Travelogues are odd books, which sometimes reveal more about the authors than the places they visit. This was brought home to me recently as I read Asian Absences by Wolfgang Buscher – an informative and reflective piece of travel writing, which traces his expeditions across Asia – starting with India, moving on to Singapore, Nepal, Cambodia, Japan and ending in the mythical city of Shangri-La. Buscher heads the features desk of the German newspaper Die Welt and has received several awards for his journalism. The book has been translated by Simon Pare, who translates from German to English and lives in Paris.
Like most travel writing, the book is a narration of the different places visited, but what sets it apart are Buscher’s emotional observations and personal musings. “Tokyo is polite, warm and without roofs”; a dream encounter with Lord Shiva leaves him wondering, “I was moved in a way only by whom or by what, I didn’t know”; “little bubbles floating on a bowl of tea. Here now, then gone. The feeling of being there at a fragile moment that might burst at any time.”
The descriptions are lyrical, implications subtle. When he finally sees the “stars of Arabia”, he writes, “I raised my eyes and saw a velvet canopy embroidered all over with diamonds”. In the concluding paragraph of ‘An Indian Afternoon’, he comments, “Colours exploded on the inside of my closed eyelids, vermillion, saffron, scarlet, the red in the white of one’s eyes. It’s just the heat. The cursed Indian summer heat.”
What does not quite work is the excessive Orientalism and the lack of relevant humour. In the opening chapter, Buscher is suffering from “Indian Fever” while coming to terms with the chaos and cacophony of sounds in Jodhpur. The entire section is laden with cultural clichés and stereotypes – “one Indian breath contained more religion than an entire German advent”, “the doll sized temples beneath roadside trees that look abandoned after a child’s game”. The author dines with a maharaja, who plays the sitars while monkeys enjoy the show; abandons his western sensibilities to prostrate before Hindu gods; and is pursued passionately by an ashram guru to try some pure ghee with his food.
While these are galling – and one does not know whether the issue is with the author, the way German language processes India or the translator, this same ‘emotionalism’ allows Buscher’s prose to capture people and snapshots of his travels. On board an oil tanker, travelling from Dubai to Singapore, he makes friends with St. John ‘the Cricketer’ – a second officer, who can be found playing imaginary (cricket) air shots. Buscher spends his time observing the night sky in the Arabian Sea and partakes in late night conversations with St. John. Similarly, in the chapter titled ‘Mekong Mama’ after the name of the boat which carries Buscher to Cambodia, the tales from the days of the Khmer Rouge and the horrors of war-torn Cambodia reveal themselves through conversations with fellow passengers.
In the end, Buscher arrives in ‘Shangri-La’, a model Tibetan town designed to lure Westerners, a ‘No Problem Tibet’ (the Chinese influence is everywhere). The destination disappoints, but the journey does not. As Buscher writes, “I hadn’t made it to Shangri-La. But I was very far from everything. And that’s something.” This is what gives this particular travelogue its special flavour, the long inner journey that accompanies the hop, skip and jump across the many Asian paradoxes.
Tanya Anand is freelance writer, focussing on lifestyle and travel, living in Delhi.