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Recap: Champaca Book Subscription Year Two — Travel


This June, we come to the end of our second theme of the Champaca Book Subscription: travel. For twelve months, from July 2021 to June 2022, we sent subscribers across India a box of carefully curated books to their doorstep. Together, we read a total of twenty-three books from across genres, and across the world! 

We’ve just launched the third year of our Champaca Book Subscription (click here to find out more, sign up, and join us as we read and discuss our love for books!). Before we begin our new subscription, we wanted to take some time to look back and reflect on all the travelling that we’ve done in this past year. 

When our team met to decide the theme for our second year, a lot of our discussion revolved around our collective experiences of isolation in the pandemic. We realised that we had to journey from our homes, without moving very much. One of the ways we did this was by travelling with books. We wondered if we could think about travel in new, interesting ways.

Writing about travel is often seen as intrepid exploration of unknown places. Many of these accounts, written in lush prose, are often by men. Historically, travel writing tends to be colonial explorers going far away, documenting or writing home about different cultures. Often, within this kind of travel, people discover things about themselves, and offer insights about the people and places they go to. This form has influenced a lot of what we understand in shorthand as travel – going somewhere else, and having an adventure of it.

The pandemic has changed how we relate to one another and our everydays, and travel has taken on another meaning. We began looking at travel in new, and different ways. We thought of migrant workers who wished to get home, but had no means to travel to safety. Many of us, within the privileges of the home, had to cope with the loss of sociality, and had to travel inward to reexamine things we take for granted. And most of us traveled in time, through stories – by reading books or watching TV.

We sought to explore these questions: can we time travel together across histories and places? What journeys have intrepid women made? How have people experienced travel when it is not by choice or for pleasure, as with migrations? What are journeys of the mind like?  

Click here to see all the books, and boxes, we sent out (and remember, you can sign up for year three here to join us in discovering new and exciting stories).

Here’s what we read in year two of the Champaca Book Subscription:

July ’21: Hope, Exploration, and Curiosity

We wanted to start our new subscription year with hope. Our first book was Becky Chambers’ novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate – a near-future novella about four scientists who are sent to explore, observe, and study four habitable exoplanets (planets that do not orbit our sun), and to return after 80 years. This novella holds much-needed optimism – from the idea of a sustainable citizen-funded initiative, to a crew that holds a deep, abiding love for one another, and the very idea of finding new life on other planets. It’s a book that focuses on the best of humanity, and how it can come together despite its brokenness. We also wanted to look closer – at our own world – to find wonder and hope, with our companion novel, Upstream by Mary Oliver –  a book of essays about writing and nature, inviting us to look at the minutiae in nature all around us.

August ’21: Women in Cities

The Wandering by Intan Paramaditha, translated from Indonesian by Stephen J Epstein, puts you in the protagonist’s shoes – literally! Written in second person, this unique choose-your-own adventure novel is about a character who is granted a gift by the Devil – a pair of glittering red shoes that can take her anywhere in the world. But soon, we realise travelling comes at a cost.  Who actually gets to travel without limitations? Do we really have the freedom of choice? We brought these questions closer to home with our companion book, Drawing From The City by Tejubehan, a migrant worker-turned-artist who has illustrated her journey from poverty to the city. We were interested in the questions these books raise about the wonders and limitations of travel – on the basis of gender, class, caste.  


September ’21: Journeys inward in times of war

We read A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam in September, shortly before it made it to the Booker Prize shortlist for 2021! Set in the aftermath of the war in Sri Lanka, this is an intense, introspective novel. We follow the protagonist, Krishan, on a literal journey to a funeral, and an inward journey as he reflects on love, desire, longing, suffering, and grief. Along with it, we read Rumours of Spring by Farah Bashir, a memoir of the author’s adolescence in Srinagar in the early 1990s. These are thoughtful, vivid stories of journeying inward, and asking hard questions in times of violence.


October ’21: Object Histories

People travel through time and space, but so do objects. In Sophy Roberts’ The Lost Pianos of Siberia, we read of the spatiotemporal fate of nearly 24 pianos, from the last 250 years, in Siberia. The stories of the pianos are also the stories of the people who use them and manufacture them, their lives and aspirations. Lydia Pyne’s Bookshelf is another journey through time with a familiar object – exploring the history and significance of the bookshelf during times when the digital world impinges on its existence. 


November ’21: A Journey of Discovery


With Entangled Life, we turned to discovery in our own world, accompanying author Merlin Sheldrake on his quest to understand the vastly understudied field of mycology (the study of fungi). Sheldrake undertook some unorthodox research methods: truffle-hunting in Italy, signing up for a clinical trial of LSD, plunging into a fermentation bath, and brewing various alcohols, hoping to understand this hidden kingdom of life (what a fun-gi!). Entangled Life seems to ask us how we can understand an organism that is so alien to us, encouraging us to rethink how life works. This is an entertaining, fantastical and mind-altering journey, but also one grounded in empirical evidence to rethink our biological boxes and explore how truly ‘entangled’ our lives are.


December ’21: Walking Afghanistan 

In Shadow City, Taran N. Khan walks around Kabul without a guidebook, and with a keen acknowledgment of the unusualness of walking as a woman in the war-torn city. In these essays, she presents us a multifaceted, vibrant image of a city as a palimpsest – populated by ruins, monuments, and memories, with remnants of the past co-existing with the Kabul of the present. We read it along with All the Roads are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach, a memoir of her and Ella Maillart travelling Kabul, in 1939-1940 – almost seventy years earlier. With these books, we see a glimpse of a region with a varied, complicated history, and a difficult present, through a new lens. 


January ’22: India Travelling 

We started our new year reading about travel from writers in India. If It’s Monday, It Must Be Madurai by Srinath Perur is a collection of essays about conducted tours, accompanied by guides and with a group of travellers. Why does one travel in conducted tours? The essays attempt to answer that question for each type of conducted tour, and the people that sign up for it. The Shooting Star was written when Shivya Nath quit her corporate job to travel the world, exploring what it means to travel alone as a woman in India and abroad. We read both these books to explore how we travel, why we travel, what impact we have on the places we visit and the people we meet. Both Perur and Nath are fascinated by the people they meet, whether accidentally in her off-beat travels or on his conducted tours – it is what makes these places much more interesting. 


February ’22: Italy 

In February, we went on a lemony food journey, criss-crossing Italy through time and space in Helena Atlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow! Attlee takes us through the surprising and delicious history of Italian citrus, through recipes, artwork, politics, and geography. To bring the atmosphere of Italy alive, we also read The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, a collection edited and partly translated by Jhumpa Lahiri – an introduction to the vast and fascinating writing culture of Italy. 


March ’22: Migration

What does travelling mean when it’s not out of choice? The Cane-Cutter’s Song by Raphaël Confiant, translated from French by Vidya Vencatesan, follows the story of a group of Indians of Martinique, brought across the sea as indentured labourers to work in the sugarcane fields. Indians find themselves at the lowest rung of a complex social order on an island with white occupiers, Black workers who were formerly enslaved, and people of mixed races – all trying to cement their own place in Martinique’s society. We also read Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, a magical realist short story collection that explores the lives of Malayali workers in the United Arab Emirates. These books highlight groups of immigrant workers – in different times and spaces – whose stories are not often heard, and whose experiences of travel are outside of our usual imaginations. 


April ’22: Exploring Religion, Mythology, and History

In April, we read one of Westland’s stellar non-fiction titles, Walking With Nanak by Haroon Khalid. Khalid is fascinated by the personality and mythology around Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion. He journeys across eleven locations in the river valleys of the Indus and its tributaries, in the Pakistani side of historical and post-Partition Punjab. All of these are locations that played an important role in the journey of Nanak and his successors. Walking With Nanak is an unusual combination of a popular history, myths and legends, and some fiction, exploring Nanak’s deeply democratic message and its resonance in our world today.


May ’22: Vignettes from the World

Atlas of an Anxious Man by Christoph Ransmayr, translated from German by Simon Pare, is an unusual book, consisting of seventy vignettes from the author’s travels around the world. Each chapter begins with the words “I saw”, collecting the very many things he sees – “ghosts”, “a whale cow lying asleep in the blue”, “thousands of smouldering lights in the night sky over Jaipur”. Sometimes just two or three pages long, these vignettes are full of rich detail, and wonder. His knowledge of places is deep, and his observations unique, never prone to clichés of travel writing. We also read Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, translated from Japanese by Geoffrey Trousselot, a gentle novel offering us a journey into another language, as well as a journey into the past.


June ’22: Stories of Tibet

And finally, in our last month of the travel theme, we took a journey to Tibet with Barbara Demick’s Eat The Buddha, in which she visits the town of Ngaba. In reportage style, Demick stitches together the history of Tibet through the stories of the everyday, ordinary people that live there – exploring their unique forms of resistance, the complex and difficult history of the region, and the personal experiences of the inhabitants of the town. Focusing on the importance of Own Voices stories, we also read Copper Mountain by Thubten Samphel, published by Blackneck Books, an imprint of TibetWrites. At Champaca, We think, quite passionately, that picture books are not only for children – books with few words and enticing illustrations can sometimes cover depths and unfurl emotions that entire novels struggle with. We were thrilled to also read the picture book Homecoming by Aaniya Asrani for June, a story of Tibetan refugees living in Bylakuppe. 


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