Once upon a time, travelling for pleasure was a privilege that was reserved only for the wealthy. And hence such kind of travel was always viewed as being exotic. With the turning of the tides and time, the opportunity to travel became available to the middle-class and as one can observe, it is this class of people that make a large chunk of ‘holidayers’ in any destination. The production of travelogues is an interesting genre of literature, for often such travelogues are a dialogue and engagement with the land travelled to with the land that the traveller hails from. There is always a comparison between the geography, history and politics and it is this comparison that can possibly give insights into various aspects of the destination as well as of the traveller.
With such a frame of mind, I opened Brenda Rodrigues’ travelogue My Journey Through Wonderlands. Brenda and her husband, Joe are vastly travelled persons. The list of their travels becomes mind-boggling when compiled: USA, Scotland, England, Germany, the Netherlands, Africa, China, Southeast Asia, Canada, Northeast India and many, many more. Careers of travel spanning 40-odd years, Brenda and Joe Rodrigues have seen it all! A passionate writer and a keen observer, Brenda would write short travelogues which were then sent to friends and family as newsletters. These newsletters are now the backbone of this book, spanning 400-odd pages!
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the book, an interesting detail which one gets to know about this globe-trotting couple is the amazing and brilliant network that they have established of friends (that also includes priests) and family across India and the world. After reading the book, I must say that Brenda and Joe Rodrigues have made clever use of such a network. In this aspect they must be seen as immensely lucky too, as they have friends and family who “insist” and pester them to visit their native countries or regions, offering sometimes even free air tickets. How I envy them!
Turning our attention to the book: the first and foremost aspect of My Journey Through Wonderlands that needs commenting is the structure that the author has chosen. Brenda Rodrigues has decided to follow a chronological structure rather than a thematic or geography-centric arrangement of her writings. Now this gives rise to a problem because Brenda Rodrigues has travelled to one destination many times over a period of many years and because there is an over-emphasis in maintaining the chronological structure of the narrative, many sections seem to be repetitions or read like staccato notes of a faithful court reporter. The author’s aim seems to be to report everything that she has seen and this need diverts the author’s attention from a deeper engagement with the history, geography and politics of the lands she visits. She tries hard to produce comments on the things and places she has seen, but with description being central to her reporting, the stray one-line comments that we find seem to be digressions and out-of-place.
Such details that one can easily find using the internet need not be repeated in a travelogue which could be unique (or in a sense is unique) for a very Goan gaze that it provides. Because of our peculiar location as the ‘Orient’, we need to know exactly how Brenda Rodrigues as a person (as well as a woman) engages with the history, the people and the politics of the places she has travelled to. Hence, the author in the humble opinion of this reviewer should have asked herself, when she had set out to compile her writings for a wider audience, as to what unique insights she could have brought to her writing that would be different from so much literature that has already been produced about all these places. The author has travelled to the regular tourist spots and even those less-travelled ones but fails to provide insights regarding the people and the places. A great opportunity seems to have been lost despite the availability of an amazing network of well-wishing friends and family.
The reason why I consider travelogues interesting and take them extremely seriously is because they represent the Other for the Self. In this sense, I feel that the travelogue of Brenda Rodrigues has not been able to shake off some of the colonial imageries and metaphors. For instance, she perceives herself as travelling to “wonderlands” as the title suggests and through her book there is a conscious or unconscious acceptance of the lens of colonial exoticization through which she views the Other. This way, what is disappointing is that even Goa becomes an exotic land. A further parallel with the colonial imageries and metaphors is that having spent her entire life in Bombay (apart from the globe-trotting!), after retirement Brenda and Joe Rodrigues decided to buy a second home in Goa in Chorão, and hence one whole chapter is dedicated in the description of this island (for this also forms part of the “wonderland” narrative).
Chorão is also the place where one of the earliest conversions to Christianity had taken place and the comments of the author regarding this history needs critiquing. Brenda Rodrigues discloses that she felt “…ashamed to think of how terribly the Hindus were made to suffer at the hands of religious fanatics who believed they were doing God’s work.” First, Catholics of today do not need to feel ashamed of the past as buying into this discourse of ‘shame’ automatically places the Catholics of today in a second-class-citizenship position and secondly, we need to also recognize that many who converted were themselves suffering under various types of oppressions; a possibility that needs to be also considered. While I do not hold Brenda Rodrigues responsible for this ‘shame’, her short but insensitive parenthetical comment which asks, “(Is it poetic justice that today the tables have been turned?)” (p. 410), needs to be distanced from. I will strongly point out that there is no justice as well as poesy in such kind of thinking and imaginings.
The unique way in which we are positioned in this space of Luso-Goano or Indo-Portuguese history and culture, there is an immense potential in rethinking and breaking new ground when we travel to other places. This means that we can reinvent the other as well as the self with a deeper engagement with the Indo-Portuguese history and culture. When for the first time Brenda Rodrigues and her family landed in Portugal, they “…were happy to be visiting the ‘land of our ancestors’ – so to say!”. Despite the inverted quotes the idea that Portugal is our fatherland, in a genetic sense of origin, should be done away with. And when they found the food in Portugal so similar to “our own”, Brenda Rodrigues hurriedly concludes that “…most of our recipes have come to us through the Portuguese.”In focusing on the examples of Goa and Portugal, what I hope to bring out is the need to produce a rigorous assessment of the history, culture and politics by a traveller whose journey originates from our side of the world. This journey may be to a wonderland or a promised land, but it must be undertaken in a spirit of not being impervious to the ground realities.
My Journey Through Wonderlands by Brenda Rodrigues (Saligão, Goa: Goa 1556), 2012; pp. xvi+420, Rs. 450/- [ISBN: 9789380739373]
(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: January 5, 2013).