Speaking Volumes: Oh, the places that you’ll go

(Published in the Business Standard, July 29, 2008)

At 84, Charing Cross Road, just a brass plaque commemorates the place where Marks & Co sold secondhand books, most notably to Helene Hanff. Devotees of the book still make the pilgrimage to see the plaque, undeterred by the demise of literature’s best-loved bookshop.

Stratford-on-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, is bustling in comparison. Stratford’s blend of kitsch and nostalgia makes it the Disneyland of literary tourist attractions. Closer to home, Rabindranath Tagore’s Jorasanko in Calcutta is a well-maintained family museum that gives visitors some sense of the writer’s life and times. Ghalib’s home in Ballimaran in Old Delhi has been recently restored, and attracts would-be poets by the score.

What if you wanted to visit West Egg, Long Island, where Jay Gatsby threw his parties, hosting a permanent “great festival”? Or Oz, where Dorothy and the Wicked Witch face off? Until recently, all we could do was use our imaginations—or perhaps be passive observers at the film version. The makers of virtual worlds from Second Life to Google Lively have a different concept in mind: a place where you can visit and create your favourite literary destinations. It’s still in beta, so there are some issues, but it’s tempting:

This is my list of the top five literary destinations I’d like to explore in a virtual world:

1) The Arabian Nights: Shahryar’s kingdom, which stretches from ancient Persia to India and China. This is the vast territory that forms the setting for the Arabian Nights, the kingdom where Scheharazade uses story-telling to postpone her execution from one day to another. It’s a rich landscape where commoners and kings collide, and it has some resonance with these present-day countries. Tahir Shah, in his book In Arabian Nights, guides you between both worlds.

2) Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo: This small town appears in One Hundred Years of Solitude, and is possibly the best recognized literary landscape of all time. Garcia Marquez based Macondo, according to his own accounts, on the town he grew up in—Aracataca.

In his autobiography, he offers a classic origin myth: “The train stopped at a station that had no town, and a short while later it passed the only banana plantation along the route that had its name written over the gate: Macondo. This word had attracted my attention ever since the first trips I had made with my grandfather, but I discovered only as an adult that I liked its poetic resonance. I had never heard anyone say it and did not even ask myself what it meant…” And so a legend came into life, and a place that has obsessed me all of my adult years as a reader came into being.

3) The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling: If you go to Seoni in Madhya Pradesh, most astute readers of Kipling will recognize the landscape in which the Jungle Book is set. Here are the python-friendly rocks, the forests undisturbed by man, the ruins in which monkeys can create a second kingdom unknown to human beings. Kipling’s accuracy in setting down the Seoni landscape was considerable—and yet, he asserted that he had never been to Seoni, that he “got it all” from Sterndale’s Gazetter. This shouldn’t deter those who grew up with the sound of Akela’s “Look well, look well, ye wolves” ringing in their ears.

4) Wonderland, in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: Choosing just one out of a myriad familiar landscapes from children’s fiction is heartbreaking: how could you privilege Watership Down over the rivers that govern The Wind in the Willows, for instance? And in this category, I have far too many contenders: Oz from the Wizard of Oz, all of Dr Seuss’s phantasmagorical lands, Beatrix Potter’s very English world, or Narnia. But in the end, Carroll’s Wonderland prevails because it has had such a grip on the imaginations of children from his time onwards. I have never yet met a My Space/ Facebook/ Twitter/ Role Playing Games conversant child who hasn’t at the same time been beguiled by Carroll’s vision of Wonderland. He didn’t know he was doing this, but what he wrote was a vision of something that has proved to be eternal and enduring.

5) Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness: Though Conrad never makes it explicit, it is generally understood that Heart of Darkness plays out on the lifeline of the Congo River, descending into the Congo Free State. He offers a searing vision of a man learning what the true cost of betrayal is, and for first-time readers, this vision is indelible. To explore this particular landscape in a virtual world would be dangerous—but also, perhaps, inevitable.

Those are my top five: what’s yours? Email me and let me know.

I loved the responses that came in to this column–here are a few:

From Thomas Cherian:

I liked today’s column on places in books that one would love to visit.
I was surprised and a little miffed 🙂 (sorry, die hard fan’s stubborness) to see that you had not included Middle Earth. I for one, would love to visit Tolkien’s majestic creation and walk through the forests of Lorien. I would also include Narnia as well as the home of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. (I’m sure many younger readers would like to join the Famous Five and go to Kirrin Island) I may also like to have looked on the life on the ship in amitav ghosh’s sea of poppies.

From Priyanka Chowdhury:

I loved this so much I decided to mail you my list.

1) Coleridge’s Xanadu (Kubla Khan)

2) The skewered Book-of-Genesis-universe in Boating For Beginners where God is an ice cream cloud.

3) Dorian Gray’s room (The Pic of DG)

4) Dr Jekyll’s laboratory (Dr J and Mr H)

5) Mary and Colin’s secret garden (The Secret Garden)

From Sowmitri:

I would go watching life along the River Mississipi along with Mark Twain. Also, stay for a couple of days with our own R K Narayan in Malgudi.





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