#FiveDesiFaves: Shafik Meghji shares the desi books that have influenced his travel writing

Desi Books Ep 71 w/ Shafik Meghji Desi Books


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Hello and welcome to Episode 71 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

Today, in the #FiveDesiFaves segment, we have Shafik Meghji, who has a new book out: Crossed off the Map: Travels in Bolivia. He discusses the five desi books that have influenced and inspired his work. Spanning travel, science writing, and fiction, these are by Pico Iyer, Sonia Shah, Monisha Rajesh, Tharik Hussain, and Arundhati Roy.

#FIVEDESIFAVES WITH SHAFIK MEGHJIINTRODUCTION

Shafik Meghji is an award-winning travel writer, journalist, and author based in South London. Specializing in Latin America and South Asia, he has co-authored more than forty guidebooks for Rough Guides and DK Eyewitness, and writes for BBC Travel, Wanderlust, and Lonely Planet, among others. He is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Crossed off the Map: Travels in Bolivia is his first book. Find him on Twitter at @ShafikMeghji and on Instagram at @shafikmeghji.

Blending travel writing, history, and reportage, Crossed off the Map: Travels in Bolivia uses a journey from the Andes to the Amazon to explore Bolivia’s turbulent past and contemporary challenges. It tells the story of the country’s profound and unexpected influence on the wider world over the past 500 years—fragments of history largely forgotten beyond its borders. The book also explores how ordinary Bolivians in and around the world’s highest city, largest salt flat, richest silver mine, and most biodiverse national park are coping with some of the touchstone issues of the twenty-first century, from the climate emergency to the “war on drugs.”

The transcript of this episode with all the books mentioned is also up on the website at desibooks.co.

And now, here’s Shafik Meghji with his #FiveDesiFaves.

Shafik Meghji’s Crossed Off the Map: Travels in Bolivia uses a journey from the Andes to the Amazon to explore Bolivia’s turbulent past and contemporary challenges with travel writing, history, and reportage. #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


#FIVEDESIFAVES WITH SHAFIK MEGHJI

Many thanks to Jenny for inviting me on to #FiveDesiFaves. I’m really looking forward to sharing some of my favorite writers and books with you. 

So I’ve written about travel for around fourteen years now, working on all seven continents, and co-authoring guidebooks to destinations across Latin America, Asia, North Africa, Europe, and Oceania. My work focuses on responsible travel, food, history, culture, and human rights. 

I sometimes feel a bit of an outlier—travel writing is a genre in which authors with South Asian heritage have long been under-represented. But in recent years, thankfully, that has slowly started to change. And I’d like to think that my debut book, Crossed off the Map: Travels in Bolivia, can play a small role in this process. 

Now, it was an incredibly difficult task to limit myself to only five books today, but I’ve just about managed it. The books I’ve selected for #FiveDesiFaves are very different from each other—spanning travel, science writing, and fiction—but they have all influenced and inspired me and my work. More than that, they’ve transported me from my home in South London and illuminated an array of issues, peoples, and places around the world. I’m delighted to share them with you today. 

My books are:
1. The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home by Pico Iyer. Published by Bloomsbury in 2000.
2. The Next Great Migration: The Story of Movement on a Changing Planet by Sonia Shah. Published by Bloomsbury in 2020. 
3. Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000-Mile Adventure by Monisha Rajesh. Published by Bloomsbury in 2019. 
4. Minarets in the Mountains: A Journey into Muslim Europe by Tharik Hussain. Published by Bradt Travel Guides in 2021. 
5. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Published by HarperCollins in 1997.


My first choice is The Global Soul. Pico Iyer was one of the first travel writers I read who really got me interested in the genre. I could easily have picked his books Video Night in Kathmandu or The Man Within My Head, both of which I love, but have chosen The Global Soul because it ultimately left the biggest impression on me. 

In its pages Iyer journeys from LA airport to places like Hong Kong and Japan, exploring concepts such as home and identity. It’s a philosophical, thought-provoking, ahead-of-its-time book that helped to expand my understanding of what travel writing can be. More than twenty years after it was first published, The Global Soul still feels as fresh and relevant as ever. 

One of the key things I took from it for my own work is that travel writing is a broad, all-encompassing genre. It allows you to follow you interests—however disparate they may be—and forge connections, something I’ve tried to do with Crossed off the Map.   

“My first choice is The Global Soul. Pico Iyer was one of the first travel writers I read who really got me interested in the genre.” ~Shafik Meghji#FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


My second choice is The Next Great Migration. Sonia Shah wrote a very prescient book called Pandemic in 2016, but I’ve picked her latest title, The Next Great Migration, instead. A science journalist and author, Shah shows how, far from being a disruptive behavior, plant, animal, and human migration is an ancient response to environmental change and a biological imperative. Her book is a necessary corrective to the negative political and media portrayals that tend to dominate discussions of this subject. As Shah writes, “Migration is not the crisis—it is the solution.”

I connected with this book, in part, because migration has shaped the life of my own family. My paternal relatives moved from Gujarat to Uganda to the UK, the US, Canada, and beyond. It is also one of the issues I explore in Crossed off the Map, where I look at how mass internal migration, driven largely by the climate crisis, has helped to reshape Bolivia’s politics, economy, culture, and identity over the last forty years.

“I connected with [The Next Great Migration by Sonia Shah] because migration has shaped the life of my own family. My paternal relatives moved from Gujarat to Uganda to the UK, the US, Canada, and beyond.” ~Shafik Meghji #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


My third book is Around the World in 80 Trains. This is Monisha Rajesh’s second book, following on from her debut Around India in 80 Trains. In it, she provides an illuminating account of an epic railway journey from London’s St Pancras station to Russia and Mongolia, Kazakhstan and North Korea, Canada and beyond. Quite apart from being a wonderful read that transports you far from home, it’s a refreshingly honest, modern, and nostalgia-free piece of travel writing, without the lazy assumptions and cliches that too often infect the genre. 

This is the same kind of approach I’ve taken with Crossed off the Map. As well as exploring Bolivia’s turbulent history, I wanted to provide a snapshot of some of the contemporary challenges it faces, while attempting to avoid the pitfalls and prejudices that too often characterize non-Bolivian, and particularly western, writing about the country. I also aimed to share the views, opinions, and experiences of some of the Bolivians I have met over the years who rarely get a hearing in the English-language media.

“[Around the World in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh] is a refreshingly honest, modern, and nostalgia-free piece of travel writing, without the lazy assumptions and cliches…” ~Shafik Meghji #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


My fourth choice is Minarets in the Mountains. Published last year, and recently shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year, it is an account of Tharik Hussain’s travels through the Western Balkans, which is home to the largest indigenous Muslim population in Europe. The book explores regions of Eastern Europe where Islam has shaped places and people for more than half a millennium. It’s a really engaging read about a subject and a part of the world that I knew very little about beforehand. What I particularly like about Minarets in the Mountains is that it shines a spotlight, as Hussain puts it, on a “Europe few people believe exists and many wish didn’t.”

This echoes something I’ve tried to do in Crossed Off the Map, which is to focus on a country that receives little coverage in the international media and is often overlooked. I wanted to tell the story of Bolivia’s profound and unexpected impact on the wider world, a story of how it kickstarted globalization, influenced the growth of European powers, and helped to trigger dynastic collapse in China; fragments of history that have been largely forgotten beyond its borders.

“What I particularly like about Minarets in the Mountains is that it shines a spotlight, as [Tharik] Hussain puts it, on a ‘Europe few people believe exists and many wish didn’t.'” ~Shafik Meghji #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


My fifth and final book is The God of Small Things, which really needs no introduction. Arundhati Roy’s powerful, poetic novel, which won the Booker Prize in 1997, is about caste and class, family and childhood, prejudice and religion, and much more besides. I first read it as a teenager and it has stayed with me ever since. 

But The God of Small Things is also a wonderfully evocative bit of place writing, bringing to life Kerala and its sounds, tastes, and sensations. Beyond her fiction, Roy’s fearless journalism and activism have also long been an inspiration for me.  

In Crossed Off the Map, I wanted to try and paint as vivid a picture of Bolivia as Roy did of Kerala in The God of Small Things, as well as discuss some of the most pressing issues facing Bolivia, and indeed all of us, at present: the climate emergency, migration, populism, Indigenous rights, renewable energy, and the “war on drugs.”

“In Crossed Off the Map, I wanted to try and paint as vivid a picture of Bolivia as Roy did of Kerala in The God of Small Things, as well as discuss some of the most pressing issues facing Bolivia…” ~Shafik Meghji #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


That brings me to the end of my list of #FiveDesiFaves. Many thanks again to Jenny for inviting me to be part of Desi Books. It was great fun putting this list together, not least because it gave me the excuse to pick up some old favorites and to travel (virtually) along the Trans-Siberian Railway, across the Balkans, to Hong Kong and southern California, and through the Kerala backwaters. 

Although they’re very different from each other—in genre, approach, style, and tone—these titles are brilliant at evoking places and peoples. I hope you get the chance to read some of these books, and indeed my own (Crossed Off the Map.) Thanks for joining me.  

Shafik Meghji’s Crossed Off the Map: Travels in Bolivia uses a journey from the Andes to the Amazon to explore Bolivia’s turbulent past and contemporary challenges with travel writing, history, and reportage. #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


You’ve been listening to episode 71 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in. Today, we were listening to Shafik Meghji, who has a new book out: Crossed off the Map: Travels in Bolivia. He discussed the five desi books that have influenced and inspired his work. Spanning travel, science writing, and fiction, these were by Pico Iyer, Sonia Shah, Monisha Rajesh, Tharik Hussain, and Arundhati Roy. Thank you for sharing these, Shafik.

Episode 72 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Please tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Go to the website if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter. You’ll get all the updates you might have missed as well as some new stuff. And please share this on via social media if you enjoyed listening or reading. Help raise the tide of South Asian literature.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.


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