09 1 / 2013
It’s been a while since I said hello, so here’s a short note to say that, in case you weren’t sure, Around India in 80 Trains has been out for the last two months. It’s been fabulous to receive messages from those of you who have been following the journey since the first few train rides - so thank you for your loyalty and patience in waiting to get the book in your hands. To clear up a little confusion, the copy on the left is the Indian edition published by Roli Books and the one on the right is the UK and US edition published by Nicholas Brealey.
They are both beautiful covers that embody the whole journey for me and I’m so grateful to two immensely talented ladies who brought them to life. Kriti Monga of http://www.turmericdesign.com illustrated the Indian cover and Sroop Sunar of http://www.sroopsunar.com illustrated the UK cover.
At the end of the month I’m going to be speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival, followed by the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Yangon, so don’t go away and I will let you know more details shortly.
06 3 / 2012
Over the last year I have had a number of emails through the website asking me:
“Arre, where are you? Have you made it to Calcutta yet?”
“Did you die on the trains or what?”
And my favourite.
“I am sorry to saying it mam, but you are a moron, it is not taking so much time to traverse 80 trains on Indian railways, tks, Anil Shanmugam.”
Well as an answer to you all - Anil in particular - the trip was completed within the designated four months and I have since been holed up in my sunny Hampstead flat writing the book about our journey. And this is how it started…
One dark, wet evening in Gangtok, in a desperate attempt to heat up, I was pouring a dirty bottle of two-hundred-rupee rum out of a paper bag and into a pot of coffee when my phone rang. On the other end was the very English and very comforting voice of one David Godwin who wanted to meet me once I was finished with chilblains and Kanchenjunga. Three weeks later I was dry, warm and clutching a rum-free cup of tea in David’s cosy Covent Garden office where we decided to team up and work on the book Around India in 80 Trains.
The new blogs came to an abrupt halt and the old were rather rudely stripped bare so I could turn them into chapters. It’s taken me just over one year, but the book is now finished and will hopefully be out by the end of 2012.
Once again, thank you for all the emails and support along the way. It’s because you were all interested in our journey that I had a book to write, and for that I will be forever grateful.
09 5 / 2011
Last week The Independent listed us in their 50 Best Travel Websites http://ind.pn/mJ0Qsj and as a result we’ve had lots of emails about booking trips to India and in particular, trains! Feel free to get in touch and we will see what we can do, and in the interim more train reviews will be added soon.
25 2 / 2011
Just a quick note to say thank you to our super web designer, Abizer Kapadia, who did a stellar job putting this beautiful site together. Without his help the outcome of our journey around India in 80 trains may have been very different, and putting up blogs and pictures just wouldn’t have been as fun.
He has also recently added a link to the ‘about’ section, where you can read all our newspaper and magazine articles in one place. http://bit.ly/gORzR5
Beez, you are a star. xx
27 1 / 2011
Rumour has it that when the Jaipur Festival first began, a shabbily-dressed man entered the gates with his son and was stopped and asked where he was going. He replied, ‘I can’t afford to buy books for my son, but I heard that they read stories to children here and I wanted to see if it was true.’ From that day on the gates remain unguarded and the festival completely free and open to the public. And that’s where its beauty lies. Even if you’re the Pakistan High Commisioner and you walk in late, you sit on the floor cross-legged with everyone else. It’s open to people, open to ideas and open to discussion – whether that discussion is on fractious borders, reporting on occupation, memoirs and how to write about yourself, or simply, why books matter.
You can wander from the Front Lawns where Candace Bushnell is talking sex and the city, to the Mughal Tent where David Finkel, author of The Good Soldiers is discussing the power of context and the danger of Wikileaks.
Or you could listen to Ahmed Rashid in question with William Dalrymple on Kashmir. Rashid, whose book titled Taleban, was turned down ten years ago, because no-one had heard of them, sold it to a publisher in 2000 for a mere £500. Post-September 11th he went on to sell 1.5million copies.
One question arose constantly. When writing about yourself, do you keep your friends and family happy, or do you short-change your readers? For William Fiennes, who wrote The Music Room, a novel about life with his epileptic brother Richard, the avoidance of harming another took precedence. Had his book upset his mother, he would have placed it in the bottom drawer and never looked at it again. Martin Amis, on the other hand, declared while preparing a rollie, that ‘it’s fatal to start worrying about what people will think. It will become distorted.’
And who better to exemplify that idea than Irvine Welsh.
Handed the final slot of the festival, Welsh read a passage from his forthcoming novel amid a rapidly gathering crowd who tiptoed on stools, crouched in the gangways and strained necks around the tent to hear him read a chunk from Skagboys – a prequel to Trainspotting – where Renton explains to his Geordie girlfriend why he gave his autistic brother a hand job. As a combination of foul Scottish slang and gentle Geordie rang out around the tent, I glanced at the faces of the audience. Middle-aged aunties sat like well-fed hens, heads cocked to one side, grooves of confusion in their foreheads. Young Indians wearing skinny jeans and piercings smirked cautiously, while the western contingent laughed out loud. Eventually my sniggers developed into a hacking cough and I ducked out of the tent just as Welsh lowered his mic to his pants and made wanking motions, and returned in time to catch him waving a glass of red wine and explaining why even the most red-necked, foul-mouthed American will recoil at ‘cunt’ when in Scotland, it doesn’t mean the same thing. ‘Wha’ a fuckin’ beautiful cunt-of-a-day!’
Jaipur is where you hear the story behind the story. Writers’ depression, determined diligence, the loneliness of writing, the poverty and perseverance, the years of struggle and the breakthrough. People often ask my agent why he does what he does and he beamed after a session with one of his writers. ‘It’s for that moment,’ he replied, ‘…that moment when a first-time author sits in front of an audience clutching their book in their hands, and I watch as they cross over into another realm. His eyes shone. ‘It’s magical, he smiled, ‘and the feeling never goes.’
29 11 / 2010
Last week the Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman wrote a piece about the complexities of note-taking. Do you listen, or do you write? Do you live the moment or miss it while trying to scribble it down? For me, note-taking has been a recent issue of contention.
Since the age of four I’ve been a diary keeper. Whether it was documenting a car journey to London complete with crayoned animations of all the family facing sideways while driving, or how Dexter, a friend’s dog, once had a poo at the foot of my bed – complete with curly steaming turd drawn in green because I couldn’t find the brown crayon – my stories were always, according to my primary school teachers, ‘very well-detailed’.
So before embarking on an epic journey around India by train, on what was set to be an awfully big adventure, the gathering of stationery was of paramount importance, especially as I was going to use the material to write a book. Fistful of cheap biros? Check. Large leather-bound diary? Check. Small Moleskin diary because it feels nice and looks cool, but will no doubt come home empty? Check.
But more often than not you don’t take notes when you’re having fun. It’s antisocial and more importantly you could be doing something else instead of diligently writing down the colour of the seats and what you ate for breakfast.
But when you’re tired, homesick and sad, the diary begins to swell. Cathartic though it is, it doesn’t make for pleasant re-reading. So what’s the answer? Right now, my answer would be the Livescribe Echo. After Burkeman raved about the genius invention, I decided I needed one too. The Livescribe Echo is a nifty pen that not only writes, but simultaneously records sound.
A camera in the tip means that you can make brief notes while chatting or during an interview, and when you tap it on a specific word it plays back exactly what was recorded at that moment. It also works as a translator. Write down the word ‘chocolate’, tap the word, choose a language and the mini screen flashes up the translation and announces it clearly. What a difference that pen would have made to my four years of Moliere lectures at university. http://bit.ly/b4LYlE
However, I have realised that my diary is by no means the only portkey to the past. We saved tickets from every journey, the thick sheaf becoming a directory of every train name, number, berth, class, date and destination. We refused to book even one train online so we could collect every ticket in hand.
Then there was our saviour, the beautiful Indrail pass. Flimsy and dated (the cover says ‘FARE US $
300 530’, suggesting the last print run was back in the eighties), the paper susceptible to tearing if a mosquito so much as rubs its wings against the edges.
Having visited Shankar Dandapani and paid £350 for three months of unlimited travel in AC two-tier, we were able to hop on willy-nilly for most journeys and were simply assigned spare seats as the pass was pre-paid. All night journeys were booked, but for anything under five or six hours, we always found a seat.
Needless to say, Passepartout’s 39,000 photographs are another source that add to the giant memory mosaic.
Personally, I’m a digital dictaphone fan. Slimline, long-battery life and unobtrusive - my dictaphone sits quietly on my lap while I listen closely to the ramblings, stories, musings and quips of our companions. No scribbling pen puts them off. Just a normal, natural, unhindered exchange that on playback takes me straight back to a carriage, complete with coffee-seller calls and climactic snoring.
Whether modern-day or old-school, digital or dipped in ink, the giant combo of paraphernalia that can log a journey is endless.
And my word is it fun to piece them all back together…
20 10 / 2010
Having been to over 14 weddings in the past two years - five of which took place this summer - imagine my surprise when I came across an article last night that alerted me to one more wedding - mine! Stuffy-headed and full of cold, I was curled up on the couch watching an episode of Mad Men when an email from a friend made me sit up and take notice. An article had appeared on the homepage of a newspaper in India:
“It was a cup of coffee and a map of India that inspired a London-based journalist Monisha Rajesh and photographer husband …” (You can read the rest here http://bit.ly/dsB26u )
The journalist had obviously read the homepage of our website and jumped to the conclusion that we are married when we most certainly are not. Nor do I for that matter, like coffee.
In fact, it was while sitting at my desk at TIME, on a very grey Southwark morning, looking at the Pret website with my delightful colleague Willy Lee Adams, that I came up with the idea of travelling around India by train. I remember because I dropped a large blob of blackberry compote on Bangalore and left a murderous looking stain while trying to wipe the printout.
Had the journalist contacted me, I would have gladly told her this. I would also have told her that I met Passepartout when he photographed a friend’s wedding, and we decided to work together as I could write words and he could take pictures. And that’s all really.
Look! It’s me, with a wedding in the background, that is not mine!
16 9 / 2010
After the best burger in Chandigarh - http://bit.ly/95rasw - the finest jalebis in Amritsar and utter hilarity at the Wagah Border, Passepartout was keen to head off to Varanasi while I had plans to wallow in luxury on The Golden Chariot. So the team briefly disbanded, aiming to reconvene within a couple of weeks in Umaria, a tiny town in Madhya Pradesh – onboard The Lifeline Express which provides free medical attention to those suffering from orthopaedic, hearing and visual impairments and cleft lips.
Below: Preethi Chaudhuri, a three-year-old delight with tiny curved feet, the aftermath of polio.
In addition to Preethi, at least 17 other operations took place over the next couple of days and we made a little trip down to the district hospital to see how the troops were all recovering.
The little lady was slightly less smiley but was being well-fed in her mum’s lap, all set to leave the hospital the next day, but due back in four weeks to have her plaster removed.
We left at the end of that week so missed the rest of the work done on the train for cataracts, hearing impairments and cleft lips, but you can read more about the train here. http://bit.ly/boRMwx
And please do visit Impact’s website. http://bit.ly/ddxGxP
24 7 / 2010
Now just as I was saying in my previous post how much fun it has been to chatter with fellow travellers who have been sharing their stories with one another - I came across someone recently who is quite the delight and decided to circumnavigate the whole of India by train in the fastest time possible. His intended route covered the same tips as we have covered - Kanyakumari, Dwarka, Udhampur and Ledo, touching Ghum and Rameswaram - the one bit we skirted past.
However, Mr Jonathan Watson Lee, who has a penchant for tweed and spectacles achieved this feat without a beloved Passepartout, travelled in sleeper class for the full 19 days and spent 14 nights onboard - most of which seemed to be within the confined spaces of the loos. Bet he regrets his gourmet meal in Darjeeling which seemed to have been the cause of the leak. On his adventure he managed to get into a music video, witness goat slaughter, ‘found’ himself in a ladies carriage and took some lovely photos that you can see on his blog http://bit.ly/9zNMik
I wish him well and ask him to notify us once he’s got his documentary pieced together and when he passes his first solid stool.
13 7 / 2010
Jul 14th, 2010 1:02am
So as a little aside, despite the ups and downs, the laughter and the tears, we have been having a fantastic time travelling around India by train. But what has made the trip that little bit more fun, has been the fact that we have been able to share all of it with you and take your advice, which has shaped our journeys.
Hey, if you think Paradise has got the best biriyani in Hyderabad, then that’s where we’re going to stop off to indulge! And if you think we should take the Mandovi Express on the Konkan Railway, rather than the Shatabdi, then we will.
Not long ago we came across two people with a similar love for sharing all their fun and games with fellow globetrotters. Lara and Terence are spending this year hotfooting it all over the world, stopping to Tweet about their experiences, encourage other people to visit their secret discoveries and asking for advice on everything from the best street food to the friendliest homestays.
They’ve also got everyone stuck in by running monthly travel-blog competitions varying from your best train journeys to the most fantastic meal you’ve had. Luckily for us, their mammoth group of followers were avid train geeks too and thoroughly enjoyed the journey we took on a good-old-faithful passenger train, and in return offered us a joint first prize and a couple of Eurorail passes - will the train travel never end?!
You can read the two winning posts below and nose around Lara and Terence’s site which is a delight to anyone who fancies cycling to Argentina from London or maybe jumping in a dhingy to Australia…
03 7 / 2010
July 3rd 2010, 14:14pm
From Bikaner we made a quick trip to Deshnok – home of the Karni Mata temple and thousands of little rats, each considered holy reincarnates of Karni Mata’s clansmen.
The furry fellows ran all over the temple floors sipping milk, nibbling on offerings and generally having a whale of a time.
Contrary to general belief, we even found a baby pigeon buried beneath its mother’s protective feathers. Quite honestly, one of the most unfortunate looking creatures I have come across – no wonder they’re hidden away.
Desperate to visit the camel farm in Bikaner and photograph some other baby animals, Passepartout dragged us out of there and we raced to the station to make the passenger train back. Going through the usual motions of asking four different people what time the train was leaving, we received four different answers and ended up sitting cross-legged on the platform for more than two hours, missing the baby camels and barely making it back to Bikaner in time to catch the Barmer-Kalka Express to Chandigarh.
28 6 / 2010
June 28th 2010 13:22pm
In Dwarka children milled around balancing baskets of offerings on their hips. Each was filled with little paper boats containing huge marigolds and a piece of camphor to light, while a selection of cows lingered around the steps hoping for a few nibbles on unguarded baskets. With a sharp but affectionate slap, they would wander off unhurried or wait patiently as passing pilgrims touched their foreheads in respect. The one I picked uncurled an enormous black tongue and gave my arm a good lick before sloping off towards the beach.
As we made our way down to the beach for sunset we picked up a little friend along the way and together Ajay and I guarded Passepartout’s camera while he stuck his feet in the sea – something he has to do whenever he finds a new ocean of water.
14 6 / 2010
June 14th 2010 8:37pm
At Khajuraho we play a game. I have to find something horrendous, photograph it, and then Passepartout has to see if he can locate it…
After more than half an hour he couldn’t find it and started to get rather sulky.
24 5 / 2010
May 24th, 2010 5:29pm
Having so far collected all my train tickets, disappointment sets in when after foraging for coins, examining the values on both sides and painstakingly slotting them into the machine, a small ludo counter plops out the other end, that works by the same mechanism as an oyster card. But unlike the tap-and-go of central London, there’s security screening for bags and people and no photography allowed.
As the sleek and shiny train glides sexily up to the platform my fists automatically clench for the big push, and yet everyone steps to the side as passengers descend, and then board. Collapsing from shock I spot arrows painted on the floor that direct passengers into an orderly queue. Quite amazing.
04 5 / 2010
May 4th, 2010, 8.42am
Now in Pune, we discover the new Duronto Express to Delhi, which chops a whopping six hours off the 26-hour journey and is quite the visual delight.
We’re also double-booked onto berths but Passepartout strikes up a deal with the laundry man to let him sleep in his cupboard for Rs500.
In the end none of us gets any sleep at all, but at least my friend Ed is still talking to me after his first train journey, so I consider it a success.