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Thursday, Sep 19, 2019

Review: Around the World in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh

Travelling on trains across Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, Tibet, Vietnam, North Korea, Canada and the US gave the author fresh insights into life and into humankind

books Updated: Sep 07, 2019 12:49 IST
Sudhirendar Sharma
Sudhirendar Sharma
Hindustan Times
Author Monisha Rajesh on the Belmond British Pullman.
Author Monisha Rajesh on the Belmond British Pullman.(Courtesy the publisher)
         
325pp, Rs 599; Bloomsbury
325pp, Rs 599; Bloomsbury

Monisha Rajesh’s seven months of uninterrupted travel with her fiancé on 80 different trains’ cross-crossing continents reflects true grit and perseverance at a time when the train journey is losing its allure. Trains may mean different things to different people, but to Rajesh, already the author of Around India in 80 Trains, they mean ‘an open window into the soul of a country and its people.’ Indeed, a train journey allows an unrestricted peep into the unedited footage of other people’s lives without them being aware of it.

Rajesh draws valuable lessons from her 45,000 miles journey, without being unduly bothered that she had only five different T-shirts to negotiate varying temperature zones. That she dragged her boyfriend Jem, now her husband, on this arduous journey turned out to be a wise decision. But for such travel, they would not have discovered many traits in each other’s personalities. As much an act of discovering the outside world, rolling from one side to the other in a confined space on a train can lead to an exploration of oneself.

Around the World in 80 Trains takes the reader along on the journey from London’s St Pancras station to the vast expanses of Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, Tibet, Vietnam, North Korea, and to Canada and the US. Refusing to believe pessimist economists who pronounce that the railways are dying, Rajesh asserts that trains are rolling libraries of information provided one is willing to relinquish home comforts, and is ready for the unexpected. The thrill of the train journey is that it can never be fully controlled, she cautions, and that is what makes it an exciting undertaking.

Looking at a broken down Thai train.
Looking at a broken down Thai train. ( Courtesy the publisher )

Seven months can take the fizz out of travel unless the traveler appreciates the unique qualities of the rail journey. Rajesh does it with aplomb, packing her multilayered travelogue with facts and deep reflections. More than a lifeline for commuters, trains have been a part of the race to appropriate resources from far-off geographical settings. The British like to believe they benevolently gifted the railways to India though the truth is that it was part of Empire’s plan to facilitate the plunder of loot. Contemporary China is acting like the colonial British in Tibet. The introduction of the much-publicised train in Tibet will result in the extraction of resources at the cost of eroding the indigenous culture. Trains link the past with the future, via a troubled present.

Blessed with an elegant writing style, Rajesh shares her hits and misses of dealing with fellow passengers and the train staff, and the city life the couple is exposed to at some places. The reader learns that while it is not uncommon to have moments of blind trust, the chances of being tricked while travelling are also high. A woman dispensing a pack with just 36 playing cards at a throw way price indicates that certain habits are transnational.

From Jules Verne’s historic world travel in 80 days to Monisha Rajesh’s world travel on 80 trains, the nature of travel has changed. Anyone can draw up a schedule, buy tickets and travel around the world. But few can offer insights gleaned from her travels like Rajesh can.

Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic.

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First Published: Sep 06, 2019 21:28 IST