India through its railways

My review in The Sunday Telegraph of Monisha Rajesh’s “Around India in 80 Trains” is available online here and below. Also picked up in the New Statesman’s Cutural Capital reviews round-up here.

INDIA THROUGH ITS RAILWAYS

Book title: “Around India in 80 Trains”
Author: Monisha Rajesh
Publisher: Nicholas Brealey Publishing
RRP: £10.99
288 pages

“Pigeonholing in India is futile,” Monisha Rajesh reminds us. “For every rule there are one hundred exceptions.” This beautifully written book about two of India’s greatest assets – its people and its railways – thrives on those exceptions.

Rajesh set out in 2009 to reconnect with her roots in India. Doing it on eighty trains, she realised, would give her material for a book. The result is a witty and insightful traveller’s-eye view of India from inside its railway network. It is also an account of a life-shaping journey.

Accompanied by a photographer friend (dubbed “Passepartout”), Rajesh criss-crosses Indian Rail’s “geographical diamond”, experiencing all the freedoms and frustrations it brings, while enduring endless enquiries as to her marital status. An assortment of colourful characters burst out of the pages – moustachioed maharajahs, wicked wedding crashers, pin-striped Sikhs, indignant inspectors, spotty know-it-alls in Che Guevara t-shirts, and crafty rickshaw drivers. Anusha Thawani, the larger-than-life Chief Reservation Supervisor at New Delhi Train Station, may well become an overnight sensation.

The trains themselves become characters: the Deccan Queen (a “Blue-eyed Babe” that “sashayed onto the scene on 1 June 1930”), the “Lifeline Express”, a charity-financed mobile hospital that takes doctors to the heart of rural India, the superfast Shatabdis and Durontos that are revolutionizing the network.

Along the way, Rajesh has ample time for thinking, reflecting and arguing about the country with various interlocutors. Some stereotypes are reinforced (“Indians love a good monologue”); others are robustly challenged (the grungy western travellers who act as India’s “poverty tourist board” come in for particular opprobrium). Nor does she shy away from difficult topics like corruption and the Indian obsession with face-whitening creams.

Rajesh also explores a deeper question: how does it feel to be a second generation Indian emigrant returning to a motherland that is changing out of all recognition? She freely admits to passing Norman Tebbit’s infamous “test” (she supports England in cricket games against India), and almost apologetically confesses “India is the only place I feel a foreigner.”

Under an onslaught from “militant atheist” Passepartout (who has his own issues after suffering a cloying Christian upbringing), she starts to question the validity of her own assumptions about Hinduism. Everything comes to a head when Rajesh is turned away from the “Hindus Only” section of the Jagannath Temple in Puri. “The roots had finally been torn up,” she writes, introducing an intriguing denouement to the book.

All of this is done with the lightest of touches and a dry wit that suffuses the narrative. There are laugh out loud moments at which seasoned and fresh Indian travelers will cringe with recognition: male snoring on the trains (“a noise of volcanic proportions”); the drastic effects of the Imodium pill; 87 very good reasons to avoid Indian bacon.

If there is a niggle it is with Passepartout who never quite sparks into life as a character, but this is a minor point.

This excellent debut will stand the test of time. Just like India’s railways.

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Filed under India 2012, Published work

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