Uninspired. That is one word for Monisha Rajesh’s Around India in 80 Trains. For such an inspired idea of traveling all over India in 80 trains, her book translated into a complaining, self-righteous, insipid, and a boring monologue. Books on travel are supposed to be evocative that vividly portray a journey where the author will entice the reader into accompanying the author on the journey. Unfortunately, Monisha’s book does not do that.
In the first few pages, she starts complaining about the bad experiences of spending 18 months in Chennai as a child, which forms the basis for the entire book. She takes the usual route of a ‘foreigner’ being struck by the poverty, filth, dirt, and muck in India and chronicles it in great detail. The book would have been richer had she lavished the same detail to her journeys and experiences on the trains.
A large part of the book is devoted to a rift between her and her traveling companion, Passepartout, who flits in and out of the pages, although he is with her at every turn of the wheel. An unfortunate clashing of views about the existence of God, or its lack thereof that escalates into a conflict, in which Monisha storms out of his presence. While she continues to lament on his narrow understanding of people’s personal choice about faith, she demonstrates the same kind of narrow understanding in refusing to understand his worldview. Having suffered through a brutal fight with a friend on the very same topic, I could understand the fight between her and him. What I could not understand was her neglect in etching out his character and telling us more about him, the kind of person he is, and what are his thoughts on interacting with the people in India, and the reason for his militant atheist views. In pushing her perspective into the book, Passepartout is relegated to a secondary ‘class’ companion, without a voice, and without much to do except to protect her and disagree with her.
She superficially glimpses over her journey, instead focusing on mundane details of the train names, times, and platforms. And most of these are usually in deference to her anger towards Passepartout. She could have described more about the places and the people that she met during her journey. There are several instances in the book, where I would have liked more detail about the place that she stayed, how did she come across those places, what would she eat, and what did Passepartout think about the journey. Her journey also was haphazard and there was a lot of going back and forth between places across India without an account of those places. She also has a tendency to romanticize the train attendants, indicating that they are satisfied with their job and do not seek better pastures. These could have substantiated by telling us about her conversations with them rather than, ‘it seemed…’
The book picked up in the second half like a train hurrying eagerly towards its destination, but it was too little, too late by then. Towards the end, she too becomes a victim of trying to find spirituality in India after being turned away from the temple of Lord Jagannath. I am staggered at why she should find this surprising and rile under self-righteous anger. Religion in India is tainted with exclusions of certain classes of people as well as women as much as it is celebrated at being inclusive of all the vices of the people whom it seeks to elevate. Her delusion is shattered because she comes to realize that religion in India is not the charming idea of pluralism and tolerance that she espouses. To that end, to quell her anger, she embarks on a 10 day Vipasana course and her book turns into yet again one of those clichéd accounts of a foreigner in India searching for God and/or spirituality.
The final chapter was a treat to read and I wished she had dealt similarly with all her previous chapters in a similar manner. She narrates a charming exchange with a sommelier with a penchant for books and thereby exchanges books with him at night; only to see him gone by the time she wakes up in the morning. She provides a wonderful reflection about that journey and redeems herself when she realizes that she was holding the bad memories from Chennai and had become a hostage to the past. Monisha is now going to be traveling in 80 trains around the world. I hope that her account of that journey starts off from where she left off in Around India in 80 Trains.