Is it fallout from television's "The Jewel in the Crown"? Or, perhaps, "A Passage to India"? Following a spate of China volumes and a deluge of big books on Africa, this is the year in which India is probed, praised and photographed.
But the Indian subcontinent is not every armchair traveler's cup of Darjeeling, and for other adventurers, there is an eclectic selection exploring such delights as the Japanese bath and the gardens of Versailles.
China by Hiroji Kubota, foreword by Jonathan D. Spence (Norton: $65; 204 pp.) is a book that makes you want to clap. Between 1978 and 1984 Kubota spent 1,000 days in China, visiting 21 provinces and taking 200,000 pictures from which he chose this extraordinary collection. Living in communes, traveling perilously narrow roads clogged with trucks, ox carts, ducks and pigs, Kubota recorded everyday life in this land of a billion people just recovering from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and embarked on a new journey.
This is, essentially, a picture book, but what pictures! Kubota, fascinated with the changes he saw taking place even as many Chinese cling to tradition, summed it up in his portrait of three youths, with soft drinks and a radio-cassette player, standing before an ages-old Buddha. In Kashgar on the old Silk Road, he noted, a carpet factory he photographed has closed, "probably because people want . . . televisions and refrigerators more than carpets." And a camels-for-hire station has become an auto repair shop.
There are a few obligatory shots of the Great Wall, but this is no standard tour. The photographs, all in color, sometimes spill across two extra-wide pages. Some, taken from a biplane, are like scroll paintings--mist-shrouded mountains and rice paddies.
The finale is an appropriate dazzler: a burst of 182,000 fireworks in Peking in celebration of the 35th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic.
Now, for the India books:
Benares by Henry Wilson (Thames & Hudson: $29.95; 121 pp.) is serendipity, a beautiful and absorbing portrait of the city that is to the Hindus what Mecca is to Muslims. Wilson was bewitched when he first saw Benares as a teen-ager and has returned three times. It is, he acknowledges, his "obsession," the city he sees as "the essence of India"--harsh, spiritual, cramped, dusty, dirty and totally beguiling. Such is Wilson's artistry that one can all but smell the cow dung and incense and the coming of the monsoon rains. Memorable are the color photographs of a widow, shrouded in white and sitting in contemplation on one of the great ghats; of a sacred cow lounging under a ghat priest's umbrella, and an elderly rickshaw driver dozing between fares.
Village India by Stephen Huyler (Abrams: $37.50; 272 pp., indexed) is a guided tour to the India most travelers don't see, some of the 500,000 villages (places with less than 5,000 population) that are home to 615 million Indians--one-seventh of the world's population. For the most part rural, this is where, Huyler notes, "clocks serve no purpose" as villagers simply rise before dawn and go to bed at dark. In these villages entertainment is provided by the rituals of religion, seasonal festivals, singing, storytelling and gossip. Huyler, who has traveled extensively in India in the last 14 years, has a degree in Indian history and art history, and his focus is on village arts, crafts and architecture, but his prose--much like that of a very readable textbook--delves too much into legal and social customs. The book includes a history of India and 300 photographs in color and black and white.
The Imperial Way by Paul Theroux, with photographs by Steve McCurry (Houghton Mifflin: $19.95; 143 pp.), in which Theroux explains that this journey by train through Pakistan, India and Bangladesh was conceived as "neither a vacation nor an ordeal, but rather a kind of sedentary adventuring." Perhaps, but it comes across as a bit of an ordeal; Theroux seems more obsessed with dirt, rats, heat, rain and beggars than besotted with the beauties of the land. Never mind, photographer McCurry more than compensates with a profusion of absolutely marvelous color photographs.
Railway Country: Across Canada by Train, photographs by Dudley Witney and text by Brian D. Johnson (Norton: $39.95 until Dec. 31; $45 thereafter; 200 pp.) is a train trip of quite a different kind. Canada's trains are famed and if "the Golden Age of passenger travel is over, replaced by airlines," as Canadian Johnson notes unhappily, the 4,000-mile journey across five provinces and 4,000 miles aboard the Canadian is still a pretty spectacular five-day ride. Photographer Witney's still lifes include laundry flapping on backyard lines, a train's-eye view of a county fair in New Brunswick, a mobile snack truck in Moosonee with its menu written in both English and Cree.