There are many books that have stayed with me over the years and helped me to better understand various places and cultures, including my own. I am happy to share my current top 5 Asia travel book choices pertaining to some of the areas that are very close to my heart.
The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh (fiction)
I happened to read this book shortly before visiting the Sundarbans in the easternmost corner of India, where the story is based. A mystical land of man-eating tigers and vast mangrove forests, the region is spread across India and Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal and has an extremely fragile ecosystem with incredible flora and fauna including many rare and threatened species such as the estuarine crocodile (some of the biggest in the country), Gangetic dolphin and olive ridley turtle.
It is the only mangrove forest in the world where tigers are found and poor infrastructure and access have kept it relatively isolated. The story revolves around a young American marine biologist of Indian descent and a local fisherman and translator she engages to help her in her search for a rare species of river dolphin. Through the characters’ contrasting views and beliefs, the book explores various human, political and environmental issues including the much talked-about human-wildlife conflict. The region’s geography, history, culture and day-to-day life are beautifully portrayed and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in India and contemporary Indian literature.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (non-fiction, travel)
One of the best mountaineering books and a must-read for anyone interested in the Himalaya and Mount Everest, this book is a personal account of the disastrous Everest expedition in May 1996, which left 8 climbers dead, the third highest death toll on Everest in a single day. A true tribute to the climbers, Krakauer’s poignant account provides an insight into the factors that drive them and the sacrifices they make in order to achieve their goals. It’s a real celebration of human will and endurance.
Besides the details of the unfortunate events that led to the tragedy, Krakauer has brilliantly detailed the aftermath, including the heroic efforts of the survivors and everyone involved in their rescue missions, and how the disaster exposed the hazards of commercialisation. Although I am not into mountain climbing, I have trekked in the foothills of Himalaya and have been fortunate enough to view the celebrated mountain from close quarters. This book brought it all back to me and left me deeply moved and awestruck.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (historical fiction)
I read this book whilst I was travelling in Vietnam, many years before I actually visited Japan. It is beautiful, gripping and utterly unforgettable, and it hugely enhanced my curiosity and interest in Japan. The fictional story is based on the confessions of one of the most celebrated geishas and it exquisitely depicts the history and intricacies of this famous and intriguing aspect of the Japanese society and culture. Majority of the novel is set in the popular geisha district of Gion in Kyoto and its quaint little streets and tea houses are beautifully described. Part of the story also portrays one of the most turbulent times the Japanese have gone through and how it changed the society. It’s a quick and relatively light read and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in Japan.
River Town by Peter Hessler (non-fiction, travel)
A fascinating travel literature, this book portrays China through the eyes of Peter Hessler, an American Peace Corps volunteer who was stationed in a small city of Fuling in the Sichuan province in 1996. Through his own experiences and the views shared by the people he came across, Hessler explores the stark differences between the two cultures, China’s past and what it aspires to become. Like much of the country, in 1996 Fuling was trying to cope with the effects of rapid and sudden development, especially with the construction of Three Gorges Dam, which upon completion was due to partly flood the city and displace more than a million inhabitants. For anyone remotely interested in China, this book offers an inspired and poignant portrayal of this remarkable city and society at a crucial crossroads of change.
The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma by Thant Myint-U (non-fiction, history)
Like China, very little is known about Burma (Myanmar) and its history. This is primarily due to the sanctions and boycotts that were in place until recently. With the change in the government, people are finally trying to propel towards a freer and more democratic society. In this compelling account, partly based on the author’s own family’s history, Burma’s modern history is illustrated, right from the time of Portuguese pirates and the Mughals through to the era of British colonialism, World War II and the country’s decades-old civil war. It is a real eye-opener and provides an in-depth and educated background on the society and the issues it is currently facing. For many, it will make Myanmar appealing and accessible.
“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.” - Ernest Hemingway