A book by Monisha Rajesh

Did you know that Chandigarh has the distinct status of being India’s first planned city and also it’s cleanest? That post-partition Nehru had commissioned its development to reflect new India?

Did you know that Shimla was built by the British Raj as its official summer capital- a Little England to ‘escape’ India?

Did you know that Koh-i-Noor, the world’s largest diamond, that now sits in the Jewel House at the Tower of London in England, is 186-carat and was taken by the British as result of a “footnote” in the Treaty of Lahore drawn by them after winning the First Anglo-Sikh War in 1846?

Did you know that the well-known Khan Market of Delhi was built by the Ministry of Rehabilitation and given to the immigrants at the time of partition?

Well, I’ll stop the fun-facts right here, before I entirely kill the joy of exploring India with Monisha Rajesh in this classic saga of her epic journey around India in 80 trains. I shall however tell you exactly why every Indian should read this book- whether you read it to discover India, to re-discover India, to experience  India, to explore India, or simply for the sake of nostalgia that it evokes because you have been living away from India for years!

And before even doing that, got to say how very impressive it is that the then 28 year old (in 2011) Monisha, born and raised in England, should undertake a journey around India, covering the 4 extreme ends of the Indian Railways in 80 different trains, travelling in top-notch luxury trains to 2nd and 3rd tiers of passenger trains  and yes, even the Lifeline Express (the world’s first hospital train), the infamous Mumbai’s commuter trains and the toy trains- undaunted by the ‘chaos and the stink that form the basis of daily existence in the country’ and in the face of ‘constant battle against the country’s orchestrated chaos’ (her words not mine) and did I mention chaos? 🙂

So yes, we would highly recommend every Indian to read this book. And here goes why…

  1. Love Monisha’s narrative. She talks about  all the different types and yet the same kind of people that you encounter while travelling anywhere in India- the ready with advice well-wishers, the curious by-standers, the rude conductor, the overzealous neighbor and the ever so sharing co-travelers who are ever so willing to share their ‘puris’ with fellow passengers!
  2. Monisha gives a good peek at the history/ background of some of the main places that she visits (especially some of the cities and the temples), even though the book is more about the journey rather than the destinations.
  3. Monisha mentions every single thing that’s India, from the legacy left behind by the British to our very own cultivated culture. And she herself being from England, the read becomes really interesting for she’s able to give the readers a good balance of the two perspectives, observing things that’s too much on the face for those living in India to even note.  Like when she describes the Kanwar’s moustache, she says it must have been combed and set around a pair of heated rollers at bedtime. Now, we know that’s not true, but it does make you wonder how do they keep it perfectly curled and pointy? 
  4. Monisha describes everything that she sees in a very matter-of-fact manner, no passing judgement, no offering suggestions to change. She describes the various different shapes and shades of teeth people have, the ‘puris’ on the train, bata sandals, coconut smelling hair,  the powdered grey faces, the gold-ringed fingers, daily ablutions on the fields and on the tracks, the ‘heavily pregnant trains’, the heavy accent (‘leven’, ‘pleesgeddown’), the use of the word ‘only’, the haggling, wedding crashers, the cheating vendors, you name it and you’ll find a mention. In fact, I half expected to read about “bohani ka time hai” (the auspicious time when the first sale of the day is made) or even “ghelua” (the consumers’ expectation of getting extra). That’s probably the only two things that didn’t make it in the book.
  5. Love Monisha’s sense of humor. Like when she says that had the Koh-i-noor stayed in India, it was more than likely that she would now be sitting on the ring fingers of at least 20 Delhiite Punjabis! (Lol!!! ) Her description of ‘buttocks winking in the sunshine, a salute to the posh passengers munching on their cornflakes and hot milk’ is hilarious (you know what we’re talking about ).
  6. Monisha describes all that is good about India and all that is far-from-it. Will leave that for the readers to find out, suffice to say there’s mention of a young man who sends money home to help support the family (much unlike her contemporaries in England, as she herself agrees) and there’s mention of the constant stares, the touching and everything else that falls under the umbrella phrase, ‘eve teasing’ that’s so prevalent in India, much to our shame.
  7. Lastly, travelling with an English companion, and getting opportunities to interact with foreign tourists aboard luxury trains, Monisha is able to offer the readers a perspective other than her own as well. On the one hand is Passepartout and on the other Patrick. Both an atheist, but while one display utter frustration in the Indian world of beliefs, the other admires ‘the workmanship that goes into what they believe in’.

Again, the book is a must read! In fact, read it with your kids and share your experiences of train travel with them if your kids are not born and raised in India. But beware that the chapter on the visit to Rajneesh’s Ashram and the description of our famous temple sculptures makes the book pg-13.

So go ahead and get your copy of ‘Around India in 80 Trains’, Monisha Rajesh’s debut book. You’re sure to find it engrossing, fascinating, amusing and intriguing. And remember to settle down with a paper and a pencil for you would want to jot down those train journeys that Monisha absolutely tempts you into wanting to take by her descriptions of 102 tunnels over 864 bridges and so on and so forth!!!