Travel writing in India has a surprisingly brief history. It’s astounding when you consider that the entire corpus of Indian literature before the 18th century, so rich and varied otherwise, failed to produce a single travelogue. Thousands of merchants, monks and mercenaries from the Indian subcontinent routinely voyaged to far flung lands. But not a single one managed to leave behind an account of the strange things they saw or the sense of cultural dislocation they felt in these foreign environs.

Travel writing, it would seem, was alien to the Indian literary tradition. As a result, a distinctively Indian view of the pre-modern world, so richly inferred from the sub-text of travel accounts, never really emerges. Contrast this with European, Chinese and Arab travellers like Jean Baptiste Tavernier, Ibn-e-Battuta, and Hiuen Tsang who with various motivations wrote at length about their impressions of India, an important source for the reconstruction of Indian history today.

In these accounts, as Amitav Ghosh observes, “There is a recognition that what is common sense for him [the traveller] need not be so for the rest of the world. For this recognition to exist there has to be a certain openness to surprise, an acknowledgement of the limits of the knowingness of the witness.”

Why was this recognition seemingly absent among Indian travellers? Why was pre-modern India relegated to being the observed, and not the observer?

There are complex socio-economic and political reasons why travel writing never became an Indian genre – the myopic insularity of India’s Brahman elite, the taboo and stigma associated with overseas travel in certain orthodox sections, mass illiteracy, kingly disinterest in such accounts, and so on. But suffice it to say that India required the colonial encounter to flag off the genre in earnest.

Early and later travelogues in India

It was only towards the end of the 18th century that the first travelogue to be written in any Indian language showed up. Written in Malayalam by a Syriac Christian priest, Varthamanappustakam recounted his epic journey over several years from the Malabar coast to Rome via Sri Lanka, Angola, Brazil, Portugal, among other places, and back.

This valuable account too would have been lost to history were it not rediscovered in the 1930s. In which case, the first travelogue by an Indian would have likely been written in English. In fact, it’s remarkable that the very first work of Indian writing in English was a travel narrative. Published in 1794, The Travels of Dean Mahomet described the eponymous author’s wanderings across India as a camp follower in the East India Company, and later as a newly arrived immigrant in England, where he went on to establish the first Indian restaurant in 1810.

During the colonial era, travel writing about India was closely linked to the anthropological project of accumulating knowledge about a subject race. Accounts and images of Indians were produced for the consumption of a home audience. However, autobiographies by Indian nationalist leaders, most famously Mahatma Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments With Truth, also contained a strong element of travel narrative in terms of describing how the writers coped with the shock of their foreign environments.

Travel writing about India in English gained pace in the post-independence era. VS Naipaul wrote his incisive India trilogy comprising An Area of Darkness, India: A Wounded Civilization, and India: A Million Mutinies Now. Vikram Seth’s From Heaven Lake documenting his hitchhiking trip from Tibet to Nepal came out in the ’80s. But the boom in travel writing, so to say, only took place in the ’90s, when international publishing houses like Penguin and HarperCollins set base in India with the advent of liberalisation.

This was also a period when naturalised foreigners – mostly British – came to dominate travel writing. Bill Aitken’s sincere exploration of India’s sacred geography and natural wonders produced several delightful works such as Seven Sacred Rivers (1992), The Nanda Devi Affair (1994)and Footloose in the Himalayas (2003). William Dalrymple travelled across both space and time to dive into the remnants of India’s history in City of Djinns (1993) and The Age of Kali (1998).

“Initially, a lot of travel authors came from outside India,” said Elizabeth Kuruvilla, executive editor at Penguin Random House India. “The perspective they provided was a bit different in the sense that they tend to spot a lot of things that are overfamiliar to those seeing it every day. But then, the intimacy of the insiders’ point of view is also interesting. You need to be a special kind of person to be able to analyse the familiar and present it afresh to those who see it everyday,”

Books that supplied this insider perspective too started appearing in the 90s. Pankaj Mishra’s Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (1995), documenting the changing mores and gaudy ostentations of middle-class India in small towns, was a landmark work. We even find some Indian writers reversing centuries of the colonial gaze by travelling abroad to write about their experiences, as seen in Irwin Allan Sealy’s From Yukon to Yucatan: A Western Journey (1994) based on his travels across the United States along the migratory trail of indigenous Americans.

Since then, a host of travel books have explored several aspects of Indian life. Teesta Guha Sarkar, senior commissioning editor at Pan Macmillan India said, “Classic literary travel books by the likes of Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh gradually gave way to a delightfully wide range as writers began to experiment with the genre and we got books like Chitrita Banerji’s Eating India, Samanth Subramanian’s Following Fish, SrinathPerur’s If It’s Monday, It Must Be Madurai, and more recently tales of urban nomads and travel bloggers like The Heat and Dust Project and The Shooting Star.” And while scholars continue to term the genre in India as “nascent”, it is safe to say that travel writing, not of this soil originally, is beginning to strike deep roots in India.

How travel for ‘writing’ is different from travel for leisure

Last year, I too was responsible for adding another book to this growing pile of travelogues. My book Truck de India: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hindustan, chronicling my journey across India hitchhiking on trucks for over 10,000 kms, released in October. My travels for the book took me across the expanse of India, spanning over twenty states. The experience, however, was far removed from the idea of travel as relaxation and recovery. It was exhausting, often frustrating, and on certain occasions, dangerous. I had no route plan. My trajectory was largely determined by the unforeseeable destinations of perfect strangers. For the large part, when I stepped on the highway in the morning I had no idea where I would be spending the night.

There were the occasional touristy forays I made in places like Srinagar and Madurai. But these didn’t make it to the book. Travel accounts are often framed as journeys of self-discovery. But my intention with Truck de India was to foreground the lives of truck drivers, about whom not much had been written, and keep myself out of the picture as far as possible.

And ever since the book has come out, I’m often asked the question: what is your process like? How is travel for “writing” different from travel for leisure?

Well, for one, I shun what I call in Truck de India the “tyranny of the itinerary”. Travel writing revels in spontaneity, when the writer is open to the possibility, and indeed, desirability of sudden detours. When the truck drivers I was hitchhiking with from Udaipur dropped me off in the hot sun outside Jaipur without warning, I was taken aback. But I don’t remember despairing. I was excited at the new possibilities this opened up. Instead of ending up with the truckers in Rampur, a small town in Himachal Pradesh, my journey took me to Punjab, and allow me to make friends with the most large-hearted trucker duo I met, the brothers Jorawar and Jagdev Singh.

Another big difference is that I’m inseparable from my pen and pocket notebook. I’m on high alert with regard to my surroundings, on the lookout for changes in the scenery or constantly scanning signboards that tend to throw unique light on the soul of a place. The impetus behind my obsessive jottings is to recreate the moment as faithfully as possible. To that end, I also end up taking a lot more photos than I usually do. By the end of my travels for Truck de India, I had accumulated over 8,000 images of the people I met, the trucks that I rode, and the places that I saw, allowing me to relive my journey at will.

For novelist and travel writer Chandrahas Choudhary, the process is only a bit more focused than it would be otherwise. “You organise your day so that like a net you sweep up as much as you can,” he said. “Often, one thing leads to another. You meet all sorts of people who provide links to other folk, and so on. It’s like walking down a road, and there’s no end to it. If you want, you can keep walking. That sense, I feel, is very attractive to the soul.”

In my case too, serendipity and the kindness of strangers played frequent saviour. Jorawar and Jagdev Singh, with whom I travelled from Jaipur to Chandigarh, ended up inviting me to their home in Sirhind and introduced me to veteran workman Mewa Singh, which is how I was able to explore the intricate and fascinating world of truck art. Another time, when I was stranded at a check-post near Kohima for hours, a bunch of Naga policemen extricated me from my helpless plight and ensured I got on a truck heading towards Imphal in the dead of the night.

However, travelling for a focussed assignment often has its pitfalls too. “One of the paradoxes and perversities of travelling for an assignment is that when you meet interesting people who you feel are not relevant to your current project, you shut them out, and they’re gone forever,” said Choudhary. “Often, when you’re speaking to women or old people, as a man, you cannot ask too many questions for fear of being misunderstood or revealing misunderstanding. It only shows how difficult it must be for a female travel writer in India, to have these burdens multiplied many times over,”

That is also perhaps why travel literature in India has largely been a masculine affair. Sudha Mahalingam, author of The Travel Gods Must Be Crazy, is one of the few exceptions. Over the last four decades, the 68-year-old energy economist has leveraged conference invites to travel to little-known destinations in over 65 countries.

“Travelling for pleasure or leisure is not for me,” she said. “I’ve never gone on a package tour except once to Egypt with my family. In fact, usually when I return from a trip, I need a holiday to recover from it.”

But what about itineraries? Do travel writers generally have everything planned out? Or do they wing it? Bishwanath Ghosh, author of five travel books including Chai, Chai and most recently Aimless in Banaras, belongs firmly to the latter school.

“When you’re travelling for a book, you don’t go for the to-do list,” Ghosh said. “You try to get inside the skin of the place. And a place is really made by the people. When you go as a tourist, you’re blind to the local people. But when you’re travelling for a book, you meet various people who define the character of a place. An itinerary is really not the best way to achieve this.”

As for Mahalingam, she said, “I don’t have a day-to-day itinerary. Just a vague one with a lot of flexibility. I do some pre-travel research but often you find out new things on the ground. For instance, when I visited Udaipur, I found out about the Ranakpur temple when I reached there and changed my plans. Sometimes, this means the experience turns out to be not so pleasant, like the time when I landed in Prague without a visa.”

The bigger question for travel writers now is about how to travel at all. As the world battles the Covid-19 pandemic and grapples with a prolonged economic slowdown, spontaneous travel seems like a distant dream. How will this affect the writing and sale of travel books?

The publishing perspective

One would think that being trapped at home would make people turn to travelogues to satisfy their wanderlust. But is there any merit to this hypothesis?

“I don’t think there’s been any indication of this on the bestseller charts,” said Deepthi Talwar, managing director at Westland Books. Sarkar of Pan Macmillan India concurs. “Travel writing in the more commonly understood sense has not found much favour in a time when readers seem more keen to explore travels inwards and within,” she said. “For instance, there is great interest in and appreciation for books that explore solitude. Take for example Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.”

It would also seem that in these times of upheaval, people are buying books with more instrumental ends in mind. “Since people have been working from home while managing children and the household, they’re buying a lot of self-help books to cope with the stress,” said Vijesh Kumar, general manager, sales, at Penguin Random House India. “Sales of health and fitness-related books on, say, how to exercise without weights, have gone up. Light fiction, especially romance, is also doing well.”

Travel, on the other hand, has generally been a niche genre for publishers. Kumar said, “We only publish a limited number of titles in that space. It all depends on the author’s public persona and the subject. One book that we published recently – The Shooting Star by Shivya Nath – did quite well. The author had a strong social media presence. The backstory was appealing. The author had quit her corporate job and taken up travelling as a full-time career. That generated curiosity.”

Often, unless you’ve already built up an online following, the biggest challenge for new travel writers is how to find readers, or rather, how to have readers find them. “A cursory search by readers for ‘best Indian travel books’ will mostly yield backlist titles. It’s the way search engines are built. This makes it difficult for readers to discover new books unless you’ve already heard about the author,” said Kumar.

But these constraints don’t mean that publishers aren’t enthused about travel writing. “Travel writing is exciting, everyone wants to be transported away from their immediate space,” said Kuruvilla of Penguin Random House India. “Recently, we were trying to figure out what kind of writing we wanted to have on our list, and travel was certainly there. We would like to in a dedicated fashion have travel books as part of our annual list.”

But with the pandemic showing no signs of abating, the situation for Indian publishing continues to be grim with hardly any retail walk-ins, according to Kumar. Some publishers are consequently pushing the release of new books to 2021.

The future of travel books

Bishwanath Ghosh thinks this phase is more of a pause, a comma, and that people will go back to travelling as they did earlier. I hope so too. As someone with a travel book due in 2022, I can’t wait to be able to travel freely again. But if I’m honest, that doesn’t appear probable in the near future. Just stepping out of the house now comes with its share of anxiety. Air travel has become an adventure sport, with many cities mandating home quarantine for arriving passengers. Every state has its own bewildering set of regulations governing everyday life.

But more importantly, the pandemic has brought about a palpable decline in general trust levels. Travel for me is about people and not places, and I’m worried that the unmitigated pleasure of conversing with complete strangers and learning about each other’s disparate lives is going to be marred by suspicion and paranoia. I don’t know how people will react to an inquisitive stranger with a notebook in his hands anymore. Or will our need for human connection, however fleeting, overcome these practical concerns? I can only speculate.

I also find myself wondering: will I be reduced to describing people by the shape and colour of their eyes, the texture of their hair, and the design of the masks they have on? What a strange and diminished world that would be, where the act of smiling has been invisibilised by the virus.

At this point, it looks like much of the research I was intending to do this year will have to be postponed to next year. I have little idea when I will be able to finish writing my book, and whether I’ll be able to meet my 2022 deadline.Many non-fiction titles that are slated for publication in 2022 and involve travelling for research will likely suffer a similar fate, with release dates being pushed to 2023. And given the unviability of travel in the near future, publishers might also shy away from signing on new travel books in the short term.

But what will these new travel books possibly look like?

Talwar of Westland Books said, “It’s really hard to guess what kind of world it will be on the other side of this – if and when people do feel comfortable to travel the way they did before. However, regarding readers, I think there’s always been a huge percentage of people who were happy armchair travel readers, and I don’t think that will change.”

Which is a good thing, because the potential for travel writing in India, a land of subcontinental proportions, is immense. As Choudhary said, “Unlike most of the world, which is becoming increasingly homogenous, in India there’s still a sense of many different kinds of people and ways of being in the same landscape. There’s plenty of scope to invent many kinds of itineraries exploring smaller geographies and cultures. The ground is definitely very rich for the blossoming of travel writing.”

As for me, my sincere hope is that in the years to come, we will find travelogues engaging with the local, books that explore the sub-regions, districts and tehsils of India’s many states, each of which could qualify as a country by itself. I, for one, would love to know what the texture of life in Tikamgarh is like, what people eat for breakfast in Kendujhar, about the dejections and aspirations of the residents of Tamenglong.

There’s just so much we still don’t know about our own country. As Ghosh put it, “I see people exploring their own backyards and the unknown within their country.” I certainly share his optimism that travel books of the future will lead to the rediscovery of a mutating India in all its glory and contradictions.

Rajat Ubhaykar is the author of Truck De India: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hindustan. He is currently working on his second travel book, to be published by HarperCollins India.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.