All you need is that one book that captures the spirit of the city for you: look beyond Lonely Planets.
When Benjamin Meinen decided to visit India, he bought himself a Lonely Planet. And Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram, which was receiving good press in Germany at that time. Although Lonely Planet did recommend it, it was because of Shantaram that he decided to check out Leopold Café in Mumbai. He was curious to see the place that was featured prominently in Roberts’ tale. Hell, he even dragged his Indian friend early in the morning, when the café was still stretching itself sleepily after a night of excess, to see the ‘beauty of the floor’. Roberts’ had waxed eloquent about the ‘hexagons in black, cream, and brown radiating from a central sunburst’. True, Meinen was disappointed when he was not booked by a Bollywood agent. But he couldn’t agree more with the observations of Roberts.
When an author weaves in real places in his fiction, the pull of the place gets irresistible for many. This is not, of course, something new. In 1884, for instance, French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans used this as a central theme in his novel, À rebours (Against the Grain). His character, Duc des Esseintes, a loner, is possessed by an intense desire to travel to London, after reading Dickens’ description of English life. As Esseintes prepares himself to cross the channel and get a glimpse of Dickensian London for real, we, the readers, are treated to delightful descriptions of the various wine bars and taverns in Paris that evoke the English spirit, which Esseintes visits while waiting for his train to London.
Huysman gives exact directions to get there, just in case one feels like dropping by after reading his book. It surely must have made the day for those in search of ‘oxtail soup, smoked haddock, roast beef, pints of ale and chunks of Stilton’ in Paris in those days. (In case you are wondering, Esseintes never made it to London; he was afraid that he would be disappointed by the real thing and went back home just as the train was about to leave.)
Given that an average reader has plenty on his/her plate, we even have a sub-genre where authors’ central characters are cities: a reader need not wade knee deep in fiction to separate fluff from stuff. These authors pick a city/country that move them in ways indescribable and indulge in the tough task of describing them. Like Bishwanath Ghosh’s recently published Tamarind City that brings Chennai alive – although a Chennai as seen through his eyes. Like Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. Like Ruchir Joshi’s Tales From Planet Kolkata. Like Frank Simoes’ Glad Seasons In Goa. Like Sam Miller’s Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity and Dave Prager’s Delirious Delhi. Like Amitav Ghosh’s Dancing in Cambodia and At Large in Burma. Like Sudha Koul’s Come with me to India on a Wondrous Voyage Through Time. Like E M Forster’s A Passage to India.
But then again, unraveling the treasures that an author so carefully entwines in his/her narration is surely a lot more exciting? Like the idiosyncrasies of Pakistan in Salman Rushdie’s Shame; like the generosity of Greece that was captured in Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces; like the sultry beauty of Kerala that anchors the twisted tale of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things; like Tokyo’s towering personality that Haruki Murakami manages to convey in every novel of his, however bizarre it may be.
And, if you, after reading up and looking around, feel bored, disappointed that the city does not speak to you the same way as it did to the author, take heart. You have good company here too. For one, there’s French poet Charles Baudelaire, who gets tongue-in-cheek in Le Voyage:
We saw stars
And waves; we saw sand too;
And, despite many crises and unforeseen disasters
We were often bored, just as we are here.