Of Foggy Train Rides
Books: Around India in 80 Trains
Author: Monisha Rajesh
Publisher: Roli Books
Price: Rs 295
Indian origin author Monisha Rajesh's first attempt at a book is an ambitious one. To travel in 80 trains touching all four corners of the Indian Railways network requires spunk, guile and a cast-iron stomach — specially if you've grown up in England and your "India experience" has been restricted to cousins' weddings and a short-lived attempt to settle in Madras. Nevertheless, Rajesh takes courage and stocks up on anti-bacterial gel and takes us on a rip-roaring trip across the country. Phileas Fogg is her inspiration, so in comes her Jean Passepartout, a self-proclaimed "militant atheist", Norwegian photographer Harald Haugan.
From Madras to Kanyakumari, followed by a whistle-stop tour of the Tamil heartland, she heads north along the Konkan coast to Mumbai. After experiencing the bone-crushing Mumbai local trains, she sips wine and savours kebabs served by liveried butlers aboard the luxurious Indian Maharaja train. After that, a series of trains take them across the country passing deserts, mountains, mighty rivers and into the boondocks and beyond.
The free-thinking Hindu author often finds herself at loggerheads with her atheist companion — a visit to a temple barring the entry of non-Hindus, a conversation sparked by a photo of Sathya Sai Baba or the mere mention of God in the same sentence as Sachin Tendulkar — spark off heated debates between the two travellers, sometimes ending in an ugly spat.
These debates, the author's discoveries about herself and her ability to deal with the surroundings form the backbone of the book and make for engrossing reading. One also admires her determination to keep going despite several setbacks. After all, 80 trains over 40,000 km in this country is a very tough task. As tiring and confusing as the journeys might have been — the writing flows and the pace never flags.