I met Paul Theroux, American travel writer and novelist, at a meeting organised by the Madras Book Club recently. The subject was interesting; travel in the fourth dimension… the return journey. Theroux, 67, did not disappoint lacing his talk with humour as he traced his experiences across the world Amritsar, London, Tashkent, Hanoi… A travel writer has to be a listener, needs to be humble, an eavesdropper, invisible, he said. He should know, having authored so many travel books.
The hint was obvious – you don’t become a travel writer if you visit Kodaikanal, for instance, write a piece about it and get it published in a newspaper or magazine. Travel begins in the mid, with a clear mind. Theroux makes it a point to re-visit places he has been to years or decades ago. “You see the changes, what time does to a place. When you grow older, you can even predict. So retrace your steps. That is what travel writers have to do,” he said. For example, he hardly found any change in Burma (Myanmar) and Sri Lanka, re-visiting the places after decades. Only when there is peace, things change, he pointed out.
Massachusetts-born Theroux is best known for The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), a travelogue about a trip he made by train from Britain through Western and Eastern Europe, West Asia, through South Asia, then South-East Asia, up through East Asia, as far east as Japan, and then back across Russia to his point of origin. He has had a long association with V.S. Naipaul, eventually falling out with the latter. You can read his portrayal of Naipaul in Sir Vidia’s Shadow (1998).