In my early travel days, the books I read based on most “books to read while travelling” recommendations were mostly written by western travellers. You can probably guess some of them: Into the Wild by Jon Krakeur, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I found them inspiring back then and still admire the authors for their personal quests. But the more I travel, the more I realise that the perspectives in these travel memoirs often come from a place of privilege.
In my quest to discover lesser-visited regions around the world, I long to unravel their many layers through the words and perspectives of a local. To delve deeper into a country’s unique way of life, as shaped by its cultural and historical influences.
As a result, I’ve ended up discovering delightful books by local authors on my travels. And reading these books while simultaneously exploring the country they’re set in, adds a dreaminess to my travels, like taking multiple journeys at once – physically, virtually and emotionally.
My travel experiences gradually culminated in my own travel memoir – The Shooting Star. It charts my adventures from the cubicle to the road, and from small town India to remote corners of the globe.
The “travel books” that fascinate me often transcend the travel writing genre, but I hope you too will think they’re the best books to read while travelling anyway:
Reading Lolita in Tehran
By Azar Nafisi | Iran
“It takes courage to die for a cause, but also to live for one.”
Halfway through reading ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’, I decided that no matter what, I was going to explore Iran someday (I finally did, last month!). Set in Tehran after the 1979 revolution, this is the bold and inspiring memoir of Azar Nafisi, an English Literature professor who dared to start a book club among her best students – all women, reading classics like Lolita and The Great Gatsby, officially censored by the authorities in Iran.
Set amidst the backdrop of Tehran’s Alborz mountains and the Iraq war, the journey of Nafisi’s characters (her students) is interwoven beautifully with the characters they read about. The book left me simultaneously melancholic, hopeful and inspired – and was featured on the New York Times bestseller list for over a hundred weeks.
From the Land of Green Ghosts
By Pascal Kho Thwe | Myanmar (Burma)
“I also felt like an exile, or a traveller lost between two unfamiliar shores.”
As I was preparing for my epic land journey from Thailand to India through the length and breadth of Myanmar, I stumbled upon the incredible story of Pascal Kho Thwe in his debut book, From the Land of Green Ghosts. Raised as the chieftain’s son in the traditional Padaung hill tribe in Myanmar, the book charts his journey from a fascinating tribal upbringing, through the heartbreaking civil war in Myanmar, to his unlikely quest to study English Literature at Cambridge!
By the time I made it to the end of this awe-inspiring memoir, I could feel my eyes well up and my heart shudder at everything he’s experienced in one lifetime. And perhaps that explains the kinship I felt with the tribal folk I met in the remote Chin state.
Ali and Nino
By Kurban Said | Azerbaijan, Georgia (the Caucasus)
“Close your eyes, cover your ears with your hands and open your soul.”
Ali and Nino was one of the few books I found under ‘the Caucasus’ section at a bookstore in Georgia, and decided to buy it on impulse. I had no idea then that its author continues to be shrouded in mystery, for it was first published in the 1930s under the pen name Kurban Said, and once attributed to an Austrian baroness! Evidence has come to light since, that the book may have been written by Lev Nussimbaum who spent his childhood in Baku.
Set in the early 1900s, the book is inspired by the heartwarming love story of Ali, a Muslim Azerbaijani boy and Nino, a Christian Georgian girl – and the many obstacles that stand between them: Muslim and Christian, Oriental and European, and the Soviet invasion of Azerbaijan. Set across Dagestan, Azerbaijan and Georgia, the book offers an intimate glimpse into life in the Caucasus region, and left me with the overwhelming feeling that history keeps repeating itself.
Remembering Che: My Life With Che Guevara
By Aleida March | Cuba
“Farewell, my only one,
do not tremble before the hungry wolves
nor in the cold steppes of absence;
I take you with me in my heart
and we will continue together until the road vanishes…”
On my first day in Havana, I walked into a small bookstore to seek respite from the sweltering heat of the city, and walked out with a copy of My Life with Che – written by Aleida March, Che Guevara’s wife, and translated from Spanish by Pilar Aguilera.
I had read Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara a long time ago, for it typically makes it to most “inspiring travel books” recommendations. I loved it at the time, but as a more mature traveller aching to better understand how Che’s travels shaped both him and his adopted country, “Remembering Che” became my companion on my travels across Cuba. March’s words are raw and simple, yet sometimes too honest to digest. As I travelled across Cuba, I saw the Cuban revolution through her eyes and came to appreciate Che’s altruistic yet flawed personality. At the same time, I felt like I was journeying through time to see how Cuba has changed over the years.
I remember sitting on the Malecon (sea face) in Havana, on my last evening in the country, reading the last few pages of the book, with the salty wind blowing through my hair. A strange nostalgia washed over me, as I wondered if Che and Aleida had ever sat there, in the same spot, watching the horizon, feeling what I was feeling. Only a handful of books are capable of inducing that.
The King’s Harvest
By Chetan Raj Sreshtha | Sikkim (Northeast India)
“In the place of timber houses with leaky roofs were gigantic boxes of cement with harsh windows. The road was wider and topped with the same tasteless black cake…”
When the “bookman” of Sikkim (the owner of the indie Rachna bookstore in Gangtok) highly recommends a book by a Sikkimese author, you’d better buy it. That’s how The King’s Harvest landed in my arms. Of the two novellas the book is split into, the first, An Open and Shut Case is the story of a woman who kills her husband and turns herself in. It weaves through a layered world of love, music and shared taxis – to reveal that a case like this isn’t exactly open and shut.
But it’s the second of the two novellas, The King’s Harvest, that lives within me even after all these years. The story takes you to a remote land in Sikkim where one man lives in solitude, toils on the land and joyfully gives a share of his harvest to his beloved king every year. When the harvest collector stops showing up, the man decides, after 32 long years of isolation, to personally visit the king, oblivious to how the kingdom has changed. Sprinkled with magical realism, I found this book just as enchanting as my first glimpse of Mount Kanchenjunga!
Also read: Sikkim: The Lost Kingdom
Norwegian Wood | A Wild Sheep Chase
By Haruki Murakami | Japan
“Time really is one big continuous cloth, no? We habitually cut out pieces of time to fit us, so we tend to fool ourselves into thinking that time is our size, but it really goes on and on.”
Ever since I read Norwegian Wood on a train ride along Canada’s Rocky Mountains, I’ve been hooked onto Murakami, his imaginative words, his mysterious characters, his bizarre plots and his surreal depiction of life in Japan. And when I finally travelled to Japan last year, I ended up meeting a local who indeed belonged in a Murakami novel!
Norwegian Wood, set mostly in Tokyo, explores love, relationships, sex and life through the lens of a young Japanese college student and the women he meets along the way. I remember, quite vividly, the riot of emotions that stormed through me as I became engrossed in his characters; emotions I never imagined a book could be capable of making me feel.
Since then, I’ve read many works by Murakami, and one of his earliest books, A Wild Sheep Chase, is one I keep thinking about. The bizarre plot is set in a stunning, remote village in Hokkaido, and is fascinating, mysterious and absurd, with all the charms of magical realism yet realistic characters. After reading it, I can’t wait to make it to Hokkaido.
Also read: In Search of Murakami’s Japan
Neither Night Nor Day
Short stories, edited by Rakhshanda Jalil | Pakistan
My Indian passport makes it very difficult to explore Pakistan. So to satiate my longing to explore the other side of the Indian subcontinent, I delved into Neither Night Nor Day, an anthology of short stories written by 13 Pakistani women. Spanning themes like familial expectations, immigrant life in London, partition and female infanticide, these stories explore the everyday lives of ordinary Pakistanis – and as an Indian, you quickly realise that despite the border between us, the battles and triumphs are the same. The stories are heartfelt, vivid and often soul-stirring.
The Forty Rules of Love
By Elif Shafak | Turkey, Central Asia and Iran
“No matter what your destination, just be sure to make every journey, a journey within. If you travel within, you’ll travel the whole wide world and beyond.”
I first read about and fell in love with Shams-e Tabrizi – the mystic Sufi and whirling dervish who became the muse of the beloved Persian poet Rumi – while reading The Forty Rules of Love. This brilliantly crafted work takes you simultaneously into the intriguing (non-fiction) world of Shams and Rumi, and a contemporary (fiction) world where a woman embarks on a journey to meet the mysterious author of a fascinating manuscript. The latter story somehow elevates the philosophy, poetry and mysticism of the relationship between Shams and Rumi.
The book impacted me deeply enough to land up in Tabriz, the home of Shams, all these years later on my recent trip to Iran!
Tibet with my eyes closed
By Madhu Gurung | Tibet
“The highest art is the art of living an ordinary life in an extraordinary way.”
Ever since I first met a Tibetan refugee in Delhi and heard her heartbreaking story of escape, I’ve thought about working on a book that shines the spotlight on ordinary Tibetans living in exile, unable to go back to their beloved homeland as they knew it. Truth be told, I was a bit disappointed to spot my dream book on the shelf of a local bookshop in Dehradun – and bought it immediately. The first story had me in tears. I felt so glad it was written by journalist Madhu Gurung and not me, because I probably couldn’t have done it justice. “Tibet with my eyes closed” is a collection of extraordinary stories, told so movingly, some had me in tears, others filled me with an insatiable longing.
Born A Crime
By Trevor Noah | South Africa
“If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense.”
Many people have described Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime as a “fun” read. It’s full of wit and humor, no doubt. But reading it while digital nomad-ing in South Africa for 3 months put a lot in perspective. Spending time in townships near Cape Town, I was mind-boggled by the inequality and awe-inspired by the talent – and the book helped me grasp both. Born a Crime is a glimpse of South Africa’s apartheid history and a story of resilience, one that gradually shaped my own perceptions of the country. I also can’t help but marvel at Trevor Noah’s journey from growing up as a colored person during apartheid in South Africa to becoming one of the world’s most sought after stand-up comedians and the host of The Daily Show!
In Love With Butterflies
By Rikku Dhan Subba and Sonam Tashi | Bhutan
There are plenty of books written by western authors about happiness and finding life’s meaning in Bhutan. But I only found a handful by Bhutanese authors in a bookstore in Thimphu. In Love With Butterflies is one of them. A collection of short stories inspired by the lives of ordinary Bhutanese people. Simple language, raw emotions and a rare glimpse into Bhutan that doesn’t romanticize the country’s misunderstood quest for “happiness.”
The Bastard of Istanbul
By Elif Shafak | Armenia, Turkey
“Imagination was a dangerously captivating magic for those compelled to be realistic in life, and words could be poisonous for those destined always to be silenced.”
I’d been meaning to read The Bastard of Istanbul for a long time, for I loved Elif Shafak’s Forty Rules of Love. And I got my hands on it at just the right time – while spending a month in Armenia! Though a fictional account of an eccentric range of characters based in Turkey, the book offers a keen insight into the Armenian genocide and the strained relations between Turks and Armenians. This is the kind of fiction I love – one that makes history engaging, moving and relevant to today.
Your turn, which unusual “travel books” have you stumbled upon on your travels?
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