Motorcycle Diaries Across India by Jay S Babu was my latest temporary acquisition from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library which offers free e-book ‘loans’ to members of their Amazon Prime scheme. Unlike the other downloads which I’ve tended to race through, leaving myself kicking my heels waiting for the end of the month so I could pick the next one, I had to sit myself down, give myself a good talking to and then force myself to finish it. Having challenged myself to download a freebie, read and review it each month, I was struggling for sufficient enthusiasm to get through this one.
The author is Indian and the trip he describes was taken back in 1966. It’s not clear to me whether it was written up and published at that time or whether he’s written it several decades later and then published it. I had left several weeks between starting the book and then deciding to finish it and had forgotten (or not paid attention) to the dates of the journey. It was only when I saw oddly cheap prices for hotels and meals being discussed that I realised that it was not something that had been done recently. My interest was slightly elevated by this realisation since I thought he might have important things to say about the period less than two decades after Independence and there might be really noticeable differences between what he saw then and what I’ve observed on repeated trips to India many years later. I did smile at his comments about the amount of traffic around the Flora Fountain in Mumbai and I suspected his observations about the disinterested (and sometimes rude) staff in state-owned tourist hotels could probably have applied at any time or in any place.
The journey is not a very particularly logical one. He sets off from his home in Coimbatore on the south west coast, does a bit of a test ‘loop’ of the south of India, pops home to see his mum and dad and then heads north. In total he covers a distance of 12,700 km over a time period of 72 days, travelling on his own with just his trusty motorcycle for company. Along the way he drops in on old college friends and various relatives to take advantage of home cooked meals and the chance to save on his hotel bills. When there’s nobody he can visit, he stays in government tourist hotels and – if they are full – whatever he can find. He gives a super example of quick thinking when he strolls into a hotel without realising it’s far too expensive for him and quickly pretends he’s come to meet a friend rather than book a room.
The day to day worries of a traveller are all captured. These include the need to make sure his vehicle stays roadworthy, the fear of running out of fuel or getting run down by a truck or a bus, dealing with rough road conditions, rushing to get to a bank to cash a cheque before the bank closes (no ATMs in those days) and dealing with policemen and Automobile Association officials. In the course of the book he rushes from one place to the next, the journey being what really matters and the destinations barely mentioned. It’s as if the places he drives between are no more than dots on a map and have little actual interest to him once he arrives.
India has changed a lot in the time since he wrote but some things remain remarkably similar. That’s probably why it took me a while to work out this was an old story because so much of what he described was what I recognised.
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