[SOFTCOVER: INDIA] Going to lots of places and none at all

Rahul Jacob is still finding his feet as a travel writer. But he does know how those in the know avoid the tourists in Rome

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Sun, Feb 22, 2009 - Page 14


Rahul Jacob has been the travel, food and drink editor of London’s Financial Times since 2003, and this is a collection of pieces he first wrote for that newspaper. He grew up in Calcutta and left India at the age of 21 to study journalism in the US. Before joining the FT he covered business from Hong Kong for Time magazine and worked for Fortune in New York, writing about management.

The first thing to strike you about this book is its publisher. Shouldn’t the travel editor of the FT be able to get a London or New York publisher for his book? Did its being published in India mean that it had been turned down by more prestigious houses elsewhere?

On the other hand, there are endorsements by travel-writing giants Jan Morris and Pico Iyer on the cover. Morris says Jacob is a natural cosmopolitan and possesses “a fresh and wonderfully infectious enthusiasm,” while Iyer agrees, pointing out that he combines “cosmopolitanism and innocence … authority and vulnerability.”

Youthfulness is what strikes me most about these columns. Someone who’s traveled as much as Jacob must qualify to be called cosmopolitan, while his relative youth must make him something of an innocent, even if he has to write with an air of knowledgeability about some of the world’s greatest restaurants.

And it’s true that Jacob offers the persona of an innocent abroad. He admits quietly that he hasn’t heard of some of the celebrities whose doings make up the table talk of London’s “chattering classes” (one of his favorite phrases), and he has a chapter on the overlooked virtues of flying economy class. When he visits Dubai and is asked by a jaded colleague which seven-star hotel he’ll be staying at, he’s met with incomprehension when he replies that he’ll be staying with friends. In Rome, too, he’s advised by his knowledgeable hosts on where to go to avoid the tourists. His undoubted innocence is confirmed when he passes these secrets on to his readers.

But there’s also something else that characterizes the young about him. He’s clearly fallen on his feet in very many ways, but you feel he still doesn’t really know where his destiny lies. He’s specialized in business and in management studies, and here he’s writing about travel, eating and drinking. Yet he doesn’t seem a natural bon viveur. He dislikes champagne, he says, and loathes caviar. Nor, it seems, does he pull his FT rank when ordering tables, accepting one grudgingly offered only at 5:30pm at one noted eatery.

He admires San Francisco, agreeing with many others that it’s the US’ most humane city. Yet he feels obliged to observe its credentials as a gay Mecca are getting a little antiquated, with one gay marriage held up while one of the couple made his way forward on a walker.

So — not naturally at home with business, nor management, nor high-dining, nor first-class travel, and maybe in the last resort not with travel at all. What then is Jacob really concerned with? Perhaps it’s religion. Perhaps what he really wants to become is a priest.

This idea first struck me when I read his report on a Hong Kong lunch with Yann Martel, author of The Life of Pi. Martel is celebrated for his proposition that the scientific account of the world is just a story, and that what religions offer are simply different stories. But religion, he argues, has “the better story,” and indeed “May you believe the better story” is what he inscribes in Jacob’s copy of his novel as they part. “I realize that I still do not,” writes Jacob.

I have to admit finding Jacob’s travel impressions at best inconclusive. That he is in essence something other than a business correspondent or frequent flyer is suggested when he relates how he applied for the position of FT Rome correspondent the moment it came vacant. He didn’t get the job, but the fact that he yearned for it suggests that what he wanted was a sense of stability, of belonging to somewhere enduring and beautiful, that he’s failed to find in cosmopolitan London, or on the globe-ranging tourist trail.

It’s the same with his literary quotations. These constitute flourishing oases after his characteristic self-effacement, but he doesn’t feel able to linger over them as one suspects he’d like to. So it’s off to another trattoria, though he doesn’t really enjoy fine food, or to another conference, though those who attend such things aren’t really the kind of company he enjoys best.

So where’s the rest? Where’s the peace? In the arms of Mother Church, perhaps, or in some ashram back in India? Each is hard to imagine, but others of a similar background have trodden this alternative path.

India-born intellectual Andrew Harvey, for example, author of Hidden Journey (1991), tells how one evening in India he saw a young female guru radiating an inexplicable light, and from that moment abandoned Western scientific materialism for ever.

This book claims to be in part about questions such as “Why do we travel?” There’s no serious attempt at an answer, but one might be that we’re searching for something. If it’s not that, isn’t travel just an endless series of distractions?

This is an attempt at a book, possibly a premature one, that nonetheless contains some intriguing material. But what Jacob appears not to know is that others have already traveled with the same perplexity and self-questioning he exhibits long before him.