NORMAN LEWIS OMNIBUS

NONFICTION IN ANTHOLOGY BY NORMAN LEWIS

Picador Press
ISBN : 0 330 337807

Picador has released an economic Omnibus edition, collecting in a single volume three remarkable travel books by Norman Lewis: A Dragon Apparent (travels in Indo-China), Golden Earth (travels in Burma) and A Goddess in the Stones (travels in India).
         Graham Greene considers Norman Lewis one of the best travel writers not of any particular decade but of our century. Notably, Mr. Lewis is singular and unusual in his own way, very much like his works. Unlike professional travelers, he prefers to visit places off the beaten tracks and fondly explores areas which are as backward as possible. Incidentally, even the term 'backwardness' for him implies greater praise.
         Mr. Lewis's primary passion is people. Be it Cambodia, Laos, Luang Prabang, Orissa or the Viet-Minh territories, Mr. Lewis observes individuals and reports them with an unprejudiced and unsophisticated style, thereby establishing an authoritative benchmark in travel writing. One can expect more in Mr. Lewis's writings than descriptive, region-specific passages and geographical mapping. On the contrary, there are countless instances in which his language goes beyond an assemblage of travel notes to reveal panoramas of grand depth and beauty. It is unusual to find even a line that is less than meticulously written or isolated from the text's overall flow. Every person he meets is special in some way and he succeeds in revealing varied personalities like gambling housewives, dentists, fortunetellers, puppeteers, child beggars, pot dealers, lepers and many others in a unique light.
         In Dragon Apparent, Lewis enters the mouth of dragon land, Saigon. The reception he receives is less than cordial. "Even the rickshaw coolie", Lewis writes, "takes his money in grim silence and immediately looks away. There was no curious staring, no gesture or half-smile of recognition." As a European, Lewis feels he had been "invisible". This indifference, however, disappears as the chapters unfold, and we find gripping accounts of his exploration, one after another, as he gets closer to people and their lives. In Cambodia, we learn about devout monks who "allow mosquitoes to feast on their blood" and those involved in "rescuing the fish from drowning". In Laos we find a strange branch of Buddhists, whose saints include St. Bernard, Joan of Arc and Victor Hugo, among many others.
         In Golden Earth, a classic among the collection, we visit Burma, "spread as a dark stain into the midnight sea," captured with its regal pagodas, oriental crowds, fishermen and monks. Mr. Lewis's reflections reach heights dangerously close to being termed poetical. ("The swan like movements of white robbed Vietnamese girls floating in bicycle.") Buddhas studded with diamonds appear to him to be "seated uneasily on the back of a tortoiseshell hairbrush".
         India, a rich storehouse of diversified tribal populations, fascinates Norman Lewis. From the noisy streets of Patna, Mr. Lewis traces his way through the badlands of Bihar and sets into the tribal heartland, where he encounters his "special people"—the tribal citizenry—living in foothills and huts. Poor people rich in culture and tradition. The lifestyles and customs of these tribes are unusual and at times amusing. "We Saora have many gods," a tribe in a remote locality remarks while discussing about the Christian Missionaries trying conversions on them. "There are twenty-three of them," he counts and wonders, "the missionary is asking us to exchange twenty-three for one. It seems unreasonable." These tribes simply live in a different world. Their gods include Divine Earthworm, the creator of World. Disease and epidemics mean violated law and non-conformity, needing due reparation. Interestingly, some tribes have no direct words in their vocabulary that mean "God" and "Love"!
         Indisputably, one of the most notable aspects of Mr. Lewis's writing is his sincerity, for he never passes opinions to his readers, never tries to exhibit or impose his learning, or for that matter, "solutions" to problems. It is certainly not an easy task for a writer, especially in this genre, to express genuinely just what he has seen and felt and nothing more.
          It is difficult for a reader to remain impassionate about this work. Norman Lewis Omnibus demands rereading so to avoid missing any of the "concealed indications" used by the author, which are plentiful. Mr. Lewis opens Indo China, Burma and India to readers who will no longer see them as strange and foreign lands. The triumph of the book is the sense of splendor and rich aesthetic experience it conveys to its readers for which Mr. Lewis will undoubtedly be remembered.