April 19, 2009

Don't ask any old bloke for directions

A few things in the pipeline for this space, all mildly delayed for various reasons. In the meantime, here's a book review I wrote that appeared yesterday (April 18) in Mint. A few changes between what I turned in and what appeared, so the original is below.

Now back to clearing the pipeline...


(The book is Don't Ask Any Old Bloke For Directions: A Biker's Whimsical Journey Across India by PG Tenzing, published by Penguin).

From Ladakh, PG Tenzing decides to "push my luck and reach Manali, normally a two-day journey, in one day." That's how he begins Chapter 17, and its end comes two pages later, when Tenzing writes: "It had taken me sixteen hours of hard riding but it had been worth every crazy minute."

In some ways, that sentence captures this little book. Because I read it and I felt like writing Tenzing a one-line letter: "Won't you please tell us about those crazy minutes?" Because he doesn't. In those two pages he mentions -- only mentions -- a yak herder intent on talking while Tenzing pees, the man's butter tea, an overturned bike and dust. Also something made Tenzing cry copiously, but he won't say what. That's it.

Sixteen hours, and that's all we get to know about it.

I mean, as they say, I wanted to like this book. I'm not a biker, but I've spent time with the breed. I simply love the road; I believe there is no better way to travel. So I dived into the book yearning to live Tenzing's trip vicariously, to absorb and reflect on his reflections. Just a few pages into the book, I even told my wife, this guy can write. Because he can: he uses words engagingly, expertly. But a few more pages, and I began to wonder, why is he simulating the expertise of a window-dresser? There's too little meat on those bones.

Nine months and 25000+ km that Tenzing rode an Enfield Thunderbird around India, he must have duffel-bags full of experience and memory. I mean, he drove from Kerala across Tamil Nadu and up the east coast to Sikkim and Assam, then through Nepal to Ladakh and Himachal, back to Sikkim and through the middle of the country to Kerala again, then up the west coast to Bombay. Just sitting here tracing that route, I can think of a dozen different places and themes I'd have liked to hear from him about. This country is like that. But sadly, Tenzing gives us mostly quick, superficial impressions. It's staccato, it's jumpy, it's often disconnected, it's like the notes you'd find in a diary. It's a mere taste that leaves you craving more, more, but there ain't no more. And that's where this book fails.

Like: Three pages about Bangalore make up Chapter 29. Plunge right into Chapter 30, in which Tenzing heads "further south to my foster home, Kerala". Some lines about the road through Mandya towards Wynad, which turns into a dirt track; then "Mysore is a beautiful city but I had been there many times and so took a diversion outside it." One sentence about better roads in the South than elsewhere, another sentence about better indices of development in the South than elsewhere. And then an inexplicable five-line lament on "disappointing" Bangalore, already a whole page in the past. Apropos of nothing, leading to nothing, the paragraph just sits there in the middle of the Mysore bypass.

Like: On the ride to Pokhara, "there are natural geographical formations ... which are awesome." Elsewhere, "the way from Manali to Rohtang has some weird rock formations." I mean, "awesome" and "weird"? Is that all Tenzing has for us? Why not tell us some more about those formations? Geology, history, beauty, shapes, the thoughts they put in your head: there's so much to say about rocks, or more generally about intriguing sights on the road. Yet Tenzing roars past them in one tired adjective each.

The pity is there so much potential material here. As a bureaucrat who left the service to make this trip, Tenzing knows the ropes in plenty of situations. To hilarious and satisfying effect, he even throws his bureaucratic weight about at times to put assorted creeps in their place. He has a sharp and cynical eye for the absurd. He hints, but only hints, at his musings on so many things: climate change, poverty, the administrative services, tourism and grotty cheap hotels, bikers.

Like, here's a pointed observation that comes to him while in Nepal: "The middle-class morality of India is killing the tourist potential of the country. No amount of shouting 'Incredible India!' on televisions around the world is going to change that fact." What an interesting thought to take and run with, see where it goes on that Enfield Thunderbird. Yet in four short sentences after that, we're done with it.

So in the end, I can't say it took me sixteen hours of hard reading to get through this book. It's easily read, maybe too easily and that's the problem. But whatever time it did take, I can't say either that it was "worth every crazy minute."

Given what this book could have been, that's a great pity.


paula said...

read the book myself,thought it was hilarious and enjoyed it thoroughly..,read it in two sittings.Haven't done that in a while.yes, i read your review too in live mint..there are some aspects of the book ..like the author crying in the the cold desert landscape of ladakh..i guess one does need to be understand a bit of buddhist spirituality to enjoy the book.

Dilip D'Souza said...

It had its hilarious moments, Mimi. I don't know about the Buddhist spirituality part, though I know he alludes to it. But all in all I just felt it wasn't substantial enough, given how substantial his travels were.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

I've been looking for this book because this guy lived MY dream - an Enfield across India. But after your review, I think I'll put off buying either the book or the Bullet.

I'll concentrate on writing instead. The ride seems to be an optional extra.


A fan said...

I enjoyed the wit,the language and the book -read it from cover to cover in a single sitting.
Riding an enfield across india would be most guy's dream-some do it and some just dream about doing it.PG has done it
-his way!

destinednomad said...

i agree with you.
i expected so much more... he lived the dream but got possessive about the expeirences it seems!

Suraj Mandhare said...

From the first page itself one gets astonished with the idea of giving
up the most coveted career just for the sake of your own self!
Again the idea of traveling across this oceanic country that too alone
and that too on a bike ..is something dream-like and only dream-like!
This is amongst the few books which I read in one go..you wander
through the huge expanse holding his hand..sorry on his pillion seat!
Its a travelogue of roadside India!
I feel he could have gone into more intricate and deeper issues and
come up with some analysis of that but the man seems to be more
interested in his own fascination than facts around! His constant
boozing makes you feel dozing literally! The language ..well..is
really offensive..sometime unbearably indecent. He would have avoided
the usage of unwarranted slang words or atleast replaced with stars as
in vogue!..but then almost each page would have carried more stars and
hashes than words!
All said and done this is a rare material by someone having palash
cent percent! So I award many stars and few hashes to him!
Suraj Mandhare

Anonymous said...

really?? you really want to know about the formation of rocks?? if so what dont you just buy a book on geology.. that would give you exactly what you want.
and talking about buddhist spirituality..living in sikkim myself, i actually happen to know the person and he introduced Vipassana into Sikkim and opened a sheda(buddhist school for monks) about 12 years back. Due to this buddhist spirituality of his those same monks who have studied in the sheda are now praying for 49 days for that man.
Having a blog and writing witty comments might be fun but it is truly embarrassing if you have bring readers to your blog by having vague ideas about the person you are talking about.

samsara said...

If you knew the guy, maybe you would have understood.. He was writing random thoughts and was not trying to give descriptions of geological formations etc... This was a trip from the heart and the book was not written for commercial reasons.. He wanted this trip for himself and when approached by Penguin, who sensed a story, wrote it down.. without apologies or entreaties to read it.. Like minded people would understand and thats the segment, whom he thought would give it a once over.. Even if no one did, knowing him, I dont think it would have made a difference.. This is a diary for himself and anyone else who is not looking to dissect it for what is lacking according to him...

Dilip D'Souza said...

Last two comments (anon and samsara): you seem to have known PG Tenzing and I envy you, his book made me wish I knew him myself. He must have been quite a man, a thoughtful, sensitive and observant guy. From as far away as I am, I was saddened by his passing.

I only felt he could have put more of himself and his thoughts into the book, precisely because of the hints I got of the kind of man he was.

Anonymous said...

I hate critics. For god's sake who in their sane mind would want an explanation about how rocks are formed from this book.. I am sad to say but you do not and i repeat DO NOT know a thing about writing..I loved the book.Rip P.G Tenzing. I just read his daughter's manga comic too! Its nice..Great family huh!