This book borrows its title very obviously from the classic tale of Phileas Fogg and Passepartout in Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. But adapts it to a different context - traveling across the length and breadth of India on 80 trains instead. This was probably the most exciting part of the book - its title (and I did like the cover design).
The author, Monisha Rajesh has attempted to write a personal travelogue of her inspired journey across India, so as to reconnect with the land of her origin. Her parents being doctors and settled in London, she had only been to India intermittently. And her past experiences with her hometown had left a bitter taste in her memories. In order to alter this image of India, she along with her photographer friend Passepartout (he is from Sweden, but his real name is never revealed) embarks on a most intriguing and daring one of a kind trip.
Since the British first started the rail network in India by flagging off the first passenger train from Bombay to Thane in 1853, the Indian railway network has grown to a route of 64,000 km across villages, cities, mountains, coastlines and wastelands. It has earned the nickname the 'Lifeline of the Nation’ which is no small feat.
Since the author and her friend are foreigners, they do get passes that allow them to get reserved seats a lot more easily than others, but still they do endure a lot of struggles to accomplish their 80 train marathon. They begin their journey from Chennai and snake their way through the southern most tip of mainland India , Kanyakumari to the end of the railway line in the north – Udhampur.
From their travels we definitely get a glimpse of the vast and extensive network of the Indian railways as well as several interesting tidbits – mostly about trains. For instance, did you know that the 5 digit number painted on every coach can be deconstructed to figure out in which year it was made (the first two digits) and the kind of coach it would be (2nd class/sleeper etc.) The train number can reveal in which zone it plies as well as furnish us with a kind of insider information on how fast it travels. And a few random facts about which trains should not be missed – either for the scenic view or for the experience on board.
However, even though the premise of the book was interesting and kept me reading for a while, it did get tedious since a large portion of the book dealt with her bitter experiences with India in the past, and a rift between both her and Passepartout on the topic of religion and faith. In the first few chapters she does zero in on a lot of the non-charming aspects of her travel, and mostly leaves us feeling that she complains too much and in exquisite detail. For instance, I simply can’t get over these lines of her describing the grand Madurai Meenakshi Temple:
“It was a gaudy, wedge-shaped monumental tower, decorated with radioactive paint and covered with rows of gods, goddesses and demons. They had eyes like Chihuahuas being squeezed at the neck…..”
Clearly, her dismay at what she saw as a child somehow lingers in the first half of her journey. Even though it does get better, the damage is somehow done, and there is a disconnect between the traveler and the journey. This is a major let-down considering that her language and wry wit is actually quite well drawn out. Probably with more research this book could have transcended its limits from a mere entry book of trains they traveled in and more of an insightful and unique travel narrative.
The author and Passepartout meet a lot of colourful characters on their travels – which immediately dispels any lingering idea that one can define and classify India once and for all. As Mark Tully, one of my favourite writers on India puts it, “India is a land of no full stops”.
They explore many places including the controversy ridden Osho ashram, breathtaking but troubled Assam, vibrant Mumbai, heartwarming and welcoming Amritsar and the caste-driven temple premises of Puri. The readers will definitely keep hoping and wishing she had more to say and describe, since we are left with snatches and glimpses alone.
The last thing she does before she embarks on her final train journey is that checks herself into a ten-day meditation programme which is run for free under the aegis of Goenka in Hyderabad. It basically requires one to be silent for ten days – no phones, no writing, no music, no media or distractions except your breathing and your thoughts. This is called Vipasana , a Burmese technique practiced by the Buddha. But it does have a clichéd tone to it – a troubled foreigner coming to India, finding themselves in one of the spiritual paths prescribed – sound familiar? Probably.
Her final thoughts on the journey as she steps of the final train were truly insightful, when she realizes that she was holding the bad memories from her childhood memories of India and had become a hostage to the past. But it does come too late.
If you don’t go into the book with any high expectations , it would not be a complete let-down. It must be said that this book, is neither a book on trains, nor a travelogue completely. But it straddles a unique combination of personal recollections, intrepid data on the railways, glimpses of a unique nation. Though it fails to ignite a desire in one like the famous classic it is named after, it definitely leaves one with an idea that this is probably a great way to see a country as varied and diverse as India.