Book Review: Around India in 80 Trains

Let’s begin by saying that I will never be able to travel through India on its trains and write a travelogue now. Why? Because Monisha Rajesh has stolen my thunder by doing just that! For the longest time I have known, one of my desires or let’s put it better, one of the things on my bucket list was to travel on Indian trains and chronicle the journey in a book and a documentary film! Well, being a television producer has its own effects and yes, despite the hard work, unpalatable train ka khaana and constant rocking, I am willing to undergo all of it to put together a documentary. Thankfully, Monisha left the film for me to complete! To me, the Indian railways is the best way to see the country and understand its people. Having lived in urban set ups for most of my life, I crave to see the unseen India and meet people from all walks of life. More than anything, I wish to live through a real experience of understanding India.

So much for my personal desires being poured out at the behest of a book review! Time for the real thing now.

For the sake of this book review and to make it refreshing and new (which I hope it turns out to be) I did my first ever #twitterview with an author. An interview on Twitter, #twitterview is a list of 20 questions that Monisha answered. Through the rest of the review below, you will find my questions and Monisha’s answers to them.

80 trains 2

80 trains 1

To understand India you have to see it, hear it, breathe it and feel it. Living through the good, the bad and the ugly is the only way to know where you fit in and where India fits into you.

Monisha’s book blurb says:

“In 1991, Monishas family uprooted from Sheffield to Madras in the hope of making India their home. Two years later, fed up with soap-eating rats, stolen human hearts and the creepy colonel across the road, they returned to England with a bitter taste in their mouths.

Twenty years later, Monisha came back. Taking a page out of Jules Vernes classic tale, Around the World in 80 Days, she embarked on a 40,000km adventure around India in 80 trains. Travelling a distance equivalent to the circumference of the Earth, she lifted the veil on a country that had become a stranger to her.

As one of the largest civilian employers in the world, featuring luxury trains, toy trains, Mumbai’s infamous commuter trains and even a hospital on wheels, Indian Railways had more than a few stories to tell. On the way, Monisha met a colourful cast of characters with epic stories of their own. But with a self-confessed militant atheist as her photographer, Monisha’s personal journey around a country built on religion was not quite what she bargained for…

Around India in 80 Trains is a story of adventure and drama infused with sparkling wit and humour.”

And yes, it lives up to the promise of drama and adventure suffused with Monisha’s refreshing wit and humour. The premise of a Brit-Indian traveling to India as a ‘tourist’ is more about understanding India. I wouldn’t tag it as ‘understanding her roots’, because Monisha doesn’t say so in as many words.

Q1> Rather early in your book you say that you had never seen India as a tourist.A Brit-Indian as a tourist in India, what thoughts did you have in mind?

@Monisha_Rajesh: I had read so much about Khajuraho, Darjeeling, Assam, Jaisalmer etc and had friends who had seen them, that it made me realise that I wanted to see them for myself and learn more about India. I ended up seeing places most Indians hadn’t. I was v excited by the prospect of covering the whole country in one go.

She travels through the length and breadth of the country, stretching the railway tracks to the geographical extremes of Udhampur, Kanyakumari and Ledo. In her prologue, Monisha lays out the predicament of a single woman traveling pretty early. India’s disrepute of being hostile to women in all forms, raises its ugly head right at the start. Monisha writes, “India was the not the safest place for a single girl to travel alone and while I was prepared to go by myself, some company was preferable.”

Q2> The potential threat to a single woman travelling alone came right on top of your mind. Having gone through the 80 trains, how real is that threat?

@Monisha_Rajesh: I can only speak from my own experience but I felt quite safe – I travelled during the day, kept everyone aware of where I was and travelled in compartments wit families. When men stared or leered, I shouted & drew attention to them.

Luckily for her, she finds her Passepartout (nicknamed after Phileas Fogg’s travel companion and man servant Passepartout). A photographer by profession Passepartout soon becomes the travel buddy that Monisha loved to hate. Their journey begins with a fleeting kiss, sails through great adventures, hits a rock bottom with a serious altercation that leads the two to separate only to come back together again. An interesting sub-plot in the book that made me wonder if Monisha really needed a travel buddy at all?

Q3> Tell me about Passepartout. From a fleeting kiss, to a traveling buddy, to conflicts and the big real fight – the 2 of you had quite a journey!

@Monisha_Rajesh: We did! He was awkward as hell but I felt safe travelling with a male companion rather than alonee. We didn’t always a lot of the time we had fun trying new food, discovering mad people, chatting about books and debating all sorts.

Q4> What do you think triggered the conflict?

@Monisha_Rajesh: His hardline atheism. I didn’t know he was so militant about it and it erupted like a volcano almost as soon as we arrived

Q5> In hindsight, would you have liked another traveling partner?

@Monisha_Rajesh: No! at the time I wanted to flee, but as I wrote the book I realized it was wonderful 2 have an underlying story 2 weave in. He forced me to challenge my worldview & look at things from a completely new perspective, albeit not in a pleasant manner!

Monisha’s journey through India is as much about the books she reads. From exchanging books with strangers and picking up second hand books, books remain her constant buddies. While traveling through Ratnagiri on the Konkan Railways, she happens to read Amitava Ghosh’s The Glass Palace. Monisha writes, “A sheet of water stretched to the horizon and I thought of King Thebaw, one of the characters in The Glass Palace based on a real person…The palace still remains in Ratnagiri and I imagined the king standing in his bedroom window every morning, looking out through the binoculars across this expanse of grey-blue water, watching for boats and signs of visitors.” I realised Monisha is my kind of reader.

Q6> You read through an impressive list of books. Sometime later in your chronicles you point out how your books were your travel companions. Which was your favourite?

@Monisha_Rajesh: Hard to choose, I enjoyed certain books depending on where I was or how I was feeling at the time. I love Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss which I read right before going to Darjeeling, and The God of Small Things. Funnily enough I never read any of @DalrympleWill ‘s books until I came back home, but probably a good thing as it’s easy to start questioning your own views & become swayed by what other travel writers think of areas you’re writing on.

Around India in 80 trains is as much about India as it is a colourful collage of the varied trains that Monisha takes. From the claustrophobic locals of Mumbai, to the chook-chook trains on the hills, a hospital on a train and the ultra-luxurious palaces on wheels. For long I have wanted to travel on a luxury train, but the fares continue to scorch me! The journeys are also about the colourful people who she meets. From being probed about the reason for traveling alone, to being asked questions about her barren womb, to the friendly advice and unsolicited help, to a crash course in deciphering the numbers printed on a train…Monisha makes friends all along.

Q7> Toy trains, to passenger trains, locals, to first class to luxury trains – the range of your travels were truly varied. What did it tell you about your co-passengers?

@Monisha_Rajesh: hat the soul of Indian Railways lies in its passengers and workers. My journeys would have been nothing without them.

Q8> Talking of co-passengers you met quite an eclectic lot. From free advice, to friends found on-board, who were the ones that left a lasting impression?

@Monisha_Rajesh: One of the best was @arun4 who taught me all about train numbers, carriage numbers and even came to join me a year later when I was doing some more journeys in the south. Another was Ben from the Lifeline Express who I saw again last week! He got me interested in Vipassana and reminded me last week how helpful it is when times are rough and to get started again.

Q9> Tell me more about your Osho experience? The ashram is meant for foreign nationals. But your experience and narrative is more journalistic than one as would be narrated by a foreign tourist?

@Monisha_Rajesh: It’s actually not. they’re emphatic it’s for everyone, though I saw few Indian nationals and the staff were so insular. I’m a trained journalist and I wanted the story to be reportage rather than opinion. Especially as the ashram has bad press.

The lines between the journalist and the tourist blur at several places. However the one thing that hangs on her like a heavy cloak is her tag as a Non-Resident Indian! While Monisha comes across as a woman confident about her identity as a British-Indian, it is people’s perception of her that takes her by complete surprise. And it is the same identity perhaps that colours some of her descriptions. While in most of her writing she takes on the journalistic mode of reporting and description, some of her thoughts when written on paper is cliched. Cliched, but 100% true! Take for instance, “As a general rule, morning appointments in India take place at one fixed time. Whether it is to meet a friend for coffee, to pick up blouses from the tailor, or to discuss business with a colleague, the time arranged is the same” ‘leven-‘ leven thirty.”

Q10> “What is Britain like? Do you feel like an outsider in England?” – You got this asked more than once in your book. What did it tell you about fellow Indians and their notion of your country?

@Monisha_Rajesh: I was – Indian nationals have an obsession with “NRIs” and are so concerned by perception and acceptance of Indians abroad when it’s not something I ever considered in my life until I came to India.

Q11> A lot of your description is clichéd. Your descriptions of slums, people and their mannerisms, though accurate is what we have read before. How did your ‘Indian’ roots relate to the journalist in you? In some places you blurred the lines between the journalist and traveler in you.

@Monisha_Rajesh:Not to Western audiences and I was aware that many readers would never have been to India before. I had to write for both. I had barely seen much of India – in the same way an Indian national describing London might seem cliched to me. In all honesty I just wrote how I speak and think. I didn’t edit myself for either a Western or Indian audience. Yes, I did blur the lines at the moments when the story centered on me and when I had to develop a personal relationship with my readers.

Traveling through the Indian railways cannot be disconnected from the possibility of dealing with nosy babus. In this case, Monisha has a love-hate friendship with Anusha. Responsible for several journeys that she tailors for Monisha and Passpepartout, she ends up being a friend.

Q12> Tell me about Anusha. She obviously didn’t like you enough in the beginning. But she warmed up to you, and so did you.

@Monisha_Rajesh: She was a cantankerous so and so at the beginning but became so much fun as we kept coming back to her and so helpful. but 2 years later I went back to find her and she came to my book launch in Delhi with her son!

Anusha and Monisha

Monisha’s journey is not all about trains and people. On one occasion where she attempts to break into Kapil Dev’s house under a drunken stupor, makes for a hilarious anecdote!

Q13> The Kapil Dev incident! I doubled up laughing reading it! Your private school etiquette was perhaps long lost by now.

@Monisha_Rajesh: Oh yes! Dan was fabulous, he came along @ just the right time with just the right amount of gin to spark life back into me. He too came back to Delhi for my book launch and we would have re-enacted the event were it not for it being a dry day!

Until Monisha went Around India in 80 trains, I did not know that there is a Lifeline Express! A hospital on wheels the train, running on Indian tracks for more than 20 years now has helped more than 4,00,000 Indians who cannot travel for medical help. As daughter to two doctors, Monisha’s acutely aware of the need for adequate medical aid.

Q14> I read an interview somewhere you said that the Lifeline Express left a lasting impression. Is it because of the work they do on the train or the potential of what the Indian railways can achieve.

@Monisha_Rajesh: Many reasons: it was such a clever use of the railways and it made me see how much they’re taken for granted. But I was also horrified that a country considering itself a global power could have such a huge failure as a health system. Most of those afflictions are dealt with as free routine in-and-out ops in the UK.-cleft lips, cataracts, polio corrections.

Equally dramatic is Monisha’s brush with spirituality, religion and Godmen! One the one hand she enters Osho’s Ashram, she carries a picture of Sathya Sai as given by her parents, she travels to Sri Rangam Temple in Trichy that tells her on her face that only Hindus are allowed. Her brush with Sikhism at The Golden Temple leave her both emotional and rejuvenated. But by the end of her journey, she gets into a fight with a panda at Jagannath Temple in Puri. No doubt, Monisha’s tryst with India and its religious fabric leads her exhausted. She takes off for 10 days and takes up a Vipassana course to detox!

Q15> Your brush with religions and its followers were also diverse. If the goodness of people at the Golden Temple warmed you, the fight at Puri took you to the other extreme. Your thoughts on how Indians handle religion?

@Monisha_Rajesh: this was always going to upset some sensitivities but by and large I found it hypocritical and realised it wasn’t for me. But it shouldn’t be, and that’s what I found impossible to accept.

Q16> And that triggered the need for you to lose your religion?

@Monisha_Rajesh: I was never really very religious, I called myself Hindu because that’s what you do before you give it thought. I don’t now. I didn’t so much lose my religion so much as find a much more enjoyable and simpler way of living.

Q17> Was it the experience in Puri or the outcome of your entire journey that made you take up the Vipassana course? How important was it at the close of your journey?

@Monisha_Rajesh: A culmination of 4 months madness to be honest! I just knew I needed somewhere quiet for me to unwind. Most worthwhile experience of my life. As humans it isn’t normal for us to be silent, and away from outer distraction. It taught me more about myself and my body than I ever imagined possible. But I understand that it’s not for everyone.

One of my favourite moments in her book arrive near the end where Monisha sums up her epic journey. As a reader I went through the journey just as she did and for me the end is perfect. Monisha says, “…I realised that India is not shining – at least not yet. The notion is an image, a facade built up by the powerful elite who hope that if they shout about it loudly and long enough it will drown everything else, grab enough headlines and start to be true.”

Q18> At the end of your book you say that India is not shining – not yet. Where do you think are the fault lines?

@Monisha_Rajesh: You want me to answer this in 140 characters!!! haha!! I think u only have to look at the news from the last 4 months to know there is something inherently wrong with the system. The wrong people in govt, the wrong people with too much money and old and out-dated mindset that needs to be eradicated.

Q19> Did the journey in any way help you connect with your roots?

@Monisha_Rajesh: Only in the sense that I felt I understood India much better than before. On a personal level I’ve never been confused. I’ve always been a very content British-born Indian: I adore and am loyal to the country that has always been loyal to me. but feel very comfortable in India and less of a foreigner there than I used to, though I still don’t feel accepted. Yup, it’s pinned on me like a badge. I find it so strange and unnecessary, though I see it more as their problem than mine.

Q20> You are today no less than an expert on the Indian Railways! How do you fancy that?

@Monisha_Rajesh: It’s hilarious. Every 16-year-old girl’s dream is to one day wake up & find they’re universally acknowledged as a train geek. Hang on, I meant it’s nice NOT to be a white middle-class 50-yr-old male writing about trains – and to be taken seriously.

Monisha’s book is like traveling through India from your living room. Read it because it is fun. Read it because it will show you an India that you know exists, but never would have experienced its diversity. I give the book 4/5. One of the most definitive travelogues that I have read and thoroughly enjoyed.

Please Note: This is an unpaid review. The book is a personal copy that I picked up at the Delhi Book Fair from the Roli Books Stall. However, I am keen to do more such reviews. Authors and publishers, I would love to do a #twitterview with you, should you want it for your new releases. Please feel free to contact me through the Contact Page

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