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The Empire Travels Back

Nivedita Sen

By Simonti Sen
Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 226, Rs. 490.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 9 September 2005

The western imagination has always cel- ebrated the excitement, adventure, recklessness and liberation of travel. In the Hindu canonical tradition, on the other hand, says the author of this meticulously researched history book of considerable academic interest, travellers are denigrated as Bohemian, home-breakers and ultimately disruptive of domestic bliss, the word ‘bhraman’ or travel originating from ‘bhram’ or error. The sedentary and the dutifully homebound person has always been valorized, while travel condoned only for purposes of pilgrimage. But the colonial period gradually changed this mindset, and the colonized mind strove to demystify and redefine the West through self-expression in travel as a secular practice. Colonialism legitimized, even glorified travel. The Romantic imagination that underscores the opposition between ‘alienation’ and ‘freedom’, between the home and the world, finds concrete shape in the travel narratives under survey.   Apart from redefining the West, or “dislocating England from its position of centrality”, this body of writings is expressive of “the colony writing back to the master to empower itself and to claim a kind of collective identity, and probes the nationalist self”, akin to what V.B. Tharakeshwar claims on behalf of Kannada travelogues. Striving for self-definition through the exercise of travel, the colonized writer often gets caught between conflicting self-appraisal, seeing itself as an inferior Other of Europe and concurrently striving to distance and differentiate itself from it. The fact of Indianness is simultaneously a matter of pride in its cultural roots and shame in its backwardness. The book traverses through diverse facets of travelling and English life—the sea voyage, the countryside and the city, the tryst with the ‘real’ Englishman, education, domesticity, poverty, and also travel through the continent—and furnishes interesting data as well as vibrant commentaries. In the author’s opinion, the corpus of travel writing that she engages with tries to reconcile a western education with a national consciousness in the making. However, the book does not ultimately do what it ostensibly proclaims to be doing, which is to construct from its numerous resonances a discourse of nationalist possibilities and misgivings.   The list of Simonti Sen’s travellers consists mainly of eight people including its lone woman travel writer, Krishnabhabini Das. She also makes passing references to travel notes by others, ranging from anonynymous ones to those of Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore. She starts with some pre-colonial travellers whose descriptions supposedly shed some light on the ...

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