Trains are rolling libraries of information provided one is willing to relinquish home comforts; is ready for the unexpected; and is alive to searching the unknown.
Monisha Rajesh’s seven months of uninterrupted travel with her fiancé on eighty different trains’ criss-crossing continents can hardly be about convenience, but surely reflects true grit and perseverance at this time when train journey is fast losing its allure. More so, as she had already traveled and published Around India in 80 Trains. Trains may mean different to different people, but to her it meant ‘an open window into the soul of a country and its people.’ With empathy fading from existence, a train journey allows an unrestricted peep into unedited footage of other people’s lives, without them being aware that someone had shared their life moment. Train journey can make the discerning feel to be part of the whole.
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 regimes. 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 traits in each other’s personalities that only the dynamics of travel could unfold. 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 unto oneself.
Around the World in 80 Trains takes the reader on the twists and travails of train 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 that railways is dying a swift death, Rajesh asserts that trains are rolling libraries of information provided one is willing to relinquish home comforts; is ready for the unexpected; and is alive to searching the unknown. The thrill of train journey is that it can never be fully under control, she cautions, and that is what makes it an exciting undertaking.
Seven months on a journey can take the fizz out of any travel, unless one appreciates the unique qualities of the rail journey. Rajesh does it with aplomb, packing her multi-layered travelogue with hard facts, deep reflections, and intellectual acuities. Blessed with an elegant writing style, she shares her hits and misses of dealing with fellow passengers and the train staff, and the city life they were exposed to in selected places. While it is not uncommon to have moments of blind trust when travelling, the chances of being tricked is no less certain on travelling across territories. A woman dispensing a pack with just 36 playing cards at a throw way price indicates that certain habits are cross-cultural and trans-national.
Rajesh’s eye for details is what makes Around the World in 80 Trains a delightful reading. More than a lifeline for commuters, trains have redefined its status in the race for appropriating resources from far-off geographical settings. It is still fresh in memory that the so-called British benevolence of gifting the railways to India was nothing but a fast-track plan to facilitate the plunder of loot from remote places. China is acting like the British in Tibet, the introduction of much-publicized train in Tibet is doing everything to extract everything they could at the cost of eroding the indigenous culture. Trains link the past with the future, via a troubled present.
From Jules Verne’s historic world travel in 80 days to Monisha Rajesh’s world travel on 80 trains, the nature of travel may have changed but the contours of exploration and learning have been kept alive. Anyone could sit down, draw up a schedule, buy tickets and travel around the world, but important is what such personal heroic can offer to the society at large. Rajesh offers essential insights from her travel for those who value adventure over risk.
Around the World in 80 Trains
by Monisha Rajesh
Bloomsbury, New Delhi
Extent: 325, Price: Rs 599.
First published in the Hindustan Times, dated Sept 7, 2019.