Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Shahnaz Habib’s ‘Airplane Mode’ is an inquisitive account of travel and its attendant histories

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“Travel has been sold to us,” Shahnaz Habib says, “as the ultimate horizon-expanding, mind-broadening, self-improvement experience.” Over the course of her first book, Airplane Mode: A Passive-Aggressive History of Travel, she attempts to unpack this particular sentiment, examining the socio-cultural, economic and historical factors that affect the numerous aspects of travel. Although each chapter focuses on any one aspect, Habib has a penchant for going on fascinating tangents that ultimately, and unexpectedly, cohere into the central theme. Whether in the bylanes of Konya or the jungles of Wayanad, she dwells on topics ranging from the spread of bougainvillaea around the globe to the dominant ideas behind wanderlust, making for a captivating read.

The shadow of Enlightenment

In the Enlightenment view of the world, man was the interpreter of nature so science and travel were deeply bound together. This man, obviously a white European, cast his eye and announced his dominion, claiming objectivity by default. In colonial times and before, it was a careful strategy to generate distinctions between the Orient and the Occident to benefit the project of empire. Habib coins the term “pseudo discovery” to refer to all the things and places that Europeans assert to have “discovered” that already existed before their boastful arrival. She writes: “[D]iscovery equalled converting local knowledge into European discourse. To claim by seeing was to claim by knowing.” While travel may have changed from a leisure activity of the rich and restless into “a middle-class activity of cultural consumption” over the centuries, those underpinnings remain embedded in its enterprise.

From trade and commerce to imperial plunder, the Atlantic slave trade to indentured servitude, travel (and travel writing) has arisen out of and has been imbricated in the workings of colonialism and its excesses. Roads, expressways, ships, trains – “The more we dig into the history of modern tourism, the more the pickax hits its underground cable connection with colonialism.” With the perils of globalisation, older forms of discrimination on the basis of class, caste, race, region and religion have mutated within the tourism industrial complex across the earth. And yet, Habib believes that the act of travel can be reconfigured if we open up to the world and accept our subjectivity within its vastness: “Wonder is possible when the witness is willing to acknowledge the limits of their knowingness.”

Perhaps the most common tourist accessory is the travel guide, the ubiquitous Lonely Planets and Rough Guides. Long before these modern iterations, it was first popularised in the 19th century by Karl Baedeker who was, as per Habib, “creating a kind of Euro-tourism canon while also fashioning tourism into the act of seeing specific sights.” She expands upon this process elsewhere as a still continuing phenomenon: “While institutional mechanisms such as tourism agencies and travel guidebooks sacralise tourist sights, tourists respond by ritualising the act of visiting these sights.” There has been an increasing drive to separate a category of rarefied travellers as opposed to kitschy tourists, but such distinctions are meaningless given the costs of travel in a world hurtling towards climate catastrophe.

As a Muslim woman of colour who (formerly) held an Indian passport, travelling has always come attached with the complications of bureaucratese and red tapism, the hoops that someone with her background has to go through to prove themselves worthy of setting foot in the First World. Passports and visas are the first arbiters of entry, possessing a long history of disenfranchisement and curtailing free movement. Tracing the antiquity of travel documents, Habib asserts: “The power of a passport to facilitate travel is a corollary to the power of the state to deny passports and prevent travel. … A First World passport today opens doors that a Third World passport can only dream of from a distance.” This is starkly clear when she is painstakingly planning a Paris trip with her white American husband.

The many modes of travel

Habib also shows us that there can be various ways of travelling beyond hopping on a plane headed to a distant land. In one chapter, she gives the example of her father who hates travelling and avoids it as much as he can yet is a cosmopolitan in essence just because of his prolific reading habit: “Reading is not simply a fat-free, gluten-free version of travel. Reading the world is, for the provincial, an act of self-preservation.” Opening up the limits of travel, she sees if religious and mythological tales can be considered as travel records. “A mixture of fact and fiction,” as Habib puts it, “through these narratives the storytellers are discursively mapping their own selves against the other, home against the foreign.”

Beyond such travels of the mind, there are other kinds of travel where the journey is more important than the destination. She relates how in the early period of motherhood, she used to travel on buses with her daughter in Brooklyn. More often than not, these used to be aimless trips without purpose. She writes: “The city bus moves through living communities. The world it moves through has not been standardised and franchised; it has room for the unexpected.” It was her way of being a flaneuse, to walk the city in her own way and increase her intimacy with the streets, to claim her stake in public spaces as a woman, and to practise loitering as “an embodied act”. She later confesses that carousels, the evergreen presence in parks and fairgrounds, were her favourite form of “public transport”.

The book ends on a quiet note of wonderment: “When we travel, we are not moving from place to place. We are moving from one moment in time to another moment in time. We are tricking ourselves into paying attention to the thing that is hardest to pay attention to. … It is time that reveals itself.” It is precisely sections like these – there are many within Airplane Mode – that make me really question the subtitle choice – An Irreverent History of Travel in the US and A Passive-Aggressive History of Travel in India – which does a great disservice to the content and goes against its intent. Shahnaz Habib’s book is neither of those. Instead, it is an insightful, inquisitive account of travel placed in all its contexts.

Airplane Mode: A Passive-Aggressive History of Travel, Shahnaz Habib, Westland.

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