Book review by Bhaskar Parichha
Title: Gone Away — An Indian Journal
Author: Dom Moraes
Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020
When a travelogue resurfaces sixty years after it was first printed, that ought to be meaningful. “Gone Away – An Indian Journal” by Dom Moraes was originally published in the UK by William Heinemann. Republished as a paperback edition by Speaking Tiger Books (New Delhi) in 2020, the travelogue carries the same magic for the reader as it was then.
Dom Moraes, a poet, novelist and columnist, is perceived to be a foundational figure in Indian English Literature who published thirty books in his lifetime. In 1958, at the age of twenty, he won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for poetry. Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award for English in 1994, Moraes passed away in 2004.
Son of the Editor of the Times of India, Dom had grown up in well-off and generous circumstances. After traveling with his father through Australia to New Zealand and Malaya to the borders of Red China, he watched and wrote poetry. Moraes met Stephen Spender in India, showed him his poems and had some published in “Encounter.” The combined efforts of Spender and his father had gained him admission to Jesus College, Oxford.
Reads the blurb: “One of the most unconventional travelogues ever written, Gone Away covers three months of Dom Moraes’ life spent in the subcontinent at the time of the Chinese incursions on the Tibetan border in 1959. In that short time, a remarkable number of memorable things happened to him, some of them the sort of fantastic situations that could only enmesh a poet, perhaps only a young poet – a visit to a speak-easy in Bombay; an interview with Nehru and an hour spent closeted with the Dalai Lama in Delhi; and a meeting with the great Nepalese poet, Devkota, whom he found already laid out to die by the side of the holy river Basumati.”
After a short stay in Calcutta, where he tried, with limited success, to investigate the lives of prostitutes, he went up to Sikkim, the north-eastern border state into which no visiting writer had been allowed for almost a year. Having made his way by jeep right up to the frontier, he ran into a Chinese detachment and was shot at, but escaped to safety.
Full of comicality, felicity of phrase and oddity of behavior, Gone Away communicates the special excitement of the traveler on every page. Example: Unforgettably funny is the account of the Sikkimese soccer match played in an impenetrable mist and involving the loss of several footballs kicked over an adjoining cliff. Though wit and impertinence prevail through the pages, this is a book which catches and holds the mood of modern India and illuminates as much as it amuses.
This is both a political and a personal voyage of discovery, told simply. Moraes’ travelogue is also significant because it gives us the poet’s eye view: providing details from the Indian cityscape and draws our attention to the zeitgeist of the early decades after Independence.
This memoir is a delightful read and is both modest and polished. Moraes’ account of India’s friction with China and India’s relationship with Nepal at the end of 1950s is convincing, especially in the context of the new tensions on the borders. Recording public disquiet over China’s infractions in 1959, Moraes mentions that General Thimayya had asked that the Indian troops on the NEFA border should be supplied with automatic weapons, as they were inadequately armed in case of Chinese attacks. Krishna Menon is said to have refused the request. Then came Longju, when inadequately equipped and outnumbered Indians were put to flight by the Chinese. Indian foot soldiers, caught in the cross locks of war, continue to be ill equipped, even to date.
There are many more accounts in the book of Dom Moraes meeting prominent diplomats, politicians, writers and artists such as Malcolm MacDonald, Jayaprakash Narayan, Han Suyin, M F Hussain, Nirad Chaudhuri, Kishen Khanna, Buddhadeva Bose, Jamini Roy and many more. Moraes also managed to reach Sikkim when the Chinese were closing in on the border. There is so much of the subcontinent’s socio-cultural history to exude. The historical incidents and famous people are easily recalled from textbooks but reading this firsthand experience is something exceptional.
Moraes travels continue to Calcutta, Gangtok and Sikkim, where the Chinese army’s presence is strongly indicated and the Indian state does not provide enough information. Reporting a readable narrative about independent India’s first decade, Moraes’ love for India anticipates his eventual homecoming.
He captures the occasion with candour, his narrative provides a perspective that tells the whole truth, with little sentimentality or precision, and is peppered with humor that is situational and occasionally self-deprecatory.
With an introduction by Jerry Pinto, “Gone Away” is part of the trilogy of autobiographies written by Moraes. It is a fabulous testimony to India and many of its rarities.
Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.
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