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.