Worldly words: Why every book club should travel
“You have to take risks and be a little bit lonely” to uncover a juicy travel story, the writer Paul Theroux advised a few hundred people who came to this year’s 10th annual Jaipur Literature Festival.
I exchanged a look with a member of my Dubai-based book club in the next chair, one of nine women who came to India to spend three days in Jaipur, two nights in Udaipur and a final night in the mountains of Kumbhalgarh.
“That will not be us,” my fellow book clubber whispered, referring to the special precautions we took to avoid risks to the stomach, wallet or worse. With eight constant female companions, loneliness was also not on the cards.
The Jaipur Literature Festival began in 2006 and is the largest free literary festival on Earth. Every January, a collection of authors comes together for five days of readings, debates and discussions at the beautiful Diggi Palace in the Rajasthani capital of Jaipur.
Our book club, which meets once a month, is made up of a diverse group of women and has been running for 12 years. This is the second year the group has visited the Jaipur Literature Festival, taking one week off from jobs and families to discover India through the peculiar lens of a shared passion for books.
“You’re travelling with your book club?” is the incredulous reaction most of us have received from co-workers and friends. A mixture of disbelief, admiration and honest confusion. What’s that all about? In response, we have been, alternately, apologetic, smug, mysterious and forthcoming, because after a successful run last year, we know we’re onto something.
Planning starts more than six months before the trip, when three members of the book club sketch out an itinerary and share various options with the group. A travel agent is called in. Costs are juggled and haggled until a compromise is struck. With nine participants, the travel agent is able to negotiate excellent rates at places such as the Taj Lake Palace hotel in Udaipur, featured in the James Bond movie Octopussy. We considered our two nights there a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
These trips are fuelled by the assumption that, above all other media, reading opens your mind and helps you cross the cultural divide. We saw this play out in various sessions, such as when Joanna Rakoff, the author of My Salinger Year, spoke about being a young woman moving from the cloistered enclave of family and college into the harsh realities of the New York publishing world, her experience resonating with an audience that was mostly Indian.
“When you read fiction, you’re exposed to different ways of looking at things through the characters,” reflected another book club member.
The festival was heady, with free speech and egalitarian ideals. An Israeli journalist shared political views sympathetic to Palestinians that would have led to harassment in his own country. Authors sat on the floor with schoolchildren and the general public, even in the rain on one unfortunate morning. One session, euphemistically entitled Basic Instinct, was about how writers handle physical romance in literature. “What would really be unique,” Hanif Kureishi deadpanned to the audience during this session, “is a novel about two mature adults who love each other over a long period of time.”
In the pop-up bookstore featuring visiting authors, the prospect of getting signed copies from the likes of Theroux, V S Naipaul, Bilal Tanweer, Amit Chaudhuri and Nicholson Baker made us as giddy as kids. For two full days, our book club broke off into pairs and singles to attend sessions we were interested in, and reconvened over masala chai to share what we’d seen. We relayed some of the content of the sessions, such as Against the Grain, where dissident writers from Pakistan, India and Israel shared the sources of their courage, and Shadow Play: The Art of the Biography, where the agenda of the biographer was called into question. There were also more-anecdotal observations: William Dalrymple live-tweeting from the sidelines of Rakoff’s session; a security guard halfway through a novel in the back of a bookstore; Kureishi wearing a bright Buddha T-shirt in keeping with the title of one of his much-loved novels, The Buddha of Suburbia.
During the trip, we read White Mughals, a true story about an intercultural affair, by Dalrymple, one of the founders of the Jaipur Lit Fest. Understanding Dalrymple’s penchant for thorough historical research gave a context to the remarks he made on various panels. The books we choose for the group are incentives for the trips we take, and symbiotically, what we learnt along the way opens the gates to an ever-increasing variety of books.
Last year, after attending a panel on the global novel, our book club chose three authors from that panel to read the following year: Jhumpa Lahiri, Xiaolu Guo, and Maaza Mengiste.
Voracious readers for the most part, many of us inherited the love of reading from our parents and have passed it along to our children. One started reading to her children in utero. In a triple-occupancy hotel room, three of us exchanged stories of reading our way through our parents’ shelves, from one side to the other. We bonded over the hardships of carving out reading time from the demands of family life, and how our spouses often complain of being “ignored”.
Tours like this deepen the ways we understand each other, too, crossing the cultural divide within our own group. We shared meals, bathrooms and long bus rides. We discovered who among us has little patience for tour guides and who peppers the guides with questions. We argued over how much to tip and when to call it a day at the block-print boutique. We saw each other’s ragged edges, as well as the smooth. In the final days, stomachs reeling from unfamiliar water and spices, we passed round charcoal pills like gumdrops.
A similar book club, based in Geneva, has made three trips so far to visit the settings of various novels. They read The Time of the Doves and The Shadow of the Wind before going to Barcelona; Baltasar and Blimunda in anticipation of Lisbon; and The Leopard for Sicily. In Sicily, the group stayed with the descendants of the author in their palazzo, sharing a sumptuous meal using royal china and glassware.
“We read for the feel, the emotions and a great story as much as for actual information or history,” a member of that book club observed, adding that reading gives her a deeper sense of a place than a guide book.
Like our group, the Geneva-based book club has discovered the joys of travelling with fellow readers and is planning more forays in the near future. The heady mixture of a new place, a shared book and a group of well- and lesser-known acquaintances yields an experience apart from the kind of holidays we expect. For us, the juicy stories that Theroux was looking for turn out to be each other’s.
The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai runs from March 3 to 7 and features well-known authors and writers from the region and around the world. For more information, visit www.emirateslitfest.com.
Updated: February 19, 2015 04:00 AM