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Two things occurred when I recently picked up Monisha Rajesh’s second book. First, a long-lost friend called to say she was planning on taking the Himsagar Express from Jammu to Kanyakumari or the Vivek Express from Dibrugarh to Kanyakumari sometime this year and wanted tips on planning given my profession, and, second, my social-media feed showed a man walking across a frozen Lake Baikal, the deepest and largest freshwater lake in the world. Initially, I didn’t really think much of these two instances but as I pored over the pages of Around the World in 80 Trains, the coincidences just seemed odd.
Rajesh, in her second book, takes off from her first, five years after she travelled around India in 80 trains. This time round the traintable was different. Europe Russia, Mongolia, the US, China, Vietnam, Japan, Canada, North Korea and beyond; a 45,000- mile adventure with her trusty rucksack and fiancé Jem.
Turning page after page, I must say, my mind went back to the time when travelling with the fam meant taking those long train journeys across the country. Rajesh is right when she writes ‘‘train travel is evolving at high speed: bullet trains are multiplying, long-distance services running out of steam. Sleeper services are being phased out, and classic routes fading away…the romance of the railways is dying a swift death, but I refused to believe it was true’’. Today, we prefer to take a flight to save time, fast trains are meant to ferry passengers from one destination to the next at the shortest possible time, and the romance which was once synonymous with trains is now just a novelty factor.
As I finished each chapter, Rajesh’s words and anecdotes made me want to jump on a train as soon as possible. From the 11-day journey on the Trans-Mongolian route from Moscow to Irkutsk, to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, before reaching Beijing in China (the journey where they were initially booked on a ‘‘slower, poor-quality service for Russians’’ for the first five days before getting on the more tourist-friendly Rossiya from Lake Baikal thanks to their travel agents); to the Reunification Express route from Hanoi to Saigon which ‘was a test of wills, to see what stuff I was really made of, and how long I could go without contracting tetanus’; the ‘Death Railway’ from Burma to Thailand on which Allied prisoners had ‘‘toiled for up to eighteen hours a day, eating nothing more than 250mg of rice and a handful of beans…the men built 257 miles of railway track in fourteen months…with one death of every sleeper laid’’ to Japan’s Shinkansen or ‘‘bullet trains that put rest of the world’s railways to shame’’, Rajesh’s style of writing is humorous and wonderfully vivid. It touches upon culture, politics, history, social constructs and the zest for travel.
But at the same time, she doesn’t shy away from writing about experiences which women or people of colour face: For example, when they found themselves aboard The Canadian, which connects Vancouver in the west to Toronto in the east, and an Australian woman generalised Rajesh as the daughter of a Sri Lankan man celebrating his 70th birthday on the train. Or when in North Korea a fellow passenger mentioned how it was ‘‘commendable that you’re (a girl) doing this (train journeys)’’.
When a book makes you want to get off the couch and put ‘take a train journey soon’ on your travel list, you know it is a keeper.
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