Poor writers, naked rajas
Travelling and reading travelogues remain a bigger passion for me than writing. And reading travellers like Ibn Battuta is akin to travelling in the time machine.
It was by reading Battuta, who travelled 75,000 miles over 30 years, that created my interest in travel. In Tamil Nadu, A. Karuppan Chettiar, known as A.K. Chettiar — though not by many people — journeyed to several countries in the 1930s to write 17 travel memoirs. He also produced a 50,000 feet long documentary, Mahatma Gandhi: 20th Century Prophet. It was a collage of “archival footage” and his own filming. Though its abridged version is obtainable in American universities now, the original’s fate is not known.
The important feature of Chettiar’s travels is that it spans three decades —1930s to 1950s — and hence we get to see two different worlds, before and after World War II. A Londoner, who had just returned from India, once lamented to Chettiar, “I lived peacefully in India. Here, it is a dog’s life for a piece of bread.” At a hotel in London where Chettiar stayed, even hot water was not available. The restaurant was on the top floor; kitchen on the ground floor. Orders were yelled down and dishes were to be pulled up from the kitchen by a rope!
The photographs in his books were another specialty of Chettiar’s — they were all taken by Chettiar himself. He studied photography for a year in Japan, in 1935, and for another year in the US, in 1937. The photographs in the book are treasures. But Chettiar’s books can’t find a willing publishing house. I managed to read his books from photocopies that I took from the private library of R. Krishnamurthy in Pudukottai, Tamil Nadu.
Chettiar travelled a lot by ship; he took 27 days to reach San Pedro, US, from Japan. Then he journeyed 2,500 miles, from Los Angeles to New York by rail, and all through the northern states by a motor car to arrive again in Los Angeles. There is an interesting paragraph in his book about his visit to America. He writes:
“Among the Indians who visit New York from India, most of them our rajas. One raja has purchased diamonds worth $2,00,000 and 42 cars. In the city centre, there were underground entertainment clubs where the stewardess served in nude. It was the place our rajas visited. During once such visit, one of the rajas was locked up and was released only after paying $5,000 in ransom. What else a Raja is blessed with other than wealth?”
When applying for visa at the American embassy, driven by an urge to visit the places Chettiar had visited, I encountered problems that Chettiar too had experienced. In those days, “visa on arrival” was the norm. But Chettiar was stopped by the immigration officers when he disembarked at San Pedro port. Each passenger entering America should possess a minimum of $500, but Chettiar had only $497. After grilling him for over an hour and confirming that he was not a Sikh, since Americans didn’t allow entry to Sikhs easily even then, the immigration officer allowed him in.
In my case, after the formalities were over, I stood in front of the immigration officer, answering questions with a smile: “How many children? What does your son do? Are you taking your wife along?” (No… going alone.) “Where will you stay in the US? What do you do?” I replied that I was a writer and showed him a copy of my novel, Zero Degree.
After a while he said that my visa could not be sanctioned and sent me off. When I asked him the reason, he handed me a printed paper. Of the three reasons mentioned, I assumed that my visa application could have been rejected for two reasons: first, I had not convinced the consular officer that I intended to leave the US following my temporary stay. Before I had left for the interview, one of my friends told me to tell the officer about my two dogs without fail. When I looked perplexed, he said, “Americans think that you may settle in America ditching your wife here, but it is impossible to part with your dogs. Hence, don’t forget to mention them.” But since the consular officer was interested only in my wife and son I could not bring up the subject of my dogs — and the fact that my Great Dane, Zorro, will starve and turn into a skeleton until I return. Perhaps I should take some training on how to cleverly steer the discussion towards my dogs when I apply for my next visa.
The second point was financial. I have written on several controversial subjects, and with only a hundred copies of my novel selling, it sometimes feels like writing in my personal diary. So you can imagine my financial situation. I had to borrow money from my friends, wife and son to travel to the US. I have some fans there with whom I could have stayed.
There is only one way to enhance my financial situation: writing for the Tamil cinema. But there is a problem — I will have to spend sleepless nights after calling all those mediocre Tamil films as “classics”. Even my greed to follow Chettiar to America won’t allow me to ditch my conscience. Perhaps I should write novels with with Lord Rama or Shiva as the central characters — I could portray them like Akshay Kumar in Special 26 and sell million of copies? Does anybody know which IIM gives training for this? Please help me out if you do!
Charu Nivedita is a post-modern Tamil writer based in Chennai. His magnum opus, Zero Degree, is considered one of the best in trangressive fiction.