Friday, July 13, 2018

The Great Railway Bazaar - Paul Theroux

Described as Paul Theroux's greatest work 'The Great Railway Bazaar' is grand in its conception and execution. Paul Theroux travels from London to Istanbul to Iran to India to Burma to Thailand to Japan and heads home via Russia covering as much distance as he can in trains. I do not remember if he mentioned the number of days - but even if he did not, the journey is quite interesting as he meets several interesting characters who show a glimpse of the lands they come from. I had no problem till he reached India and then I suddenly realised how judgmental he was about Indians. The characters, every single one of them is a one-sided interpretation, mere caricatures and not full-blown people, cut and pasted to suit his copy. And then I wondered, if he could do this with India, there is no reason why he should not paint the entire book with his prejudices and judgments. Maybe he did or maybe he did not, but what started out well, certainly dragged on in the end and I was as glad as he must have been when he got off the train. I was even gladder when he got out of India after all his constant cribbing.

But to start at the very beginning, he boards the 1530 from London to Paris to catch the famed Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul. The train traverses through France, Italy, and some other countries and reaches Turkey. On the train he meets one Dufill who gets left behind on one Italian station (dufilled) and Molesworth, and seems quite happy in their company. In Istanbul, he takes a few days off, meets a few authors, perhaps even gives a lecture or two, which is what he does throughout the journey. From Istanbul, he boards the Lake Van Express to Lake Van which deposits him on the border of Iran. He meets a bunch of hippies who have vague ideas of traveling to Nepal or India and one who has definite plans of going to Auroville and staying there. The hippies are an interesting lot, high on stuff and life, making out under the sheets.

In the Teheran Express, he meets a conductor whom he has to bribe to get his due (Oh my god!) and Sadik a rich businessman who does not want to go to Mecca because he has to make promises he does not want to make. Sadik keeps him company and Paul Theroux has no problem with him. In Teheran he meets American oil men and women in a club. He then takes the Night Mail to Meshed a holy city 100 kms from the border of Afghanistan. From Medshed there is no train so he takes the bus, spends a night on the border with a couple of hippies because the customs office is closed, travels through Afghanistan on bus and plane because it has no railway, and reaches Kabul. In Kabul he tries to free a Canadian who is trapped in an insane asylum - and fails. Also in Kabul, he is disgusted by the sight of some Pathans who kill and dismember a camel that collapses. Poor animal - he says. All the animals Paul Theroux must be eating, are probably not 'poor animals' so I don't understand why this sudden disgust at the Pathans. He is already showing shades of himself.

He takes a bus to the top of the Khyber Pass, at Landi Kotal, from where he has a train to Peshawar, the 132 Down. The train travels through the Khyber Railway with thirty for tunnels and ninety-two bridges climbs to 3600 feet and is well guarded. On the way, he passes a town called Jamrud - must be the place after which the theatre in Abids must have been named. In Peshawar, he wonders how the Buddha was conceived - and mocks a bit at some pictures he sees about immaculate conception. I thought that was a Biblical idea so I wonder what his problem was. Onward to the Khyber Mail to Lahore where meets an Indian who to Theroux's great delight is shown his place by the conductor and evicted from first class - he had a second-class ticket and he spoke up for himself. You can clearly make out Paul is quite happy that the man is evicted. In Lahore, he seeks the Punjab Club for some entertainment, finds pimps who solicit some business and he is perhaps upset at how these guys sell their women here. Anyway, I don't think he got any action or even if he did, he did not mention it anywhere in the book.

From Lahore, he takes two taxi rides and crosses over to Amritsar.  He notices signs of separation on the signboards and likens it to a caste system.  On the train, he meets a drug addict Hermann. and quickly makes up his mind about Indian society based on the signs he has read - (Third Class Exit, Second Class Ladies Waiting Room. First Class Toilet, Sweepers Only). He is shocked at people bathing on platforms. Mostly he meets Indians who are caricatures out of a Hollywood movie - they are not the Indians we know. I sensed the same prejudice and judgmental tone in Naipaul's writing in his monumental bore 'An Area of Darkness' - and got bored to death. Paul Theroux finds it very difficult to get a ticket and everyone tries to help him but their efforts are not to his lordship's liking - wonder why he did not go and stand in a line and get his ticket instead of judging everyone's effort. Once again he makes fun of some Indian English and their pretenses at culture but all the while taking in stuff that the Indians give him. He meets a  yogi, wants him to bring someone to life, mocks at the whole system of course being the scientific man he is and who knows everything and then moves on with a bad taste in his mouth. I knew right then he was not going to have a good time in India.

On the Rajdhani Express from Delhi to Mumbai, he is appalled at finding people on yatra to Madhura living on the railway stations instead of the towns. He next makes fun of a fat boy from Dehradun who tries to explain to him how the chain system works - wonder why anyone wasted their time on this chap. In all likelihood, he would have asked him questions. On the lecture tour in Mumbai he meets Mr. Deshmukh who has written thirty novels and made no money but wants to write 108 because its an auspicious number in the Hindu religion. Dude, that was a joke. He was humoring you.

The Delhi Mail to Jaipur where he makes more fun of Indian English which is not to his liking, and of one Gopal who cannot guide him at the level he wanted. On the Grand Trunk Express to Madras we have to deal with more of his insights into the black and bony Tamils who constantly speak and brush their teeth with neem twigs. There are beggars, train halts, he looks for a beer at the Sirpur station in Adilabad and ventures out to get some. In Madras, he is constantly meeting drivers who offer him girls and even visits a brothel where he meets underaged prostitutes.

Next comes the local to Rameswaram which stops ninety four times enroute and on which he meets an unhelpful Buddhist monk. He takes a steamer and heads out to Ceylon and I hope he stays there but he comes back to India. I am already tired of Paul Theroux and his ideas of India and am hoping he will leave as quickly as he can.

In Lanka, he takes the Talaimannar Mail and quickly Theroux finds that the Lankans are not excitable people because it has something to do with their starvation. Then he comments on the stinking meal of one of his co-passengers. Some more people offering him girls and then we are off. Wonder why he gets offered girls so much! He is surprised that thirty people showed up for a seminar on American Literature while people were dying of starvation. Back in India, he observes people would be eating and reading in trains but here in Ceylon they were just sitting (no food to eat). I wonder what they do in America?  Back to Madras and the Howrah Mail to Calcutta on which he meets an Englishman who has a problem with the way Indians eat their food - their food runs down their arms. Of course, the American also had an Indian girlfriend and was running away from her. He finds Biharis hurling themselves into the river for their Chhat festival and other such horrors in Calcutta. However Theroux is pleased with the Bengalis whom he views as more civilized than the est. Gave some lectures in Calcutta and then was off.

Was I glad he was off India.

Next comes the Mandalay Express from Rangoon to Mandalay. He is beset with his usual problems. He wants to go to Lashio which many say is off limits. On the train he meets a Mr. Bernard who is described as a Jeeves, so he is happy to be in civilization again. He gets escorted to Lashio in the Lashio Mail. From Bangkok, he next moves by the Night Express to Nong Khai. There he meets an American who wants to make 30 k a year and finds girls who are actually men.

On the International Express to Butterworth Theroux meets Mr. Penascola, an intriguing man who reveals little but who seems to be very resourceful. He is also like a Hollywood film star - killing people on war, making loads of money, doing this and that. On the Golden Arrow to Kuala Lumpur Theroux stays put on the wooden balcony between the carriages and who does he meet - but two reptilian like Indians pronouncing Vs like Ws and Ws like Vs. Turns out they are Bangladeshis who have no knowledge of family planning but are attending a family planning conference. Theroux is clearly upset at their lack of command of their subject and his disgust shows. On the North Star Night Express to Singapore who does he meet but another Tamilian and thankfully a couple of planters. The Saigo Bien Hoa Passenger Train is the worst train in the world someone says but he takes it. Vietnam was the place where the Americans left many children and women keep offering the children to him to adopt. Some 'Deer Hunter' types of scenes and we move out of Vietnam.

Then into Japan, and aboard the Hatsukari Limited Express to Aomori. In Japan, he buys stuff for his cold Trans Siberian journey, observes the culture of the Japanese including how they collect dog poop. He goes to see some plays and finds them full of sex and violence. He peeps into the comic a young girl on the train is reading and finds it full of sex and violence. For a brief moment, he longs for Indian Railways, hassled by the Japanese efficiency. On the Ozoro Limited Express to Sapporo, he meets Chester, an American. Here it appears that Theroux lost interest or got fatigued by his journeys and the writing also becomes rather desultory. Or perhaps he did not find Indians and got bored. On the Hikari Super Express to Kyoto, he meets some Professors and they have discussions on prostitutes and stuff like that. He takes the Kodama to Osaka and appears fine with the Japanese and their English. A lecture or two and he takes the long journey on the Trans Siberian Express through Russia back to London. Through Vostok, through Rossia, again meeting a man with a disgusting lunch and manners and finally off. I was glad. He must be glad. It was just too much to bear Theroux on such a long journey.

The idea of the Grand railway journey is a fine one and the execution by Theroux admirable. But his judgments and his opinions make caricatures out of people. I don't know about others but the Indians he described in the book are all one dimensional - the dimension he chose to paint them and that's no justice to anyone. Anyway, I am not too impressed with the supercilious Theroux nor have I been with his pal Naipaul and hopefully this is the last I read of him. However, for the experience of the Great Railway Bazaar, I must thank him. It was an interesting journey.

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