Capsized by Affective Fallacy/ Mahesh Paudyal 'Prarambha'
Of late, travelogues have been making an appearance in Nepali literature in quick succession. A thorough scansion of a majority of them suggests a commonality in style—an exceptionally narrow range of stylistic variation, and a lack of unique thematic expression. Some carry a camouflage of linguistic intricacy that simply veil their thematic barrenness and utter monotony, while others present a photographic description of places visited that often read like tourist guide books or personal diaries.
Chhori-Jwain Bhetna America, the much-talked-about travelogue by Prakash Subedi is no exception. Though it is highly informative and makes for a good read for those who are yet to travel internationally, there is very little that meets the demands of a serious and contemplative reader. It reproduces all the limitations of previous travelogues, and while it adds to the list of published books, it doesn’t contribute to the arena of Nepali literature. It reiterates the recurrent error in interpretation that a travelogue is simply a description of new places visited, new things seen, and new people met with. In fact in Subedi’s version, a large chunk of the book is spent explaining visa-seeking procedures. It seems to me that people surely don’t need a travelogue to inform them on how to go about getting visas, purchasing plane tickets, what happens at the airport etc. Banal descriptions of the rules at international airports, immigration, boarding passes, pay-and-use trolleys and the rest rooms drag the narrative along.
The ‘America’ described in the book is just a fraction of the total America in reality. The descriptions are limited to a few cities in America—Seattle, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. This fact leads one to question the very legitimacy of the title of the book.
Throughout the book, the author appears to be carried away by two problems that plague objective writing: affective fallacy, and stock response. Every minute aspect of the US, from accurate bus-timings to exceptionally clean and managed streets has counted for a large portion of the book. There seems to be no point to the accounts of busy airports, well-managed gardens, aware citizens, and the automated regularity of public administration systems. The author even feels it necessary to dedicate pages to elaborate descriptions of big departmental stores that house almost everything under the sun.
In terms of stock responses, two arguments can be made. First, the author seems to have an uncritical affection towards everything he encounters on the trip, and second, he is all set to compare these with Nepal, feeling sorry for conditions at home. Every time, the reaction is the same. The judgments are so subjective that at places, he sounds completely overwhelmed by the grandeur of the US, and seems incapable of making any objective judgments. This is evident especially when he blames the joint family structure of Nepal for its underdevelopment, and congratulates America for the type of individualism it is cultivating. The author seems to be completely unaware regarding the debate among American socio-cultural experts about the challenges the notion of individualism is facing and the threats perceived in the US in the
breaking down of family structures. Another aspect of the travelogue focuses on the apparent joy the author takes in describing episodes from American history with reference to its colonial past, the freedom movement, and the civil war. The information is so basic and cursory that it appears to be nothing more than what a high school social studies text book would contain.
The author seems to have two overt projects from the very outset. First, he wants to give voice to the effect the US produces on a first-time visitor. These experiences are no different from the tales any new visitor would share about his visit to any city. Second, he seems to be guided by the preconceived notion that whatever is American symbolizes perfection. In this way, the book is overshadowed by a pervasive fallacy, rendering the authorial position baseless and inferior.
Likewise, the book doesn’t really present a point for the readers to ponder on. It neither takes a fixed position nor does it articulate any intellectual observation that might guide the readers towards higher-order revelations. There is almost no contemplation on the secrets of American administrative planning and policy formation that stand at the bases of these miracles. On the other hand, the author is completely oblivious to the paradoxes and contradictions that plague the US today. A mysterious silence has been maintained about the increasing crime rates, persistent racial discrimination, American political interference in almost every vibrant industry, the failures in the Middle East, mounting deficits in the banks and fatally increasing dependency on foreign workforce. Completely lopsided!
And yet, the book can be read for two reasons. First, it informs an amateur international traveler about how he or she should prepare for an international trip. Second, it gives an outline of what a typical American city looks like.
(First appeared in The Kathmandu Post/ Paudyal is a faculty at the Central Department of English, TU)