Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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The Great Railway Bazaar — Paul Theroux — A review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on August 8, 2008

The more I read the more I am convinced that Travel Writing can assume protean forms and provide delightful entertainment to readers. Eric Newby, Paul Theroux, Pico Iyer, Jack Kerouack, Bruce Chatwin are some of the writers that I know who made enormous contributions to this genre of literature. While V.S.Naipaul is considered to be a modern day pioneer in travel writing, I think he went beyond the conventional boundaries of travel writing and created what I would call as Travel Writing ++ to include accute observations, sweeping abstractions of history, biting criticism of and critical commentary on the societies that he travelled through

Irrespective of me being single or with a group – I get alone (not lonely) when I travel. It induces an irrepressive solitariness that makes me completely alive. Thoughts race quite fast and with a heightened sense of clarity. I therefore now made it a habit to use the time on long distance travel to cud chew some of the important and vexing questions of my life and the world in general. And I found this unfettered self reflection healing and cathartic.  In that sense occasional travel for me is a refreshing activity. Maybe the motivation in past for pilgrimages could have been due to this refreshing feature of travel. But as Bruce Chatwin said in his classic “The Songlines” — A Journey can be a fragement of hell. Diametrically opposite but valid views

To me the single most appealing aspect of Travel Writing is the freshness and startling unexpectedness of the perpsectives that the writers bring forth on a society, culture, people, places and times that they are transiting through. As perennial insiders we develop fairly static views of ourselves and our surroundings. For travel writers there is no such constraint. The certainty with which they make their observations is to a large extent transient and yet as views and commentary of a time and place gone by they can be great documents worth looking at by posterity. For example, Naipaul’s views on India and the Muslim nations of Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia may have sounded prophetic for a while but today India is an enormously different picture of what Naipaul may have thought it would be and so is the case with the other countries that he so confidently commented about

It is in one of these recent long distance travels, I have had the opportunity of reading Paul Theroux’sThe Great Railway Bazaar“. Simply put “The Great Railway Bazaar” is a journey that begins in London snakes through Europe to reach Turkey and then proceeds onto Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Srilanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan and culminates in Russia. But why the reference to bazaars? What does it signify? The bustle, the interaction and the constant buzz of activity is a characteristic of a bazaar and the same is true for a train too — In a brilliant opening Theroux says the following about the bazaar nature of trains ” I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it. Those whistles sing bewitchment: railways are irresistible bazaars, snaking along perfectly no matter what the landscape, increasing your mood with speed, and never upsetting your drink…anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep and strangers monologues framed like Russian short stories…. I sought trains and found passengers“.  With this kind of a opening one finds it very hard to resist the subsequent reading

So what have been the most appealing aspects of this book? I guess there are many but a few really stand out

First is Theroux‘s ability to understand the constantly changing mental aspects and behaviour of the traveller affected by travel itself. Consider the following when Theroux writes: “Anybody else here?” It has not occured to me that I would have company; the conceit of the long distance traveller is the belief that he is going so far, he will be alone – inconceivable that another person has the same good idea orExtensive travelling induces a feeling of encapsulation; and travel, so broadening at first, contracts the mind” …….   or……… “Starvation takes the fun out of travel, and from this point of view the Orient Express is more inadequate than the poorest Madrasi train, where you exchange stained lunch coupons for a tin tray of vegetables and a quart of rice” …. or…..The conversation, like many others I had with people on trains, derived an easy candour from the shared journey, the comfort of the dining car, and the certain knowledge that neither of us would see each other again. The railway was a fictor’s bazaar, in which anyone with patience could carry away a memory to pore over in privacy. The memories were inconclusive, but an ending, as in the best fiction, was always implied

Second is Theroux’s ability to observe a country or a place and depict the essence of it. Travelling through Iran, Theroux writes “It is an old country; everywhere in the gleaming modernity are reminders of orthodox past – the praying steward, the portraits, the encampments of nomads, and, on what is otherwise one of the best run railways in the world, the yearning for the baksheesh….Money pulls the Iranian in one direction, religion drags him in another, and the result is the stupid starved creature for whom woman is only meat. Thus spake Zarathustra: an ugly monomaniac with a diamond tiara, who calls himself ‘The King of Kings’, is their answer to the government, a firing squad their answer to law ……………or the wonderful dismissal of Swiss landscape “At ground level the train passed fruit farms and clean villages and Swiss cycling in kerchiefs, calendar scenes that you admire for a moment before feeling an urge to move onto a new month” ……..orThere must be something in the Japanese character that saves them from the despair Americans feel in similar throes of consuming. The American, gorging himself on the merchandise, develops a sense of guilty self consciousness (do they? are they? will they ever? – Theroux is being generous in attributing good sense to a nation that is consuming close to 50% of the world’s resources with abandon): if the Japanese have these doubts they do not show them. Perhaps hesitation is not part of the national character, or perhaps the ones who hesitate are trampled by the crowds of the shoppers — that natural selection that capitalist society practices against the reflective… The Japanese have perfected good manners and made them indistinguishable from rudeness ……………orAsia washes with spirited soapy violence in the morning. The early train takes you past people discovered laundering like felons rehearsing – Pakistanis charging their sodden clothes with sticks, Indians trying to break rocks (this is Mark Twains defintion of a Hindu) by slapping them with the wet Dhotis, grimacing Ceylonese wringing out their lungis….Watch a Tamil going over his teeth with an eight-inch twig and you begin to wonder if he isn’t trying to yank a branch out of his stomach – tongue in cheek but brilliant observations

There is no denying that successive governments in the Indian subcontinet and Pakistan have failed to provide basic amenities to their citizens. While visiting the Peshwar museum, Theroux comes across a stunning statue of Buddha in granite and then goes onto link the beauty of this statue and the constant and ugly presence of hunger in these two countries in a wonderfully observed paragraph: The most striking piece is a three-foot stone sculpture of an old man in a lotus posture. The man is fasting: his eyes are sunken, his rib cage is prominent, his knees are knobbly, his belly hollow. He looks near death, but his expression is beatific. It is an accurate representation of an emaciated body that I’ve ever seen, and again and again, throughout India and Pakistan, I was to see that same body, in doorways and outside huts leaning against the pillars of railway stations, starvation lending a special quality of saintliness to the bony face

Third, is Theroux’s ability to meet, engage and observe and write about people from diverse walks of life. Consider his encounter with a german drug addict on Frontier mail and the depiction: He had carried his dereliction to a derelict land. He was doomed, he stank to death and his condition was not so different from that of the unfortunates who appeared at the railway stations we passed, gathering for the light and water. There are foreigners who, knowing they are wrecked, go to India to be anonymous in her decrepitude, to age and sicken in the bustees of the East. They are people, V.S.Naipaul wrote recently, ‘who wish themselves on societies more fragile than their own…who in the end do no more than celebrate their own security, or the people who are fleeing their respective countries on the Night Mail to Meshed: They were all going to Australia — the Canadian couple because ‘We didn’t feel like learning French,’ the cockney because London ‘is ‘eaving with bloody Indians’. It must be a sociological fact that prejudice is a more common motive for emigration than poverty or ……..Molesworth turned to the train. ‘I must say I’m not sad to see the back of that train, are you?” But he said it in a tone of fussy endearment, in the way a person who calls himself a fool really means the opposite

At no stage does Theroux let the reader away from his observations of the trains themselves. Some of the descriptions of the trains and their role in the larger scheme of things are the most beautiful topical passages that I have ever read: The trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture: Thai trains have the shower jar with the glazed jar on its side, Ceylonese ones the car reserved for Buddhist monks, Indian ones a vegetarian kitchen and six classes, Iranian ones prayer mats, Malaysian ones a noodle stall, Vietnamese ones bulletproof glass on the locomotive, and on a every carriage of a Russian train there is a samovar. The railway bazaar, with its gadgets and passengers, represented the society so completely that to board it was to be challenged by the national character. At times it was like a liesurely seminar, but I also felt on some occasions that it was like being jailed and then assaulted by the monstrously typical…… or………… Indian railway stations are wonderful places for killing time in, and they are like scale models of Indian society, with its divisions of caste, class and sex: SECOND CLASS LADIES’WAITING ROOM, BEARERS ENTRANCE, THIRD-CLASS EXIT, FIRST CLASS TOILET, VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT, NON-VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT, RETIRING ROOMS, CLOAK ROOM, and the whole range of occupations on office signboards, from the tiny one saying SWEEPER, to the neatest of all, STATION MASTER or the wonderful one liner: A train is a vehicle that allows residence; dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer

To sum up “The Great Railway Bazaar” is a timeless classic in travel writing and is a book that I would love to read many times over. A small personal irony is that I read most of the book on a flight. Maybe there is enoromous truth lurking in the rhetorical question that Annie Proulx once famously asked: What are planes but flying reading rooms? How true! How true!! How true!!!

Afterword: Much has changed in the Great Railway Bazaars of India off late. There is an aspiration for modernity, efficiency and provision of comfort. Hope that continues for ever

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2 Responses to “The Great Railway Bazaar — Paul Theroux — A review”

  1. Richard Khare said

    While a great deal has changed on the Indian railways;its essential character remains the same. However,the introduction of long distance semi-luxury travel(?) has brought the brisk,brash crowd of the new rich on to the tracks specially on those lines where there is limited air connectivity.Gone here is the easy camaraderie of the shared traveller.They are all too busy on their ubiqitious mobiles or laptops and their exceedingly spoilt kids. Gradually the poor are being carried by train to the smaller moffusil towns while the better of either fly or go by road unless one of the fast or super-fast trains happen to be the most convenient.

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