I don’t know how I came across this book, but I’m glad that I did. Not a fan of travelogues usually, since I am not much of a traveller myself. The Goodreads score wasn’t very encouraging as well. Nevertheless, I took the plunge…
India…one country, birthplace of five major world religions, 22 scheduled languages, 29 states, 1.26 billion people…and now 80 trains…
One thing that struck me right at the onset was Monisha’s writing style. Quite in the same vein as Alexandra Horowitz, whose book “On Looking…” I had read some time ago. Add a dose of wry British humour and some Indianisms, and hey and pesto – thats Monisha for you.
Well, the book per se is, as you may have figured out by now, an account of the authors journey around the Indian railways – which is a behemoth in itself, ferrying over 23 million passengers a day (yes, you read that right, A DAY) over its massive network. While I can empathise with Monisha’s dilemma on which trains to choose, she did manage to get a fair cross section, covering luxury, sleeper classes, mountain trains and even the Metro. And she did technically travel the length and breadth of the country as well.
And what a journey it was.
A lot of comments I read on Goodreads, pointed towards the erratic nature of the descriptions of the places the author visited..some were described in detail and others were just skimmed through. I tend to disagree. I see this book as the personal journey of the author, HER way of traveling India, and rediscovering what the country meant to her. I don’t think it was meant to be a travel guide; rather, a diary of her travels. Not to say that the book didn’t have any shortcomings. Her co-traveller came across as somewhat confused, and their fights kind of digressed into territories that we as readers didn’t really care much for. And the author did miss Kolkata, which I would consider sacrilege.
That apart, the book was an absolute delight to read. Sample this:
“The platform was bloated to bursting point. Passengers pushed to the edges, the odd one occasionally dropping off, like quarters in a casino coin-pusher machine. They simply wandered up a few girders, found a gap and hauled themselves back onto the platform, unfazed by impending death. This was just another one of many contradictions that made India so very curious. At any given time the country is in a hurry, racing to keep up with itself. In every sense Indians are in a constant fight to move ahead. People shove to board buses, push to get off trains and retrieve their baggage from overhead bins while planes are still taxiing. Yet at instances of genuine urgency, there is a distinct predisposition towards nose picking and bone”
“Between Jhansi and Bina, the sun and I became embroiled in a game of peek-a-boo. It darted over rooftops and ducked under trees, hiding behind rogue clouds. But it soon became tired of the game, turning pink from exhaustion and sliding down behind the hills, winking on its way out.”
Her observations on Indians are spot-on. Usually, there is a tendency to be over-critical of ‘Indianness’, and usual accounts of travels in India acquire a sarcastic and a pessimistic tone. None of that here. Yes, she does make fun, but not in a snooty kind of way, rather, its like a member of the family jovially remarking on the other.
“Indians register separately,’ he replied with a pseudo-Californian accent, refusing to make eye contact. He reminded me of one of my brother’s teachers at boarding school, who had spent a short time on sabbatical in Wisconsin and after his return began every lesson with an apologetic ‘please eggs-cuse ma yummerican aaaaccent’, which he delivered in a heavy Keralan accent.”
“As the sun finally set on the spectacle, the gates were clanged shut and the crowds drifted off, leaving a trail in their wake of popcorn, empty bottles, ice-cream tubs and teacups, amid the atmosphere of a cricket match that had ended in a draw.”
As the book nears its end, and Monisha reaches the conclusion of her journey…she realizes what India actually means to her. She realizes that her new journey has just begun….
And as the book neared its end, I realised too…how much I missed traveling by train…how much of India there was to be seen…and how much I missed home.
My journey has also just begun 🙂