Remembrances of travels past, to places far and near, recollected most fondly and of course, held dear.
A travelogue written from memory is arguably a more intimate piece of writing than one composed from copious, deliberate notes. Every Mile a Memory by Partha Sarthi Sen Sharma seems very much to belong to this more closely felt class of travel books, and very pleasantly so. Written as a compilation of vignette-like chapters, the book covers the author's sojourns long and short, to destinations popular and obscure, both foreign and closer home.
Opening with a section titled "A Bengali in Britain", it goes "Criss-crossing the Continent" of Europe and then traverses elegantly, eagerly "Across the Straits," with Pamuk as inspiration, into moonlit, minaret-skylined Istanbul, before segueing into an "even more exotic and other-worldly" Morocco with its...
"Tall Berbers, the rain-swept aerodrome of Casablanca, the snow-capped Atlas Mountains merging with the sand dunes of the Sahara."
The author calls this part of his travels "completely new and unfamiliar" and indeed the fresh charm of the first encounter is delightfully evident in the simple, heart-felt expression of his equally new, unfamiliar thoughts and feelings at experiencing these hallowed, historic, exotic places for the very first time.
Interesting sights, sounds, foods, scents, locales, people—living and gone, famous and not—and nuggets of rare history inhabit and commingle on the pages into a singular reading experience. In a chapter titled "Turkish Delight" he writes the following of the Hagia Sophia:
"The first thing that struck me as I entered... was the immense sense of space and size, as if the entire universe had turned upside down and I lay suspended somewhere in that space, a mere tiny mortal. I could imagine what Emperor Justinian must have felt when he, its patron, had entered the finished cathedral for the first time and exclaimed 'Solomon, I have surpassed you!"
The fourth and final part of the book, "An Indian in India" recounts the author's experience of Nainital, Agra, and his current hometown Lucknow, among other places, and his familiarity with both this terrain and its unique terroir adds a particularly pleasing, evocative effect to his brew of travels, complete with adventure and some rather startling revelations. Of a kayaking expedition with a Provincial Armed Constabulary team, in a segment titled "Slowly down the Ganga from Dalmau to Kalakankar" he writes:
"..After an eventful journey, the highlight of which had been the inevitable topple mid-stream, we reached Kalakankar House, to a surprisingly warm reception by the local populace... Here the great Sumitra Nandan Pant had composed his masterpieces while being a guest of honour of the Raja. As the rays of the sun reflected on millions of sparkling wavelets, I was told the remarkable tale of Stalin's daughter, Svetlana, who had arrived in this very house with the ashes of her partner Brajesh Singh before travelling onto Delhi and then the United States to seek political asylum, which she was granted. Her life, her story, seemed to be the stuff of legends, and yet I had never known... I realized how so many tales, so many stories had been lying scattered all around us... if only we had the eyes to see and the ears to listen."
Indeed, if only... but for now the tales and stories scattered all over Every Mile a Memory will last the reader a most gently enjoyable while.
(Partha Sarthi Sen Sharma is an IAS Officer of Uttar Pradesh cadre. Every Mile a Memory is his third book.)