I first went to India more than 15 years ago and I’ve been back many times since for holidays and for business trips. I’ve been all over the place but I still wouldn’t claim that I ‘know’ India because it’s an unknowable mess of contradictions and conundrums. I have lots of guidebooks and I’m always looking for insights into the country that I love but perhaps I should have been a bit more sceptical about ‘India–All the parts other travel books leave out’ by Phillip Donnelly. I had been browsing the Kindle lists for books about India and picked this one up for just 77 pence.
I read the first few pages which were available via Amazon’s ‘Click to look inside’ and was mildly amused by the authors thoughts on how other people should behave on planes, thinking he was clearly quite bigoted but might be funny. I should have spotted that anyone who can’t put up with a couple of hundred fellow passengers on a flight is going to have tolerance problems with over a billion people living in India. I wish I had realized that the book was not based on any deep experience of the country. If I had known that Donnelly and his wife had only been to India once, had stayed for less than a month, had made absolutely no plans before they went and so ended up with a package tour put together by a local tourism company, I would definitely have questioned his qualifications to be writing a book of advice for fellow travellers.
Their visit took place in 2008 in August. One thing that the travel books wouldn’t leave out is that August is undoubtedly the most stupid time of year to go on the itinerary that they followed. They start in Delhi, head to Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Jaipur, Pushkar, Jodhpur, Jaiselmer, Udaipur, Mumbai, Goa and back to Delhi. There’s a very good reason why most people go between October and April – the summer is a shocker, especially in the desert region of Rajasthan, and the humidity is off the scale in Mumbai and Goa. I’ve been in Mumbai in August for work and it’s like a sauna – I wouldn’t recommend anyone to go there for fun. Had Donnelly done even a little bit of homework before flying willy-nilly into the world’s largest democracy, he might have thought to head for the mountains or put his trip off to a more suitable time of year.
“ a vast array of people working in various service industries seem to be permanently bereft of change but curiously enough only when dealing with foreigners”
This isn’t a book of advice; it’s a book of moans and whinges and prejudiced observations. It’s true that people don’t have change in India but the reason is that it’s only idiot tourists who expect a guy selling stuff on the side of the road for a few rupees will have change of a 500 rupee note. If you want to give advice that they won’t find in the guidebooks, it should be to prepare yourself by saving up as many small notes as you can and using the big notes in places where there’s a lot more money passing through. He says those same people don’t have the same problem with the locals? True – that’s because the locals have more sense than to attempt to expect change for an amount that could take someone a week to earn. I’ve seen traders go to extreme lengths to send someone all over the town trying to get change so they don’t lose a sale – so please, let’s have a bit of consideration.
Donnelly starts in Delhi and checks out one of my favourite museums claiming he “never really could summon up much interest in bits of old broken pottery” Philistine! He spent his entire trip looking for a Starbucks ( I could have told him not to bother – probably some of the guidebooks would have pointed out that he was wasting his time too). One of my favourite UNESCO World Heritage sites in India is the ghost town of Fatehpur Sikri. He’s disappointed – wanted it to be more like Angkor Wat. That’s like going to Rome and complaining that the Coliseum wasn’t as much like the Eiffel Tower as you’d hoped. He tells us that the ‘pink city’ of Jaipur isn’t named after its homosexual community – ouch. In one city he decides not to go to a Hindu temple because “I’d already seen one Jain temple that day”. That’s like “I decided not to go the synagogue because I’d been to the mosque”.
“India makes you Paranoid”
India only makes you paranoid if you’re a closed minded person who isn’t willing to see the good in other people and find humour in the absurd. Whether you will love or hate India is not about India – it’s about YOU and your attitude. After a taxi driver takes him on a bit of a wild goose chase he declares “From that moment on, I trusted no-one, I believed nothing, and I never spoke to strangers”. He believed the only way to survive was to avoid over a billion people. I’m sure they didn’t feel they missed out on his company but I can’t help thinking he learned nothing by attempting to seal himself in a hermetically sealed bubble. He eats bananas, toast and cheese toasties and then wonders if he’s the only person ever to go to India and get constipation. He’s probably also the only person to go to India in August with just one pair of trousers too – yuk.
“NEVER set foot in a shop in India – you just never escape without buying something you don’t really want”
I’ve had some lovely afternoons sitting in shops drinking tea, talking rubbish about cricket, discussing the troubles in Kashmir and getting educated on handicrafts and then walked out again with nothing more than a warm glow and the email address of the owner’s cousin-brother in Srinagar who’d love to help us arrange a holiday. Not one rupee has left my pocket and there’s been no hard sell. I’ve also spent a fortune on beautiful things that give me pleasure every time I see them. I can honestly say I’ve never bought anything I didn’t want at least on some level and I’ve never paid more than I really wanted to. PLEASE, don’t dismiss the wonderful experience of shopping in India just because you’re crap at it. Donnelly gets frustrated that no taxi driver will ever take him to a shopping mall. There’s a very good reason for that – in the places he went to, there aren’t any. So if the driver tries to take him somewhere else does that make him or the driver the moron?
Errors and Typos
The book is full of errors and mistakes. Here are a few examples. When visiting the Gandhi memorial in Delhi I got the distinct impression he thought Mahatma Gandhi and Mrs Ghandi were related. At one of the churches in Old Goa he says they have the undecomposed body of St Francis of Assisi – it’s actually the body of St Francis Xavier, the inquisitor, not the guy who could charm the birds out of the trees. St FX’s body is actually in the basilica of Bom Jesus, an entirely different building from the Church of St Francis of Assisi. He writes about rioting in Ahmenabad which was presumably supposed to be Ahmedabad. He refers to the god Shiva as ‘her’. This ‘book’ needed a critical read by someone who knew what they were reading about and not a quick glance from a handful of the writer’s friends.
Typos are rife. He tries to ‘relief the pressure’ when his head hurts, a tout tries to sell him ‘an arithmetic message’ (I think that was arthritic massage), he says that India is the ‘lost populous country on Earth (I think that was most).
The Things his Friends Didn’t Tell Him
Undoubtedly many people go to India and they don’t like it or they hide in their rooms and attempt to avoid talking to anyone or undergoing any interaction with the locals. They eat cheese on toast and get flustered by the attentions of people trying to make a few pennies out of them. That’s their choice and it’s as valid as anyone else’s experience but it doesn’t qualify them to give much advice. The Amazon blurb claims that India was a country that Irishman Donnelly really wanted to visit but there’s not much evidence of that in his book. From the moment he lands until the moment he leaves, he’s worrying about dirty public telephones, getting ripped off by everyone and generally getting scared of the entire local population. I would be embarrassed to show myself up with the prejudices and ignorance displayed in this book.
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