Thursday, August 31, 2017

   Rediscovery by Rail
My review of Monisha Rajesh's book, Around India in 80 Trains, appeared in the Sunday Deccan Herald dated December 16, 2012. The book continues to be a popular read.


Travel is much more than discovery. Quite often it involves rediscovery, reassessment, of one’s past, roots; inner demons to be set free. Good travel writing often works on two levels — the personal and the public. As a veteran consumer of travel writing (from regulars like Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson to less popular but equally effective writers like Sarah Macdonald with her hilarious Holy Cow view of India), I was intrigued enough to wonder what debutant writer Monisha Rajesh had to say in her charmingly illustrated and well-packaged effort. After all, the very cover carries an endorsement from someone like William Dalrymple.

Happily, the complete meal was as satisfactory as the appetizer. Indian-Britisher Monisha Rajesh’s book is witty, interesting, factual, incident-packed, and finally, much more than an account of a rail marathon through India.

There is empathy, a 28-year-old’s attempt to understand a native land that has frustrated her during childhood encounters; appreciation of present day ‘Shining India’ with all its contradictions; precise language revealing Monisha’s journalistic training; and finally, acceptance and tempering of her own questioning mind... but I am getting ahead.

Inspired initially by a news item that spoke of India’s domestic aviation network touching 80 destinations, Monisha decided to turn into a modern day Phineas Fogg, attempting to rediscover her India roots, through 80 train journeys, very much in the manner of the fictional Fogg-Passe-partout pair that ‘did’ the world in 80 days.

Monisha had her own Passe-partout companion — a Norwegian friend who played photographer, minder, travelmate, and occasionally, moody opinionated skeptic, who could reduce Monisha to tears, anger, and a spell of risky solitary travel in lonely places.

The railathon began on January 14, 2010, when Monisha and Passe-partout (whose real name is not revealed) left home base Chennai — familiar ground from Monisha and family’s two-year spell in India in the early 90s. Train number one was the Anantapuri Express to Nagercoil, en route to Kanyakumari. Armed with two 90-day Ind-rail passes, all that was required was a map cum travel plan... but travel through the length and breadth of chaotic India, it’s not so simple.

Monisha Rajesh experienced it all through the next four months, on train and off — the Good, the Bad,and the Divine. Monisha’s practical train reservation needs were met through the colourfully portrayed Anusha Thawani of the IndRail UK desk at the New Delhi Railway Station. Monisha’s train companions frequently wondered aloud about her relationship with Passe-partout. A gold bangled, diamond nose-pinned brown Indian with a Brit accent and white companion?

On a Trivandrum-Mangalore train, Pawing Prabaker tries his luck, but luckily, Monisha catches on, in time. At Coimbatore station, Monisha joins a group of waitlisted ‘fellow fraudsters’, all attempting to sob story their way into reserved ticket status. She succeeds.

At a Madurai hotel, Monisha has the first of her many arguments with Prickly Passe-partout. Her serene nature wonders at his outrage over the obvious deification of Satya Sai Baba. Her own bag contains a couple of items pressed on to her by her parents. If talismanic symbols help people find peace, why cavil?

At the Osho ashram/resort in Pune, some attitudes come to light. Attempting to buy the mandatory orange robes, Monisha is brusquely informed by a Croatian Osho-ite store-minder that her Rs 1,000 note needs to be exchanged at the gate for a voucher. Apparently, greasy Indian money is unwelcome inside this foreign enclave.

Mumbai is described as “India in its most concentrated form”.

I found myself laughing and agreeing with Monisha’s observation on a typically Indian invention — the ‘side berth’. As she states, the side berth offers a narrow window seat and also the susceptibility ‘to a face full of passing backside’.

Crisscrossing the country through the spring of 2010, Monisha experiences a wide variety of trains, that include luxurious ‘royal’ cruisers, the modern and speedy Shatabdis and Durontos, quaint toy trains at Matheran and Darjeeling, the spic and span Delhi Metro that induces passengers to behave in a befitting disciplined manner.. she even gets crushed breathless in Mumbai’s locals, but survives with belongings and bones intact.

At Puri’s famed temple, Monisha endures a soul destroying whiplash of words from a righteous official; is in fact denied entry for not looking Hindu enough.

Bizarre encounters, a midnight flight from an unreasonable Passe-partout, a serene and healing week with The Lifeline Express team, more healing and soul searching at a 10-day Vipasana course… Monisha lives to tell the tale about a 40,000 km marathon.

Deftly narrated, with huge dollops of wit , Monisha’s travelogue brims with facts, fun, fulfillment. Ride it.