Piercing insights and travel writing

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Books and books of great travelogues and I still can’t find a writer with more piercing insights than Paul Theroux. The travel writer not only discovers new places with open-heartedness, but also connects with its private side and delivers his observations with witty wisdom. There is a spartan narrative to his travelogue, furiously choreographed in words:

UntitledWith such a grand opening Paul Theroux enfold the endless possibilities a train travel can confer. In his travelogue Great Railways Bazaar  the writer narrates his four-month journey crisscrossing Europe to Asia murdering miles on trains,  namely The Orient Express, The Khyber Pass Local, The Delhi Mail, The Golden Arrow of Kuala Lampur and the Trans-Siberian Express, meeting passengers who are telltale embodiments of their societies.

Spinning a narrative through various individuals he meets along each leg of his journey, Paul Theroux sets off from London, snakes through Europe, halts at Turkey and proceeds on to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan and signs off at Russia in a single literary breath.

Paul Theroux describes the great Indian railway affair “In the best of times there is nothing simple about an Indian boarding a train. But these people climbing into the Grand Trunk Express looked as if they were setting up a house – they had an air and merchandise of people moving in”

Characterizing trains with bazaars Paul Theroux throws light on the buzzing activities from hurrying porters to bustle of pantry men, endless conversations that eat up the boring travel hours and a true shade of character that comes out in a fellow traveller affected by the journey itself.  “It was as if in expectations of the train whistles they (Tamilians) dropped the disguise they had adopted for Delhi, the Madras-bound express allowing them to assume their true identity. The men stripped off their baggy trousers and twill jackets and got into traditional south Indian dress.”

His writing beautifully wraps his literary description of a place. Travelling through Iran Theroux writes unmercifully “Money pulls the Iranian in one direction and religion drags him in another and the result is the stupid starved creature for whom women is only meat”. Dotting the book with many grim observations Paul Theroux is obsessed with attracting a vivid cast of amusing characters. He meets a curious man in tweed cap and oversized clothes – Duffil – whose name later became synonymous with being left stranded at a railway station and seeing your scheduled train wheezing past you.  Dufill wears a pair of glasses that are wire-framed “with enough scotch tape on the lenses to prevent his seeing the Blue Mosque” Theroux quips.

From Duffil who works his glasses as binoculars to unkempt hippies to Kali worshipping Tamilians to tipsy Russians, Paul Theroux meets more interesting characters in the train journey than one would see in all the reality shows put together. “The conversations like many others I had with people on trains derived an easy candour from shared journeys, the comfort of dining car, and the certain knowledge that neither of us would see each other again”.

Leaving no cynical stone unturned Paul Theroux with thoroughness of a true travel writer characterizes the persona of the train he takes “Orient express like Trans Siberian links Europe with Asia which accounts for some of its romance. But it has also been hallowed by fiction – restless Lady Chatterly took it, so did Hercule Poirot and James Bond; Graham Greene sent some of its prowling unbelievers on it.”

Travel writing as we see around is abundant but dry of perspective. Many travel writers come up with hurried observations, superfluous conclusions, plain monologues or just a point A to point B harangue of irrelevant details. Intruding on people’s privacy with the temperament of a smug voyeur or attributing great significance to a petty trip from bathroom to groceries however uneventful it is.

But then there are other writers who have explored new destinations and tread on roads less travelled. Their stories are brimming with zany anecdotes and hilarious disasters.  Take Robert Byron’s 1970s travel classic Road to Oxiana, Rory Steward’s The places in Between or Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul .

While most of these travelers had a goal in sight Paul Theroux explores the virtues of travelling light, in terms of expectations that is – “ An aimless joy is a pure joy”. His other books contributing to this genre of writing are The Old Patagonian Express (1979), The Kingdom By The Sea (1983), Riding the Iron Rooster (1988), Dark Star Safar (2002) and Ghost Train to Eastern Star (2008).

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At no stage does Great Railways Bazaar give its readers a dull moment. Paul Theroux views trains as “scale models” of the society. Going beyond the conventional form of travel writing he prefers to observe the world through the train window “…watched the state of Tamil Nadu grow simpler. Each station was smaller than the last and the people grew increasingly naked”.

While travel books carry a gloomy feeling that solitary travel brings, Great Railways Bazaar  packs best of both worlds: an inward look at the outward world and the outward look into the inward being. It is a timeless reflection of people, society and culture of places Theroux is transiting through.

Thirty years later Paul Theroux retraces his journey of The Great Railway Bazaar with a narrative that is richer, funnier and packed with even more perspective. In Ghost Train To Eastern Star  Paul Theroux writes “It is only with age that you acquire the gift of evaluating decay”

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