A belated celebration of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday
—though in my defence nobody seems to know the date anyway—
in which I realise too late that Shakespeare and travel writing have little in common…

And I’ll be sworn ’tis true: travellers ne’er did lie,
Though fools at home condemn ’em.
—Antonio, The Tempest

‘Say it, Othello.’ Picture the scene: a shabby-chic rooftop café somewhere, all nursing warm beers. The Moor is holding forth over a small pot of hummus: ‘battles, sieges, fortunes… hair-breadth scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach…’

It seems all your companions are equally well travelled. To your left, two women are comparing souvenirs. The Queen of the Fairies, waving a bottle of Hoegaarden, is showing off her latest: ‘a lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king’.

She is interrupted by a bearded lady, who proudly displays a severed thumb. ‘Yes, all the way from Syria… In a sieve I thither sailed, like a rat without a tail—it’s the only way to really see the place…’

You try a #humblebrag of your own. ‘This one time in Hampi, I swallowed a bug the size of a cat.’

cannibal_shoulder_heads

Men whose heads grow beneath their shoulders, woodcut map Tabula Asiae VIII by Sebastian Münster, Basel (1540)

Othello stares at you, and continues with his story:

          of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.

Shakespeare has a way with the world. As a cold, bored schoolchild, I was tickled by this playful geography—though today, as a sometime travel writer, it seems dangerous to admit.

In Shakespeare’s lifetime, arguably the first great age of globalization, travel literature was almost as popular as it is now—and the playwright devoured it. His plays meander all over the map, from the castles of Denmark and Scotland to Vienna, Ephesus, and Fair Verona. Today, inevitably, a whole host of tourist companies have cashed in to offer Shakespeare tours.

But this geography is both evocative and slippery. After all, Shax didn’t actually travel outside England himself. Nobody is even really sure why his theatre was called The Globe. Sometimes his locations seem thin and almost interchangeable: deserts, wilds, blasted heaths and vasty deeps. The Tempest is set on a mysterious cloud-laced island—the Mediterranean? Bermuda? Ireland?—on the brink of dissolving into thin air. Ben Jonson, more of a details man, noted tartly that Shakespeare had located a ‘shipwreck in Bohemia, where there is no sea near by some 100 miles’.

Then there are Shakespeare’s funny foreigners themselves, from Amazons to Othello’s Anthropophagi. He is hardly a documentary realist, or a cuddly liberal cosmopolitan: his world is stuffed with pirates, savages, witches, fairies, dukes, changelings, embittered Jews, perfidious Frenchmen, and rumours of mountain folk ‘Dew-lapp’d like bulls, whose throats had hanging at ’em / Wallets of flesh’. (He appears to draw the line at unicorns.) Nor is his history any more accurate: his Cleopatra pauses to play billiards.

Shakespeare’s travelling wisdom: who doesn’t learn languages the Caliban way? 'You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.’

Shakespeare’s travelling wisdom: who doesn’t learn languages the Caliban way? ‘You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.’

What is the hold of Shakespeare’s sense of place, then? Should we worry, with Jonson, about his relaxed attitude to authenticity? Certainly this isn’t travel literature as we know it—though great travel writers from Marco Polo to Bruce Chatwin have also been accused of telling porkies.

There is certainly something thrilling about the potential for wonder in the Shakespearean world. There can be no such words as HERE THERE BE DRAGONS in the age of Google Maps. Tall tales must be that bit shorter.

But only lazy writing is really about dragons in the first place. Shakespeare’s plays are not about the destination—but neither are they about ‘the journey’, as the cliché goes. Sure, his characters are stormed, shipwrecked, and jump off cliffs. Unlike most pre-millennial travel literature, though, only rarely do we see them actually en voyage. Instead we see people, in all their infinite variety, grappling with the cultural vertigo that comes from strange places, metamorphosis, and the inevitable comparisons with home.

It’s a curiously fitting vision for the twenty-first century. We, at least of we of the wealthy tourist class, are all castaways, constantly remaking ourselves (and swapping gender roles?). But it’s also an age when travel is banal, and Puck’s words are (almost) true:

OBERON: We the globe can compass soon,
Swifter than the wandering moon…
PUCK: I’ll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.

So I guess the lesson I took from all those schooldays with Shax was really quite simple. No matter where you are, go forth and chat with all the perfidious Frenchmen and bearded ladies you can find.*

* Author’s note: I wrote this a while before Eurovision, but… I rest my case.

conchita wurst

Conchita Wurst

In which I somewhat misjudge the tone of praise for the Mothership

Penguin India Blog

T-1 Blog 3

My Mom would give me hand-written notes every once in a while. They contained quotes and wisdoms she would read from various books. These notes became reference points for me and I still use them quite a lot in my writings and in my lectures. When I was joining my job, she gave me a letter just before the train was about to leave. I still have it and it became the final chapter of my second book Seek: finding your true calling. I thought it was the perfect ending to my book. So not only my mom encouraged me to read books and write, she also gave me a chapter for my book. You can read that letter here – http://rakeshgodhwani.wordpress.com/2014/03/04/dear-son/.

– Rakesh Godhwani, author of Seek: Finding Your True Calling – http://bit.ly/1cciFli

———-

When it appeared that the world around me was crashing down due to…

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Lame Excuses

Posted: February 10, 2014 in Uncategorized

The travel book done and dusted, here’s a brand new piece from our latest side project. Sign up for the event on 2 July, and send papers!

Procrastination: Cultural Explorations

Or,
the Many Literary Afterlives
of the Person from Porlock

Matilda told such Dreadful Lies,
It made one Gasp and Stretch one’s Eyes…
That Night a Fire did break out—
You should have heard Matilda Shout!
[But] every time she shouted ‘Fire!’
They only answered ‘Little Liar!’
And therefore when her Aunt returned,
Matilda, and the House, were Burned.

—Hilaire Belloc, ‘Matilda: Who told Lies,
and was Burned to Death’
Cautionary_Tales_for_Children_1907_edition

Forced to dissemble by a deadline-obsessed world, procrastinators tend to be an untrustworthy bunch. Consider Kafka, who complained bitterly that his job simply did not give him time to write. In fact his shift lasted only from 8.30am until 2.30pm, and he often enjoyed a four-hour afternoon nap (and writing endless letters about his lack of time). In the words of a disappointed Zadie Smith: ‘The truth was that he wasted time! The writer’s equivalent of the dater’s…

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Origins

Posted: February 1, 2014 in Uncategorized

Origins.

Worlds collide

Posted: June 15, 2013 in ivory tower musings
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Yesterday, lights flashed. Thunder crashed on all sides. And the cameras rolled.

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The Randolph, 14 June

India had come to Oxford. More precisely, to the Randolph Hotel, hub of scone munching and Morse murder mysteries. The encounter was revealing at least as much for its asymmetry as for the conversation.

The Randolph’s ballroom was decked out as if for a wedding, or maybe a post-wedding disco. Chandeliers overhead, rows of white sheets and big synthetic bows over the chairbacks, round dining tables up front for the more illustrious guests. The lights dimly flickered on the stage in alternating pinky-red and blue, like a strip club in the suburbs.

One of my students, a charming French-Algerian, lit up with recognition: ‘Ah! This looks just like the place we circumcised my brother!’

In the anteroom Oxford was gathering, a little nervy in uncharacteristically sharp dress. Over shortbread, the dons eyed the TV billboards around the room. On the screen Oxford talking heads chattered on repeat, the volume down low. Not quite your average lecture. ‘India Day @ Oxford’ was going out live on CNN-IBN and various other channels, thanks to Network 18—which might sound awkwardly like a neo-Nazi outfit, but is in fact a powerful media conglomerate. This was the first in a planned series of biannual collaborations.

Time for the show. Thundering beats! Whirling graphics! Action nouns! And overhead: ‘Right here! Right now!‘ How I wish all seminars began with Fatboy Slim. ‘Put your hands together,’ a staffer hissed. ‘Put your hands together!

It was one of those mornings that demands a lot of italics. We applauded obediently.

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This. Is. CNN.

First was the inauguration of a memorial scholarship. The bemused speakers herded around to light candles. There was a nicely British scene between the two Indians: ‘After you, old chap’—’no, after you, I insist’.

BadadabamBOOM. Again the gameshow music. Let the analysis begin.

The discussion topics were both ones which obsess Indian elites. How can India translate its economic progress (if this itself can be sustained) into power on the world stage? And is Indian democracy in crisis? Answering the first was Salman Khurshid, external affairs minister, with the extraordinary hair-eyebrow combination of Alistair Darling.

Alongside him, Chris Patten, Oxford chancellor and last colonial governor of Hong Kong, kicked off proceedings in typically self-deprecating style. ‘Oxford was just named the best—sorry, second-best university in the world. First was CalTech, but that’s just a little boutique place.’

What did we learn? It is a delicate path between academic honesty and diplomacy, especially before the cameras. There was a lot of pleasant Oxford reminiscing, a lot of time-frittering gags, plus the inevitable references to cricket and Britain’s dismal weather.

The usual checklist of worries featured—the growth rate has almost halved, the ‘demographic dividend’ threatens to become a ‘demographic time bomb’, etc—but overall the tone was rather optimistic. We heard  too that India isn’t a world power (whatever one of those is), perhaps because it’s altogether too nice and polite. (On regional integration, the TAPI pipeline reared its utopian head again too.) The external affairs minister, of all people, suggested that foreign policy was very much subordinate to domestic politics: ‘India is like a dancing peacock: it sees its ugly feet, and begins to cry and shed its feathers.’

BJP grand dame Arun Jaitley livened things up in the second half, impatiently dispensing criticism (veiled and otherwise) on all sides. India has become far too cynical. Its population is ‘restless’. Naxalism in tribal areas worsening and all but incurable. Corruption is rife. He fears the concentration of power in the hands of one individual (though of course Narendra Modi doesn’t count). The quality of politicians is declining, he lamented, with caste and surname prized over competence.

Lest you fear this is a purely dystopian vision, he simultaneously assured us that Indian MPs are already the world’s most accountable, and only the BJP or the Congress can be ‘national anchors’ in parliament. He’s only 60, so this means he still has a quarter-century at the top ahead.

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Curiouser & curiouser 

BadadabamBOOM. Reviewing the event, one journalist claimed:

The decor was very much Indian – a few sarees flowing down from huge panels on the stage – but the air was very much Oxford – suffused with irony, old boy jokes and a sense of ambition that extended far beyond today’s problems and even pessimism.

Yet overall this was a classic demonstration of the add’n’stir approach to bringing policy and academia together. The politicians emphatically dominated proceedings, with only the odd mini-lecture uneasily slotted between interviews. But if ‘very much Oxford’ ≠ academia, what does it mean?

The answer may have been inadvertently provided by two questions from the floor:

‘I am a Rhodes Scholar. Why don’t you engage us in politics? We are the natural pick. All the other Rhodes Scholars get handpicked for power in their countries.’ —A Rhodes Scholar

‘Oxford stands for merit. When will merit come to India? This affirmative action for the lower castes must end.’ —A Hindu activist

Ah, of course! ‘Oxford’ in the old elitist sense. How wonderfully traditional.

The conclusion is an unsurprising one: academia and politics are tricky to mix. But silly old me—maybe that mixture wasn’t the real point. The event closed with an announcement: Network 18 is about to inaugurate a 24-hour India-focused TV news channel…right here in the UK.

Special K

Posted: September 16, 2012 in Delhi life
Tags: , , , , , ,

I suppose it was inevitable. Japanese imperialism may have stalled just east of India, but its most (in)famous invention has screechily colonised much of Asia and primetime TV worldwide. (Incidentally, my grandfather was very vaguely involved in the former, with a quiet dignity that seems characteristic of the family. He received a war pension for injuries sustained in Burma—turns out he tipsily fell out of a house-on-stilts and broke his nose. Other lion-hearted ancestors include miscellaneous frauds and drunkards; several Bengalis who greeted the opportunity to become imperial minions with unseemly boot-kissing eagerness; and one shipwrecked whaler who allegedly ate a cabin boy.) The surprise is that karaoke took so long to get here.

Baffling video for Simon & Garfunkel

The popular Japanese drug hit D-Town in January 2007 and its abuse has increased exponentially since. It caters especially to the increasing numbers of East Asians in the city—so we found ourselves in a very nice Korean restaurant, furtively edging towards the microphone across puddles of seafood broth. The karaoke menu was a vast weighty tome, 95% full of either Korean or Wingdings. This was a professional operation.

As enema-loving Karaoke Sauron Simon Cowell has realised, we all secretly believe we have innate musical talent. In my case I appear to be pathologically unable to keep this delusion secret.

Rarely am I accused of an excess of gravitas or reserve at the best of times—and then I was introduced to soju, a Korean liquor that tastes deceptively innocuous but in fact is ‘composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-hell-and-the-grave and four parts clarified Satan‘. These, it turns out, are the ingredients of a karaoke monster.

Keep your friends close and your microphone-enemies even closer. Note the fetching monsoon Jewfro.

I’ll gloss over the events of the next painful hours of despotic mic-hogging, yowling, rapping (oh god), eyes-closed Cher renditions, and spatters of grisly-looking kimchi. Suffice to say my voice was even better with the chorus of mucus a summer cold had brought. The other customers were evacuated, white-faced. Every video was accompanied by an entirely inappropriate video—Queen with a Lord of the Rings tribute, ‘Mrs Robinson’ with what looked like a ham sandwich commercial. Some oaf put on Jingle Bells. Every now and then a Korean-language song came on and we’d bawl ‘Wonderwall’ over the top with all the cultural sensitivity of the Beijing Olympics—the staff were near tears, and on reflection we were quite possibly massacring the Korean national anthem.

Weirdly, though, the clientele was heavily expat, with a smattering of overseas-stricken locals. Indians love singing and Delhi loves camp—you’d think Bollykaraoke start-ups would be on every street corner. But maybe its pure unadulterated uncool is the reason it hasn’t really taken off yet. Being a Bourgeois Young Dilliwallah is all about performance—looking sophisticated, fashionable, and composed. Most B.Y.Ds drink photogenically, not with the liver-nuking bingey zeal of Westerners; they go to chic all-you-can-eat brunches and sushi places and nibble cucumber rolls; to huge spasming beats they dance sleekly with sky-high stilettos and without sweatiness. Everything is self-conscious, earnest.

Karaoke, on the other hand, is ritual public humiliation—and you walk into it voluntarily, tongue ostentatiously in cheek. Like kitsch (or blogging…), it attempts to tread the fine exhibitionist line between irony and cretinous narcissism. Are your buddies laughing with you or at you?

With that unnerving thought, I’m off to hyperventilate into a paper bag.

That’s right, Delhi—I’m here again. Didja miss me?

Well, he was mooning about Delli, that highly pestilential place, possibly in search of some undiscovered facts  —Joseph Conrad [h/t Charne]

My visa arrived on Wednesday. By Sunday I was in the air. The babies cried in relays, the food was terrible, and I was fiendishly sleep-deprived after a characteristic London nightbus snafu. Throw in a red colour scheme and I feared things could get a bit Alec Baldwin (or, god forbid, Gérard Depardieu). Fortunately Virgin Atlantic has mastered the art of distraction, and I am a sucker. Proudly clutching a swish bilingual menu, unusably dwarfish toothbrush, and foxy airhostess, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip.

Indira Gandhi International Airport was just as I’d left it—like someone else’s low-res dream of a 1980s soft furnishings store. Anticlimactically the first shop to greet you is WH Smith. At least the irritating tourist quotient is only 1% of Heathrow’s vast semi-permanent population of milling zombies. It did feel alarmingly like coming home. ‘O frabjous day!’ I cried joyously at an alarmed taxi driver (always hit the decrepit pre-pay stall on the left before the exit, kids). My Hindi was as rusty as my feel for comical similes. ‘In Delhi I was living, and now I back come is!’

The traditional moist overshare

Don’t sweat the petty things and don’t pet the sweaty things.  —George Carlin

It’s a lucky 13℃ cooler than when I left. Chronicling my involuntary bodily secretions was the highlight of older posts, though, and I can happily report that I’ve discovered a whole new species of sweat. Back in the heady ’40ºs, you’ll recall I spent most of the time lying semi-naked in a gently steaming heap of misanthropy. Delhi was brown and disgruntled.

This time it’s the clammy tail-end of the monsoon, and the city feels entirely different. Everywhere there are erotically dark sticky pools and thronging people and eruptions of green. Without warning the bloodshot sky has psychotic breaks and frantically pisses on everything. It feels almost obscenely fertile—you could, as Ondaatje writes, ‘spit on the ground and a bush would leap up’. The Victorians must have had panic attacks.

Weirdly, I feel fantastically cheerful in the humidity—I keep finding myself emailing people saying, ‘I feel like an Amazon or a horse! I taste salty! My arms are glowing like Serena Williams!!!’ Unsettling. Most likely I’ve got dengue fever.

I’ve even renovated that all-important pillar of Dilliwallahood: a phone. The SIM card form makes all sorts of irrational demands for proof of address and other bureaucratic extravagances. Unless, of course, you make it clear you’re topping up a princely foreigner sum. As a bonus, I have all these extra passport photos—which the thoughtful young man even took it upon himself to Photoshop for me, just like the Border Agency enjoys.

By Jove, it’s good to be back.

Burn before reading

You played hard to get at first, but I won’t deny I found myself weirdly attracted to you.  —Past Me

Incidentally, the observant amongst you might have been wondering why the previous post falsely claimed to be the summer’s ‘penultimate entry’. Fear not, ElectricMasalettes: this was no blunder in the blog’s characteristically pungent English. There did exist an Ultimate Entry, the glorious Platonic überpost of which Nuremberg was a mere shadow.

Romantic snapshot I planned to send Delhi

The U.E. was a break-up note to Delhi, scribbled and erased and rescribbled over a dozen heat-crazed moments at the End of Days, on yellow Post-Its that disintegrated with sweat and smeared ink up my twitching forearms and forehead. There were phrases like ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ and ‘We both need therapy’. It had kisses on the end. I may even have called Delhi a cougar. (In an early draft, it may have been ‘big boy’. Oh god.) With the 5am airport taxi honking below, sleepless and full of wild blurry joy and the last drams of Feckless Brother’s whisky, I was finally about to whack it up online.

About four minutes before I clicked Publish—hey, my mind wasn’t exactly working like Speedy Gonzales by this point—I thought: It is extremely odd behaviour to write a break-up note to a city.

I scratched myself and fell over an overweight suitcase.

Then—brain crinkling with the effort—I thought: Perhaps your.   Mind.     Has finally.

. .   .   Bro k e n.

I sweated a bit more, fell indecisively over the suitcase again, and into the taxi. Some things ought to remain between me and D-Town.