ISBN : 0 330 337807
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).
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.
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.
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
citizenryliving 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"!
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.