June 7, 2012
Did anybody else see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel over the Memorial Day weekend? Somebody must have because the film, which opened on May 4, continues to do well at the box office, and that’s compared with a slew of big-budget blockbusters—Men in Black 3, Battleship, The Avengers—that have come along since then. Marigold’s popularity has been credited to John Madden, who also directed Shakespeare in Love, and to its 24-karat gold cast, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy, all of them over 60. (The film is based on These Foolish Things, a novel by Deborah Moggach about a group of English oldsters who move to a retirement hotel in India.) But the movie’s reception is also seen as proof that there’s a market for movies about people who aren’t young and beautiful, just interesting—as are the characters in Marigold, coping with end-of-life transitions in a drastically foreign place.
And let’s not forget another major factor in Marigold’s success: India, specifically the western state of Rajasthan, long a favorite with travelers for its mighty hill forts, bedizened palaces, teeming markets and lost desert villages. The hotel in the book—Moggach called it the Dunroamin—is located in the dreamy lake city of Udaipur, though the movie was filmed in Jaipur to the north. I recognized the setting immediately because I began a tour of Rajasthan there ten years ago.
It was in Jaipur—known as the Pink City for the color it was painted when England’s Prince Albert came to visit in 1876—that I learned how to take wild rides in auto-rickshaws without fear, tasted my spinach paneer at a vegetarian restaurant downtown, climbed to Amber Palace built by Raja Man Singh in 1592, and had a fine gin and tonic in the style of Prince Albert at the Polo Bar in the Rambagh Palace Hotel, where the Maharani of Jaipur lived until 1957. And I only have to look as far as my bedroom to remember a daylong shopping expedition aimed at finding the perfect quilted cotton spread, decorated in woodblock prints, a specialty in Jaipur. Mine is in shades of blue—soft and beautiful, albeit somewhat threadbare now.
I went on from there to Udaipur, the Jain temple complex at Ranakpur, Kumbhalgarh Fort and Jaisalmer, the last Thar Desert outpost before the Pakistani border. But Jaipur remains most deeply etched in my memory, which is why I took so much pleasure in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The $13 ticket price is a small amount to pay for a trip to Rajasthan.
May 16, 2012
I don’t like packing and getting shots, but when it comes to getting ready to travel, I love reading books and watching movies. I’m currently planning a trip to India, which I haven’t visited for almost 15 years. I want to find out how it’s changed, spend a week doing yoga at an ashram, see the burning ghats at Varanasi and taste the spicy food of the subcontinental south.
To prepare for my first trip I took in such standards as director Richard Attenborough’s 1982 epic Gandhi and David Lean’s 1984 film take on E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India; “The Jewel in the Crown” miniseries based on novelist Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet; Paul Brunton’s esoteric A Search in Secret India; A House for Mr. Biswas, V. S. Naipaul’s heartbreakingly funny look at family life in the Indian diaspora community; Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie’s evocation of India at independence; and everything by Louise Nicholson, the queen of India guidebook writers.
This time I’m finding much more to read and watch—India updated.
English, August (1988), by Upamanyu Chatterjee, follows a confused, morose, insidiously funny young man to an Indian Civil Service posting in the provincial backwater of Madna where, almost in spite of himself, he sees deeper into the nature of India with both its glories and absurdities.
A Fine Balance (1995), a richly textured, bighearted novel by Rohinton Mistry that follows two village tailors who search for work in the city during the “Emergency“ from 1975 to 1977 when the government of Indira Gandhi suspended individual rights and democratic elections, resulting in widespread abuses. “You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair,” a fellow train passenger tells them—sound advice, it turns out, as the tailors are beset by more woes than Job. Together with his more recent novel Family Matters (2002), A Fine Balance establishes Mistry as one of the best, most vivid and moving chroniclers of contemporary India, especially Mumbai.
India (2011), by Patrick French, a contemporary study of the Indian nation assessing the singular nature of its democracy, the flush economy and enduring poverty, religious fractures, intransigent caste system and high-tech genius—all backed up by moving portraits of Indian people, be they quarry workers, Bollywood stars or dirty politicians.
The Last Mughal (2006) is historian William Dalrymple’s detailed look at the 1857 Indian Mutiny, the chaos it wrecked on New Delhi, the brutality of British retribution and the pathetic end of the great Mughul dynasty under its last unfortunate emperor, Zafar.
Sacred Games (2006), by Vikram Chandra, is part-thriller, part-police procedural, all extraordinary literary investigation into the beating, red heart of the Indian city of Mumbai. It features a valiant, long-suffering Sikh policeman and bizarrely tortured crime overlord, along with the fully Dickensian world of characters who bind them together. A terrific read.
Salaam Bombay! (1988), artfully directed by Mira Nair, tells the story of a boy on the mean streets of Mumbai, the drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes and thugs he befriends and his hopeless struggle to make enough money to return home to the mother who all but sold him to the circus. If Slumdog Millionaire is glass half full, Salaam Bombay! is a more realistic glass half empty.
Sea of Poppies (2008) is the first book in a projected trilogy by Amitav Ghosh, set in the early 1800s when the British-run opium trade was pillaging Hindustan on one hand and enslaving China on the other. To evade it a group of travelers set out in a great sailing ship to the island of Mauritius, mixing customs and languages from all around the Indian Ocean, the rich backdrop for this epic of the Indian diaspora.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008), director Danny Boyle’s first hit film, uses flashbacks during a young man’s appearance as a contestant on the Indian TV version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” to tell the story of three orphaned children growing up in the shantytowns of Mumbai. It’s pure wish fulfillment with a full-throttle happy ending, but segments were filmed in desperately poor neighborhoods of the city most visitors never see, like the unforgettably funny scene set in a slum toilet.
A Suitable Boy (1993) is a novel by Vikram Seth that depicts the lives and preoccupations of middle-class India as a young woman chooses a husband from three very different suitors. Set against the political maneuvering of the post-independence era, it unfolds like a soap opera—but with finer sensibilities—and creates a world of involving characters. At almost 1,500 pages long, in for a penny, in for a pound.
The White Tiger (2008), by Aravind Adiga, another novel—contemporary Indian writers excel in fiction—channels the hilarious voice of a devious Delhi chauffeur to serve up a scathing picture of democracy in India—vote-buying, bribes, kickbacks and all.
Still, one book stands above all as required reading for the traveler in India: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. First published in 1901, it is considered a relic of British imperialism by some critics (like Edward Said) and many Indians. But to my mind Kipling’s classic remains a window on the Indian soul and a spiritual lesson. Starting from the steps of the Lahore Museum, it travels across India in the company of an orphan boy learning to spy for the British and a Tibetan Buddhist holy man who meets adversity by remembering that “just is the wheel.” For historical background dip into The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (1990), by Peter Hopkirk.
May 9, 2012
Heads up: On May 28, HBO will air a made-for-television movie that should fascinate travelers: “Hemingway & Gellhorn.”
With Clive Owen as Papa and Nicole Kidman as the daring and beautiful war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, it is being billed as one of the greatest romances of the 20th century. OK. The star-crossed couple met and made love in steamy Key West in 1936, traveled to exotic places together and married four years later. But the network is going to have to sprinkle plenty of love dust on the true story of their relationship to make viewers’ hearts palpitate.
That’s because they divorced acrimoniously after a brief five years of wedded bliss, during which time both had affairs and cohabitated only intermittently. Eventually Hemingway gave her an ultimatum and she read the tea lives about her future as a “footnote in someone else’s life.” After they divorced in 1945, Gellhorn granted interviews on the proviso that Hemingway’s name would not be mentioned.
We all know what happened to him, but Gellhorn’s story is seldom remembered even though she wrote a dozen books based on her adventures before taking her own life in 1998 while suffering from cancer. My favorite is “Travels with Myself and Another,” published in 1978, a book about colossally bad trips in which she wrote, “The only aspect of our travels that is guaranteed to hold an audience is disaster.”
One of the essays therein, “Mr. Ma’s Tigers,” is a travel classic that recounts the agonies of a 1941 trip to China to cover the Sino-Japanese War with Hemingway, coyly identified only as U.C., which stands for unwilling companion. Along the way she got to meet the unsavory head of the Republic of China Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, fly over the Himalayan “hump” in a shuddering DC-3 operated by China National Aviation Company, the strappy outfit that kept lines of communication open to the free Chinese capital of Chungking, and witness at firsthand hapless, ill-equipped Chinese soldiers attempting to fend off the Japanese, soon to join forces with Hitler as an Axis power.
Gellhorn was a sharp observer and terse, evocative writer as able to describe a dress dinner with the king and queen of Hawaii as Hong Kong brothels and opium dens. And honest. Throughout “Mr. Ma’s Tigers” she never tries to hide her private schoolgirl horror of filthy customs like spitting and squalid conditions she encountered in the Orient causing her to shriek, whine and occasionally vomit. Her reactions are set in stark, self-aware contrast to those of Hemingway, who only had to take a drink to live and let live. At one point she reports him telling her, “The trouble with you is that you think everybody is exactly like you. What you can’t stand, they can’t stand. What’s hell for you has to be hell for them. How do you know what they feel about their lives? If it was as bad as you think they’d kill themselves instead of having more kids and setting off firecrackers.“
Both responses inevitably coexist in the hearts of travelers, engendering the internal edginess we feel on extreme trips to places like India and Africa. That’s what I’d like to see in the HBO movie because—never mind Hemingway—few writers have depicted it better than Gellhorn.
March 25, 2012
I spent the first few months I lived in Paris—from 2003 to 2006—seeing almost every sight in the Blue Guide, but after a while I stopped running around and discovered that the true pleasure of living in the City of Light is having the luxury of taking it for granted. A good day started with un café at the bar on the corner, a little shopping and then an afternoon at the American Library in Paris.
On rue du Général Camou near the Eiffel Tower, the library is unknown to most tourists, but deeply embedded in the hearts of expats from dozens of countries, not just the United States, who sometimes need to read and think in English. A quarter of its 2,500 members are French, in fact, drawn to the library’s Anglophone-friendly 120,000-book collection. Compared with other libraries in Paris, it is a quiet, uncrowded oasis offering two to three special events every week, including children’s programs, book groups and author lectures.
With a constant stream of writers from the U.S. passing through Paris, the library serves as a literary center. “There is something about an expatriate library—a tentacle, an emissary, a piece of another civilization residing in an alien one—that is very moving,” says Adam Gopnik, author of the acclaimed essay collection Paris to the Moon.
The not-for-profit library was founded in 1920 as a home for 1.5 million books sent to soldiers in World War I trenches by the American War Service. Its motto reflected the origins: After the darkness, the light of books. American writers who began flocking to Paris after the war were frequent visitors. Young Thornton Wilder and Archibald MacLeish spent time there in the 20s; Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway were among its first trustees and both contributed to its still-published newsletter, Ex Libris. When an even deeper darkness fell over Paris during the World War II German occupation, the library managed to stay open and uncensored against all odds because the French director’s son was married to the daughter of Vichy prime minister Pierre Laval. Unbeknown to the authorities, it lent books to Jews banned from other libraries, though a staff member was shot by the Gestapo.
After the war, a new generation of writers like James Jones, Mary McCarthy and Richard Wright could be found in the stacks and satellite branches opened around Paris. In the 1950s, when the library occupied quarters on the Champs-Elysées, it was the scene of a tense standoff between staff and anti-Communist censors sent by Senator Joseph McCarthy to eradicate Red books from American libraries in Europe.
Its current 7th Arrondissement home was renovated last summer, but still seems unprepossessing compared with nearby Belle Époque landmarks like Jules Lavirotte’s flamboyant Beaux-Arts apartment house at 29 Avenue Rapp. You have to go inside to appreciate its treasures: big biography and mystery collections, DVDs, 500 periodicals, a computerized catalog, books for teens and children. The stacks are open (though you have to be a member to check books out) and eccentrically arranged with secret nooks scattered throughout. Librarians often can be found reading to groups of children; habitués come in for their morning look at the International Herald Tribune; best-selling writers research works-in-progress, rarely recognized by people at the next carrel.
Anyone who grew up in an American town with a good public library will feel at home as soon as he or she walks in. “It feels like a little piece of the U.S.,” says director Charles Trueheart, who came to the library in 2007 after serving as Paris correspondent for The Washington Post.
American tourists, too, are welcome, Trueheart says. It’s a good place to check e-mail and research the next leg of a trip, surrounded by Anglophones and great books in the mother tongue.
February 10, 2012
Paris is for lovers.
Who came up with that? Possibly the unidentified Swiss collector who paid over $200,000 a few years ago for The Kiss at City Hall, a black-and-white photo shot in Paris by Robert Doisneau that has come to symbolize all things romantic. Or an Edith Piaf fan. Or some marketing whiz at the French Tourist Bureau. But whoever coined the phrase got it just right because people in love are truly drawn to the City of Light. Paris. I went there for the first time on my honeymoon some years ago, a visit soured by a crumby hotel, malicious waiters and romantic expectations no place on earth could fulfill.
The French capital’s reputation for romance persists, of course, fueled by travel magazines, books and films like Woody Allen’s recent Midnight in Paris. Benches in the Tuileries are still occupied by people cemented together at the lips and couples have attached so many padlocks—cadenas d’amour—to railings on the Pont des Arts that the city recently announced its intention to remove the little love tokens in the interest of historic preservation.
I, too, love Paris, my honeymoon notwithstanding. But on later visits I learned to draw a distinction between romantic as in human relationships and the uppercase-r artistic style. Some people are immune to love-potion Paris, but no one can deny the city’s Belle Époque glories that speak of a time when emotion gushed after the cerebral Age of Enlightenment—the Paris of George Sand, Frédéric Chopin and the Impressionists.
If that sounds like putting too fine a point on it, consider a few singly unromantic facts gleaned from a three-year residence there.
- What, I ask, is so romantic about stepping in dog-doo, a common peril for flaneurs in a city where people flout pooper-scooper laws as strenuously as they uphold the Rights of Man?
- FWIW, not all buildings in Paris are beautiful. I once drove around town with a French friend of mine seeking out eyesores like the Jussieu Campus of Curie University, Quinze Vingts Eye Hospital in the 12th and infamous Tour Montparnasse.
- French distaste for the capital is seldom-discussed, though actress Julie Delpy let fly in 2 Days in Paris, her 2007 film about the city‘s nut-ball taxi drivers, predilection for animal entrails, bad plumbing and gnarly smells.
- The oldest profession was raised to a virtual art form by beautiful courtesans in 19th century Paris. Today, prostitution remains legal, though ancillary activities like soliciting, procuring and paying for sex with a partner under the age of 18 are against the law. It’s no Bangkok, to be sure, but the reality of the sex trade is just as disturbing there as it is anywhere and shockingly out-in-the-open along the Right Bank’s rue Blondel.
- By the way, shortly before his death in 1994, Doisneau admitted that The Kiss at City Hall was a set-up, featuring professional models, posed to look like a pair of the lovers whom Paris may or may not be for, depending on your point of view.