiz Jan was not just a conjuror but the guardian of the mausoleum of Shah’s ancestor Jan Fishan Khan, an Afghan warlord. Hafiz Jan visits Shah’s family in England when Shah was a child. Shah develops a closeness with Hafiz Jan who introduces him to the world of magic during his short stay in Shah’s house. From then Shah develops a keen interest in magic. Though he goes to India with the motive of learning magic from Hafiz Jan, Shah ends up being an apprentice of the renowned conjuror, Hakim Feroze. The very motive of travelling to India to learn magic seems to set the groundwork for exoticism and romance. The motive of travel along with the title of the novel raises the expectations of the readers just like any travel narrative governed by a colonialist discourse to provide an escape (from the monotony of modern living) into the world of magic and sorcery, to a former British colony where the former glories of Empire can be revived. The motive provides the necessary backdrop against which the traveler can present himself as an intrepid adventurer and the place he visits as a playground for the readers also to engage in thrilling adventures. The motive and the beginning of the novel appears to be similar to a travel narrative governed by a colonialist discourse providing complacency to its readers with the promise of taking them through a land of magic and romance. However,the promise of romance, adventure and exoticism provided through the motive and through the initial accounts of Shah’s arrival in India gradually begins to come in striking contrast to the present scenario of India struggling to support itself after the plunder and destruction caused by British colonization.
The documentation of the present realities of India not only de-romanticizes the place but also discards any attempt on the part of the writer to take the readers back in time and space to glorify the days of colonization in India. This is particularly evident in the sights of crumbling British architecture and algae stained walls of the British mansions which symbolize the death of the raj in India. This also suggests the country’s gradual disentanglement from the past of British dominance. The pictures of present-day India though include the ravages of empire yet they also seem to mock the herculean efforts of the British colonizers to turn India into a replica of their motherland. This is foregrounded by the observations put forward by a British traveler whom Shah meets in Calcutta:
We British doted on a city which didn’t really exist… We put up monuments to our heroes, whitewashed everything in sight, enjoyed our liveried servants and our airy bungalows on the banks of the Hoogly. We got everyone speaking English, and saluting our kings and queens: all in a desperation to create Kensington in West Bengal. But as soon as we steamed away, after Independence, Calcutta the real city- began to burgeon forth. (55-56)
In present day India the opulence and majesty of the British architecture is seen as a striking contrast to the pictures of hardships and struggles of people living in India. What Shah observes is the uselessness of such opulent structures for a common Indian whose only reality is the daily struggle for survival. An important element of imperialist nostalgia is to escape from and avoid the descriptions of the political, economic and social hardships faced by the people of the former colonies. Romanticized depictions of former colonies by travel writers is a common trait of imperialist nostalgia and are made with the aim of presenting the place as pristine, unspoiled and most importantly as being in a state of historical stasis.
Contemporary travelers usually in order to mark the difference between himself and the people of the place represent places as being stuck in an earlier historical phase which the west has supposedly outgrown. This temporal distance not only helps to highlight differences but also allows the traveler to go back in time, encountering a former colony which has not yet been able to come out of its British past. In Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the pictures of the crumbling British colonnades, decay of the imposing British palaces and mansions, the use of the classical pavilions at present for billboards, and the country with its own “agenda of survival” all discard any possibility of the place being in a state of historical stasis
(Shah 59). What becomes
gradually more prominent through the descriptions are the economic, hardships
and the material currently being faced by the people of India rather than a
glorification of the former glories of British empire in India. India is not
presented as an infantile, uncorrupted place nostalgically looking back to a
time when it was an esteemed colonial outpost. By de-romanticizing India, Shah
breaks the expectations of the readers waiting to consume images of otherness
that assure them of their superiority by taking them back to the former colonies
to speak of the former glories of Empire. Shah therefore is seen to utilize the
troupe ofestrangement in order
to discard imperialist nostalgia. Through estrangement and defamiliarization
Shah questions the frivolous role of travel writing to merely entertain the
white readers by supplying images of exciting otherness of foreign cultures to
rejuvenate a world of domestic culture which their own cultures cannot provide.
He thus renders the otherness of the foreign place as ordinary. Elements of
excitement and romance associated with the strangeness and the difference of
the other are dismantled. The focus of the narrative is more on presenting the
immediate reality of the place rather than lapsing into nostalgia for the past.
The narrative does not set up a space for the readers to act out their private
fantasises and thereby resists such escapist fantasies of particularly the
western readers who read travel writing to temporarily escape into a world
romance and adventure.
The Wonders of the Global world
Modern travel writing is regarded to be a literature of disappointment. “Disappointment, disenchantment, disillusionment, belatedness, nostalgia: these are some of the most recurrent terms in the discussion of contemporary travel and its writings” (Cooke 2). As such there lies a dearth of the element of wonder in contemporary travel writing with there being nothing novel to present. There however lies responses to such assumptions.In the book, Travellers’ Tales of Wonder, Simon Cooke highlights the reductionist nature of such assumptions and states that such assumptions express “a highly encultured interpretation of travel and Travel Writing” (25). The problem of contemporary travel writing is that it attaches the idea of wonder to the discovery of new territories but fails to address the wonder that can arise from the various encounters that takes place in a world of global movements. Such assumptions also fail to consider the various perspectives that arises due to cultural clashes in the postmodern, globalized world. Shah provides a challenge to such reductionist assumptions of thinking the world as too well known. Simon Cooke in this regard makes a major point that wonder in contemporary travel writing has become more prominent because of the engagement of travel writing with the very issues that threaten its existence. As mentioned earlier, one of the characteristics of Counter travel writing is to transform the very obstacles of modern travel writing into strengths. Globalization which has an important hand in turning travel and travel writing into something that is banal and commonplace, has also paved the way for elements of wonder in modern travel. Shah recreates wonder in Sorcerer’s Apprentice by focussing on the changes that globalization has caused in the contemporary world.
In Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Shah primarily highlights people and their tactics of survival in the midst of hardships rather than observing places. Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a travel account that pays tribute to the ingenuity of humans in finding techniques and strategies of survival in the modern world. Modern day India is devastated by problems of over population, poverty, superstition along with natural calamities like draught, flood etc. The cause of most of the social problems is unemployment. But people in India as described by Shah are seen to have developed strategies to deal with the problem of employment. Shah gets to know about unique forms of trade in India that shows that money can be made from nothing. Here in lies the wonder of modern existence. Shah does not limit himself in presenting India as a victim of colonization and as a place devastated by the ravages of Empire but as a country which ingeniously struggles to restore itself from the devastations of colonization and its own social problems. It is while describing the various trade secrets, business strategies of the lower sections of society that Shah attaches the element of surprise and wonder to the varied ways in which sources of living are created in India. Wonder unlike colonial travel narratives is not aroused by the discovery of new places but by the discovery of new and unique tactics of survival, by highlighting the harsh realities of living in the modern times and the ability to survive under hostile conditions.
What Shah gets to see in India are unique forms of trade like gold recycling, organizing of weddings in Metro stations, Garbage Banquet, Skeleton Dealing, etc. which not only demonstrate unique ways of survival but also highlight the ingenuity of the Indian people. As asked by Hakim Feroze, Shah sets out to find insider information regarding the place and the people there and is struck with amazement to see ingenious systems of making money. He is amazed to see how the arrangement of hiring a cow from the owner for a day can serve as a source of income for many. Observing the genius of the arrangement Shah states:
Where else could you find such an ingenious system? The milkman milks the cow and then, instead of looking after it all day, gives it to a woman who pays him for the privilege of looking after the animal . . .the women charges people to feed the creature a few strands of grass. In turn, the cow’s devotees attain a sense of inner calm from their charity. The woman sells the dung to fuel -brick makers as a profitable side line. (132)
Shah is equally mesmerized to see the army of gold scroungers who sweep up the workshops of the jewelers and collect every grain of dust meticulously and then takes away the dirt for recycling in order to finally get a tiny nugget of gold. Gold sweeping in India thus not only exemplifies the exalted heights to which recycling can be taken but also sets the best example to make money out of nothing. Shah also gets to meet an impressive entrepreneur, ‘the wedding man’ who hires metro platforms by offering some tips to the station manager to allow him to use the platform for organizing weddings.
The platform solves the problem of finding a clean and a large space for a wedding along with the required facilities of toilets, televisions and speakers.In his search for insider information, Shah also gets to eat in a restaurant that serves various delicacies prepared from refuse or leftover food and in this way caters to the food cravings of the people who cannot afford to go to a restaurant. The restaurant serves as the best example of Garbage Banquet. At the same time Shah clarifies that though on one hand unemployment forces people to device such unique forms of trade, it also forces people to resort to even more unique but fraudulent and illegal ways of earning money. Shah gets to learn about the trade secrets of the illegal business of the skeleton dealers who collect unclaimed corpses and take them to the skeleton processing factory to process them into medical skeletons which are then exported to other countries. Among these fraudulent ways, the most popular and the extraordinary strategy of survival is undertaken by the Godmen of India. These so-called godmen are well acquainted with the science behind magical feats. They are nothing but illusionists who excel in magical science. They use this skill to rise themselves to the stature of god and present the illusions as miracles. They are experts in their field, well equipped and have mastered feats of illusion in such a way that unless a person is himself an expert in the field of magic, he cannot find loopholes in the performance to prove that it is science not magic. Although these godmen, sadhus, sages, fortune tellers, healers are nothing but con-artists, yet Shah cannot resist from admiring their extraordinary talents, imagination and resourcefulness that they deploy in order to survive. The unique ways of using the power of science for survival by Indian godmen is an evidence of the wonder associated with the reality of life.
Wonder is also aroused through the representation of the workings of a global world where “cultures get remade as a result of the flows of people, objects and images across national borders…” (Bhabha, Clifford and Gilroy qtd. in Rojek and Urry 11).The present world is of course a world of anxieties and pressures brought about by late modernity but it is also the time where easy mobility has filled the world with hordes of exchanges of people and ideas. The representation of such exchanges is in itself a new challenge and such presentations automatically remove banality and recreate the sense of wonder associated with travel.Diasporic writers like Shah reflect on a global diasporic world and can easily identify with the instabilities prevalent in the contemporary world. The incessant flow of people and products has brought about new changes in the world. This flow has not only produced people with hyphenated identities but has also resulted in the emergence of hybrid cultural forms. Shah in order to demonstrate the workings of a global world talks about the consumer culture in India and India’s response to cultural imperialism.
In India, Shah comes across various salesmen who reveals to Shah their unique products advertising them with new business strategies. Indian markets are not just filled with imported products but most interestingly with ‘indigenized’ products that are adopted and adapted to suit the Indian market. These products actually provide a counterthrust to the west providing a mirror that reflects the west in new angles and forms. Shah thus states that India’s commercial strategies in fact make it presently one of the biggest capitalistic nations on Earth. By referring to the process of indigenization Shah’s highlights India’s response to cultural imperialism. Not only does India produce Indian versions of foreign products but also advertises itself and its products for the western consumers. From the profitable wig business in Tirupati, to marketing itself as a place where one can receive spiritual enlightenment, India nurtures its peculiarities and markets them. The representation of such developments and changes brought about by globalization regenerates wonder in travelling and travel writing. Globalization thus no longer remains an obstacle for travel writing rather it provides opportunities for travel writing to look at places and people with renewed perspectives.
Encounters with the Travelee and the Conflicts of the Contact Zone
One of the markers of travel narratives governed by colonial discourse is to ignore interpersonal encounters and the moments and spaces of contacts known as the contact zone between the traveler and the travelee. According to Mary Louise Pratt, Contact Zones are important because, “the contact zone is an attempt to invoke the spatial and temporal co-presence of subjects previously separated by geographical and historical disjunctures and whose trajectories now intersect” (6-7).The subjects mentioned here are the traveler and the travelee both of which are not shown as separate but as interacting in the contact zones.
The term ‘travelee’ was used by Mary Louise Pratt in her book Beyond Imperial Eyes to mean “a person travelled to (or on) by the traveler, receptors of travel” (6). According to Catherine Mee, the word ‘travelee’ does not merely designate the inhabitants of a place but “encompasses everyone that comes into contact with the traveler, regardless of his identity” (4). The term ‘travelee’ can be seen as being synonymous to the term ‘other’ but unlike the term ‘other’, travelee does not carry exotic and mystical connotations. Travel Writing usually presents a traveler who is at the center of the text and whose perspective provides glimpses of the other. The traveler is seen to act on this passive travelee, photographing them, conversing with them and commenting on them. In the relation between the traveler and the travelee, the travelee is always assumed to play a passive role as the existence of the travelee is conditional to his /her encounter with the traveler and his representation of those encounters in the text. But Mee in her book, Interpersonal Encounters points out that encounters are reciprocal and the role of the travelee is far from being passive. The travelee can have an active role in not only influencing the traveller but also transforming him in his journey. Studies of the contact zones and the encounters between the traveler and travelee have questioned the passive character of the travelee. Such encounters demonstrate the capacity of the travelee to challenge and dismantle the self-sufficiency of the traveler thereby questioning the conventional role of the traveler and the travelee. Yet even in the midst of this the travelee in various travel narratives of conquest and domination is silenced as inhabitants of the periphery.
Observing the difficulty in prioritizing people over places in travel narratives, Mee points out, “People have minds of their own, they do not always conform to expectations, they can be awkward or intimidating, they can answer back” (6). As such travelers prefer to present places over people and resist from representing encounters with the travelee. The need to prioritize such encounters of conflict within travel narratives is a matter of the writer’s discretion and as such in narratives of domination, the travelee is denied agency. But Pratt talks about the possibility of studying travel from the perspective of those who participate on the receiving end of travel. This is clear in Pratt’s observation,
If one studied only what the Europeans saw and said one reproduces the monopoly on knowledge and interpretation that the imperial enterprise sought. This is a huge distortion because of course that monopoly did not exist. People on the receiving end of European imperialism did their own knowing and interpreting sometimes … using the Europeans own tools.
In Sorcerer’s Apprentice Tahir Shah primarily focuses on such encounters of conflict thereby providing the readers an opportunity to view the place through the travelee’s eyes. India is thus seen not only through the eyes of Tahir Shah but also through the eyes of various travelee that he encounters. It is important to note that most of these encounters question and challenge Shah’s initial views of India.
Shah however chooses to represent such encounters of conflict in his novel and this is what makes his work different. In the initial chapters of the novel Shah is seen to focus on the sordid aspects of India: the frenzied traffic, the crumbling British architecture, the pot holes in the streets etc. When he arrives in Calcutta, he deciphers the place as utterly chaotic. But in striking contrast to Shah’s observation is placed the observation of a fellow traveler or a travelee who presents a completely different picture of Calcutta. Stressing on the need to look beyond the city’s day to day routine and the need to open the mind to the wider picture of a place, he sees system even in the midst of chaos. He states that Calcutta has a way of arranging systems. These systems are everywhere and that once those systems are deciphered, the utter chaos will reveal itself as methodical. Another travelee, this time, a resident of Calcutta warns Shah that when he is in India he should never underestimate what looks simple. Hakim Feroze, the magician whose apprentice Shah becomes suggests an interesting view regarding travel. He asks Shah to go on a journey of observation, not to observe places but people. According to Feroze there is nothing left in observing places but what is important to observe is people. The reason behind Feroze’s preference for observing people over places is that people are interesting to observe as they change all the time. They are the ones who do things and not the scenery which will be there forever. Hakim Feroze also highlights another way of travelling: he asks Shah to undertake a journey through India without the aim of reaching a particular destination thus encouraging the nomadic mode of travel. Shah faces similar encounters of conflict in Varanasi and other places he visits.
These encounters force Shah to relativize his observations and gradually he gets more and more affected by the travelee he meets. The focus on such encounters in the narrative gradually renders the traveler marginal as the voices of various travelee take the centre.What such encounters highlight is the reciprocal nature of the traveler-travelee relationships. This reciprocal nature dismantles the naturalized set of opposed relationships between the traveler and the ‘other’ established in the past by the colonial travelers and now by the contemporary travelers suffering from Imperialist Nostalgia. The presence of such encounters within a travel narrative debunks a unidirectional relationship between the traveler and the travelee, where the traveler plays the role of a privileged all-knowing observer, not interested in knowing or giving importance to the views of the travelee he meets. It also marks a departure from those narratives where the travelee is either completely silent or even if they are given a voice, such voices hardly are shown to be important or capable of influencing.
Thus, the cultural hierarchies that govern travel writing get challenged through such narratives where the traveler chooses to provide space and voice to the travelee. Binaries such as traveler/travelee, center/ periphery, travel/ dwelling on which travel writing depends all get dismantled and challenged. Though travel writing thrives on ‘otherness’ and it is the most essential thing on which travel writing is dependent but in terms of diasporic travel writing the concept of ‘otherness’ itself becomes questionable. Horace and the suggestions of other travelee to look at India beyond its obscured appearances is better understood by Shah during his training under Hakim Feroze. Shah’s training under Feroze exposes him to the hidden world of magic and the science behind illusions. His training helps him to see a resemblance between the way people visualizes the world of magic and theway travelers approach a place. During a magical performance, the audience see the illusion as reality but fail to see the reality behind the illusion. Travelers similarly observe the superficial aspects of a place as the only reality, looking at places through a vision mediated by a cultural baggage but unable to accept the limitations of a mediated vision nor being able to see without it. There is always the urge to capture the ‘other’ through the dominant discourse that the traveler has at its disposal as rewriting the travel narrative in the model provided by the colonial precursors lends authenticity to the narrative.
But when travelers guided by oriental knowledge visit India thinking that it is a land of adventure, they become disillusioned to see the discrepancy between the reality and the images and ideas made available to them by colonial narratives. In this regard Shah asks a travelee as to how foreigners who come to India, react to see the derelict condition of once majestic British architecture and the day to day routine life of any city in India. The travelee states that the city “has a strange effect on them… It tends to destabilize them” (55). The word ‘destabilise’ thus refers to the negative effect that the discrepancy between the images of a phantasmagoric place and the real place has on a traveler. The present reality of India comes into conflict with the image of the exotic India once ruled and designed by the Britishers. Behdad in his book, Belated Travelers, makes a major point in this regard. Pointing out the problems faced by travel writers driven by a mediated discourse and the resultant effect of it, Behdad points out that “the fantastic stories of the mediating text, ironically, make the real experience of the city appear like a dream in which everything is thrown into an oblique past” (27). Thus, the place appears to be a fallen place and it begins to lose its presence. The traveler’s relation with the immediate reality becomes problematic and the traveler’s visions of the place perceived through his earlier readings gain the status of the real. In the world of such mediated visions former colonies like India is deciphered not as a place that is moving in time, struggling to come out of its disrupted state brought about by colonization but as a place unable to move out of its colonial past, lying with the remains of Empire.
Sorcerer’s Apprentice however is a different text in this regard. In case of Shah though he also seems to be destabilized by the sordid aspects of India, he does not choose to present the place in its past or as a fallen place but he takes up the views of the travelee and is able to see beyond the obscured appearances of the place. Shah points an observation made by a fellow traveler who states that “Calcutta has moved on . . . the façade may be crumbling, the streets may be a mass of pot holes and the traffic a frenzy of heaving buses and suicidal driving… but this is Calcutta…” (55). This observation discards any possibility of presenting the place as being in a state of historical stasis. Rather it highlights the changes that the place and particularly the people of the place are undergoing with time. Shah’s initial disappointment with the place is replaced soon by his search for insider information about India which clarifies that the present reality of India not just lies in the ravages of empire or its sordid aspects but there is more to it. Shah adopts the suggestions of Horace and Feroze: to decipher India beyond its superficial reality. Soon Shah observes that India’s unique ways of dealing with the pressures and demands of modernity and that despites all its economic and social problems, people here are supporting themselves by getting themselves employed in different ways and means as available to them. The views of these travelee which seem to provide renewed ways of approaching a place and their role in influencing Shah questions the rigid boundary that exists between a traveler and a travelee. The travelee in Sorcerer’s Apprentice is not just given a voice and agency but is capable of challenging the traveler’s central role in a travel narrative.
Shah’s initial position of a foreigner coming to India to study magic, his highlighting of the unpleasant aspects of the places in the initial chapters and then gradually making prominent his own limitations as a traveler by highlighting the views of the travelee he meets, seems to be a strategy. This strategy highlights the limitations of a colonialist discourse and its irrelevance in the present times. Also, Shah’s ability to move from one perspective to the other, seems to be a product of his hyphenated identity. While looking for insider information Shah traces transnational forces and the interconnectedness of the consumer culture. As a diasporic writer Shah is able to see these interconnections and accept the productive result of the clashes that takes place because of encounters between himself and the travelee.
The flexibility of Shah’s narrative is the flexibility that is actually provided by border crossing. Shah utilizes this to view the place he visits. The voice and agency given to the travelee and the acknowledgement of the reciprocal relationship between the traveller and the travelee, the disruption of the rigid boundaries between the self and the ‘other’ and other hegemonic divisions, the creation of estrangement to adjust the gaze of the readers to the contemporary times, the transformation of the consequences of globalization that threaten the existence of travel writing into strength and the use of such elements to recreate wonder in contemporary travel writing, all direct to a counter travel writing that is possible even in the midst of the limitations of the genre. Though the modern experience of displacement puts the notion of a stable identity at stake, yet it also paves the way for new possibilities and perspectives. Of course, the negative impact of an unstable identity has also been a part of diaspora. However, in Sorcerer’s Apprentice, one does not get to witness a travel writer who is driven by a sense of loss, rather Shah’s hyphenated position seems to endow him with a flexibility to use counter travel writing to revive and restore travel writing from its redundant, jaded and clichéd position. This contemporary world of uncertainty and fluidity presents travel writers with diverse scopes to discover the already discovered world in a new light and is in itself an immense source of wonder and enchantment. Be it ‘travel’, ‘exploration’ or ‘tourism’, each is assignable to its own age and each fulfils the demands of its age. This clarifies the transient nature of the world which will continue to come up with new changes and developments. The present world is of course a world of anxieties and pressures brought about by late modernity but it is also the time where easy mobility has filled the world with varied exchanges of people and ideas. The representation of such exchanges is in itself a new challenge. The fixed nature of the travelling subject as a privileged superior knowledgeable observer is no longer suitable for the present times.
However, there is no dearth of such travelling subjects in contemporary Travel Writing. The inability to resist the call of Imperialist Nostalgia has resulted in the continuous production of such travelling subjects. The present global setup however challenges the stability of such travelling subjects and demands subjects who can take up the task of representing the complexities and anxieties of the postmodern world thereby facilitating a counter travel writing in the age of belated travellers. As a migrant writer Tahir Shah cannot discard the anxieties of the present world by seeking solace in a mythic past and thereby presenting the place that he travels to as being outside the present tense of the traveller. The place rather has to be looked at in relation to its present and the writer’s present. The cultural encounters that take place between himself and the locals reveal the problems of regarding Travel Writing as a tool for consolidating stable unitary ideas. These encounters in fact forces him to question the stable nature of notions such as identity, nation, class, gender along with the stable binary divisions of self/ other, home/ abroad, etc. are questioned. Through Sorcerer’s Apprentice what Shah ultimately suggests is that Travel Writing is not foredoomed to the limited visions of colonial gaze but that it can aspire to look beyond the it.
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