Yet at its best travel writing beats fiction, firing the imagination with tales of foreign peoples drawn close by our common humanity. If I had read Nine Lives as a boy, I would have felt that desire to strike out. That this book also makes its political points more powerfully than any newspaper article, while quietly adjusting a reader’s attitude to faith, builds its importance. It meets Dalrymple’s own criteria as set down in his recent article, displaying a deep knowledge of the culture, yet is intimate with each interviewee. This is travel writing at its best. I hope it sparks a revival.
For nearly 10 years, travel writing was where the action was. It re-emerged at a time of disenchantment with the novel, and seemed to present a serious alternative to fiction. A writer could still use the techniques of the novel – it was possible to develop characters, select and tailor experience into a series of scenes and set pieces, arrange the action so as to give the narrative shape and momentum – yet what was being written about was true. Moreover, unlike most literary fiction, it sold.
The V&A’s new exhibition is a serious attempt to put the myth of the maharajas in its proper context, as part of the history of courtly India, and to explore at the same time the visual and artistic expressions of Indian kingship both before and after the maharajas’ Victorian heyday. Nevertheless the show is haunted by the sad story of the princes and the British, telling how the British first bullied the princes into submission, schooling them in western tastes, then both laughed at, and envied, the monsters they had created. Finally, they quit India, leaving the maharajas to be abolished. At the V&A from 10th October 2009 – 17th January 2010
— Photos by Paul & Elizabeth