The inspiration of course comes from Jules Verne. And it struck London based journalist Monisha Rajesh one drizzly London day, reading about India’s airline boom, when she wanted to escape from the weather and the sameness of life in London. It also offered an opportunity to get to know India better, since Monisha’s encounters with the country of her origins had hardly been rewarding. As a child transported from England, she had found life as a schoolchild in Chennai filled with snide comments because her parents were ‘different’ from the rest, her mother did not wear saris. After that short unpleasant experience, the Rajesh family had left India, with no intentions of returning except perhaps to visit relatives.
But the idea of travelling round India in 80 trains is too much for Monisha to resist – especially since the distance of 40,000 km is the equivalent of circumnavigating the earth which makes the figure of 80 very logical. She embarks on a whirlwind of train ticket buying and carefully supplies herself with a male companion, a version of Verne’s Passe-partout, who is Norwegian and an atheist, whom she has known for a short while and in whom she has no romantic interest whatever. What is an entertaining travel narrative as a result becomes a many layered tale of does she, doesn’t she – and she certainly does with Ben whom she encounters along the way on one comforting night.
Her train choices are dictated by reputation and it takes her from the very comfortable Deccan Queen to the excruciatingly packed Mumbai commuter trains to Darjeeling’s famous toy train which reminds her of Thomas the Tank Engine, even to the famous Lifeline Express. Along the way, she discovers that train travel is the best way to get to know India through the plethora of people that she meets.
There are memorable waiters, stories of police raids and forgotten luggage. And the expected curiosity of fellow passengers who think that sharing a compartment means they can share the most intimate details of each other’s lives. Along the way Rajesh learns to appreciate Chetan Bhagat.
Sometimes the journeys seem to follow too fast on the heels of each other, so that they come and go in a flash, which is unfair since Rajesh has a wicked sense of humour and eye for detail. And of course, there is Rajesh’s own coming to grips with her Indian heritage which is difficult and her problems with Passe-partout who insists on running all religions down, with a focus on Hinduism. This, given the number of temples Rajesh’s journey includes, is only logical.
The book is not only about train journeys, of course. It is a journey of Rajesh’s coming to terms with herself. By the end of the book she learns to understand why she is the way she is and why she feels uncomfortable with notions of atheism. She also finds enough courage to travel on her own, something that she had hesitated to do in the beginning. In the end it is a story of self-realization as discovered through the lessons taught by 80 very different trains and the people she encounters in their wake.
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