In 2010, intrepid young London journalist Monisha Rajesh decided to travel around India on 80 trains, mostly because she could. As a 9-year-old, Rajesh had lived briefly in India when her parents, both Indian doctors, had moved from Sheffield to Chennai in 1991; the family fled back to England two years later, unable to withstand rats nibbling at cakes of soap and loaves of bread, and sundry other inconveniences. Now older and wiser, and wanting a re-do of her relationship with India, Rajesh decides to explore the country over the course of 80 train journeys; the number pays homage to Phineas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days. Rajesh’s Passepartout for the journey is a cute Norwegian photographer dude friend. I know what you’re thinking: Will this friend provide benefits? You gutter-minds, buy the book to find out.
See, my favorite newspaper is The Guardian, and I follow Very British Problems on Facebook, and my best beloved author is probably Richmal Crompton. There’s a certain British sense of humor that sets me a-quiver, and that humor formula–which I believe can be approximated to (intelligent puns + extravagant Wodehousian similes ) X healthy dose of self-deprecation–is showcased in all its glory in this book. Rajesh is funny as heck, and despite her admitted partiality for Chetan Bhagat novels, you’re in good hands. Here’s a sunburnt Passepartout, who’s “adopted a cowboy swagger to prevent his inflamed skin from rubbing against his trousers although the desired effect was less James Dean and more piles sufferer. The surface of his skin had come to resemble patches of tissue paper, which had now started to flake off around the seats like an early spring flurry of snow.” About her pilgrimage to find the finest cup of tea, “…travelling to Assam felt to me what a trip to Colombia must mean to Charlie Sheen.” She’s particularly skilled at describing the quirks of the people she meets on her journeys–here’s Pradeep, “…who thrived on gathering useless trivia. His specialist interest was cash points [ATMs], but this also extended to enquiring about rucksack straps, our blood types, the expiry dates on English breakfast condiments, and star signs. At one point, he tried to scratch a mole off my right ankle, insisting it was dirt.” And her detailed descriptions of falling victim to Delhi Belly and her subsequent bouts of diarrhea on the Bhopal Shatabdi Express aren’t for everyone, but by god, they are magnificently chronicled.
Moreover, Rajesh is an outsider-insider, which is of course a decided bonus for a travel writer–she has a depth of understanding originating in lived experience, as well as a keen nose for the new and the odd. But for her ‘satiably curious fellow travelers, the least of her outsiderish-ness is her British passport, or even her twenty-something single woman traveller status. Nope, the real issue is that she’s so hard to slot. Monisha…now that sounds North Indian, but she doesn’t look like one, and her last name, Rajesh, could be from any part of India, could be Hindu or Christian. Such ambiguity is maddening for the average Indian, who would like to pinpoint your ancestral village to, say, a mere five centuries ago. Add to this the lack of mummy-daddy or brother-sister in the vicinity, the absence of a color-coded excel sheet for the 80 journeys, and throw in a male companion who’s neither brother nor husband, and you have a first-class enigma huddled in a tatkal second-class coach from Chennai to Kanyakumari.
Rajesh doesn’t gloss over India’s unhappy bits–there’s the overabundance of creepy predatory men, the racism, the xenophobia, the shadism, the cockroaches, the crowds, the public performance of bathroom ablutions, and oh, the sheer anarchy. In one instance, her bus’s “headlamps failed and the driver opted to drive in the blind spot of the car ahead, using its headlamps to guide him, while ploughing oncoming drivers off the road.” Sounds about right. Equally, Rajesh is quick to note the warmth of the people, and the kindness of strangers, who gladly share their meals with her, sacrifice their comforts to keep her safe, and arrange warm receptions at the remotest destinations, all without any expectation of return favors. And of course, there’s India’s over-the-top scenic beauty, from the northern Himalayas to the ocean at Kanyakumari. In all, Rajesh provides a real insight into how rewarding–and maddening!–the country can be.
The conflict in the narrative (apart from Rajesh’s struggles to get a grip on India) is provided by the great divider–religion! Passepartout turns out to be a militant atheist, while Rajesh considers her mild affiliation with Hinduism to be a product (and talisman) of family and culture. Depending on how you look at it, India is the worst or best country in which to hash out this sort of disagreement, and after one temple too many, Passepartout turns into an ass, partout, and the two go their separate ways. Do they get back together? Do they finally…like I said, read the book.
I have two gripes with Around India… First, even toddlers know that when you have a Dora and her Boots, you NEED a map. Less than a 100 pages in, I lost track of which train they were on and where they were headed, and there was no map, index or appendix to ease the pain. To fulfill the 80-train constraint, Rajesh and her companion zigzag back and forth across India, doubling back to a familiar place and then plunging off again, and after a point, the chatter about a train originating in Barmer, boarding at Bikaner and heading to Kalka might as well have been the BART from Tatooine with a stop at Loompaland before heading to Mylapore. The publishers ponied up for illustrations of monkeys and and samosas and Thums-up soda at the beginning of each chapter, but apparently couldn’t stretch to an informational subtitle. This book is begging for an appendix detailing the name of the train, origin and destination, and the particular segment of Rajesh’s journey, and while its lack thereof didn’t quite derail my reading experience, after finishing the book, I have a very hazy idea of the routes travelled. And I grew up in India.
My other issue is that while Rajesh is a whiz at describing her adventures, she can be incredibly irritating when pronouncing generalities to explain India. “If you give an Indian a chance he will take it.” There’s an authoritativeness about her opinions that seems misplaced at best, coming as it does from someone, um, not-so-seasoned about India. “In addition to their penchant for arguing, Indians love a good monologue…” Hmmm. “A country’s greatness cannot be measured by its size, but the standard of living of every individual.” Get me on the rush hour local out of this clichéland, quick. And consider this: “When I had just left university, I did a work experience stint at a magazine in Delhi. Initially they gave me copy to proofread, but as soon as I started to pick out archaisms and anything else that was incorrect, they looked put out. They ignored my changes and gradually stopped giving me work.” While I have scant respect for India’s mainstream media, would you *really* expect a bunch of cynical, seasoned journalists to thank a young amateur for pointing out that their writing didn’t meet her standards?
But on the whole, I liked this book a lot, and recommend it wholeheartedly for those interested in travel writing and/or India. And while I didn’t exactly feel inspired to click on to indianrail.gov.in, the book left me awash in nostalgia as I read about passengers whipping out balaclavas when the temperature hit 65 F, about Rajesh being addressed as “Aunty” by a random child, the inquisition into her father’s name (a thinly-veiled attempt to find out one’s caste), about feeding Marie biscuits to a stray dog…and about her dawning realization of the impossibility of forming a single-line queue in India. Plus ça change, etc. My edition was published by Roli Books and sourced from India, but a new $10 edition is available in the USA. Check it out!