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A life mapped out

The late Ryszard Kapuscinski’s enthusiasm for Greek historian Herodotus was as infectious as his hunger to explore the web of the wide world, says Sanjay Sipahimalani.

india Updated: Sep 24, 2007 17:33 IST
Sanjay Sipahimalani
Sanjay Sipahimalani
Hindustan Times

Travels with Herotodus
Ryszard Kapuscinski
Publisher: Penguin
Price: Rs 460
Pages: 275

It was during an interview with Bill Buford in 1987 that Ryszard Kapuscinski defined his style of writing:

“I feel sometimes that I am working in a completely new field of literature, in an area that is both unoccupied and
unexplored… I sometimes call it literature by foot.”

This urge to create his own brand of literature took Kapuscinski to Russia, Africa, Latin America and South Africa,
among other places, resulting in not just reports for the Polish Press Agency — for whom he once was the only foreign correspondent — but books that enlighten with felicity.

The most well-known, of course, are The Emperor, on the decline of Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie and Shah of Shahs, on the fall of Iran’s Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Now, in his last book, the posthumous Travels with Herodotus, Kapuscinski takes us back to his first fumbling forays from his native Poland to India, China and Africa in the 1950s. Unlike the debonair overseas reporter of Hitchcock’s
Foreign Correspondent, Kapuscinski had to contend with unfamiliar languages, scarce resources and the need to be sure he had a way to dispatch his reports.

Throughout most of his travels, Kapuscinski, tells us, he had a faithful companion: a copy of Herodotus’ The Histories, the reading of which became an obsession, a distraction and a consolation. Travels with Herodotus, then, isn’t merely a nostalgic excursion; it also acknowledges the influence of, and pays homage to, the 5th century Greek historian known as “the father of history”.

Herodotus’ The Histories was a key text in furthering knowledge of the ancient Persians and Greeks and the conflicts between them. Kapuscinski writes that one of Herodotus’ motivations in travelling and writing was that he was distrustful of memory, wanting to place on record the exploits of kings and countries before they were forgotten. (Which brings to mind Milan Kundera’s famous comment: “The struggle of man against tyranny is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”)

However detailed his imaginative recreation of Herodotus’ scenes — and it must be said that some of the exegeses
do come across as overdone — what remains in mind are the vignettes from Kapuscinski’s early career: his untutored impressions of Delhi and Benaras, his attempts to pierce the inscrutability of his Chinese hosts and, notably, his account of watching Louis Armstrong in concert in Khartoum in 1987. Other such episodes include his trip to the ruined, yet majestic, city of Persepolis and smoking hashish on an escarpment overlooking the Nile.

Herotodus has, for years now, been accused of exaggeration and rumour. His fan, in this book, doesn’t directly address or rebut these charges, but does take pains to point out that, given the age in which he wrote The Histories, there was absolute reliance on the spoken word, its interpretation and on people’s memories. Kapuscinski’s efforts to create connections between his times and those of his mentor are sometimes laboured, but his enthusiasm for Herotodus is infectious, matched only by his hunger to explore and explain. It is this spirit that pervades this public chronicle of a private passion.

Sanjay Sipahimalani writes on the literary blog

First Published: Sep 24, 2007 17:25 IST