The Tribune - Spectrum

, September 15, 2002

Personalised travelogue
Chitleen K Sethi

by Pierre Loti. Translated from French by George A. F. Inman and edited by Robert Harborough Sherard. Rupa & Co.
Pages 274. Rs 195.

IndiaMANY years after the major works on Indiaís fascinating tradition and history had been produced by British officers posted in the country, Pierre Loti, a French traveler, wrote India, forming a part of the vast amount of Orientalist literature by Europeans on India expounding her greatness. But today, a hundred years after it was first published in 1901, Lotiís work can be more easily classified as a highly personalised travelogue than anything else. Though credit is due to Rupa, the publishers, for having revived this otherwise-lost-to-the-rare-book-section-of-library book, a 1901 travelogue in 2002 seems slightly outdated.

Pierre Loti, as the cover introduces, is a naval officer who has travelled widely and originally wrote the book in French. The book, a collection of pages from his dairy is an account of his observations while he travelled across India, a country and people he obviously is in awe of. A keen observer, Loti has described all that he saw in great detailómaybe too great a detail. Written in a style rarely seen now, one is not sure if it was the translator George A.F. Inman or Loti himself, but the language is too flowery and the sentences too long for easy reading.


Consider an account of the wonderful rock of Tanjore: "Above the immense plains of this country of Tanjore, and above the bushy kingdom of palms, which stretches out like the sea, a huge detached rock rears its head; standing sentinel, as it has done since the beginning of time, over a region from which it has seen the forests spring and the towns and temples grow. It is a geological oddity, a whim of some primeval cataclysm, and looks like a helmet or a prow of some Titan ship half submerged in an ocean of greenery."

But then Loti is not making an effort to impress. Neither is he writing for a reader other than himself. His is a very personal account, full of his own impressions of whatever he sees, writing beautifully about what he feels. What he pens down in the end is an almost emotional outpour. What is remarkable is his ability to express the interaction between his surroundings and his inner self.

"Suddenly silence reigns once more, but this time it is pervaded by a nameless melancholy that was not there before. The thought crosses my mind that it is the 31st of December 1899, and in a few hours this century, which was that of my youth, will pass away forever. The stars above my head pursuing their almost endless course fill my thoughts with dreadful notion of eternity, and of our moth-like existence; and the death of the present century and the birth of the succeeding one, which will be my last, seem to be insignificant nothings when one thinks of the endless terrifying flight of ages."

Limited in its scope, the work is basically focused on Lotiís experiences of the limited places he visited. Starting from Ceylon to the Palace of Maharaja of Travancore, where he was a guest at the Palace, Loti moved to Tanjore, Madurai, Golconda, Hyderabad, Madras, Udaipur and ended bookís journey at Benaras. So why bring about a new paperback edition of this book? And for whom? Not even in the coffee book category, as a reference book, the present work can be used very marginally by historians and sociologists working on the early twentieth century, and one can think of many works of the same period which need to be revived and which would serve a much useful purpose today, if reprinted and made accessible.

This over 200 pages of six chapters effort by Loti is now both outdated and out of fashion. Even to a historian, constantly on the look out for new sources, this book disappoints. And for traveller to India, a readymade complete day-to-day guide to India would serve far better. The words used in the book have acquired new meanings since and so has the country he chose to capture in his travels. Pierre Loti in the beginning of the last century did his bit to give the world the impression of India being a country of snake charmers and other worldly sadhus, there is no justification other than trying to revive that image in bringing out another edition of this work.