Like most rail fans, I was a great fan of the Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux as a child too. The local circulating libraries in Bangalore always had a copy and I have borrowed it several times from every library I have been a member of, especially during the summer or Dassara holidays to laze around and dream of far away exotic train journeys. In the book, Theroux travels in a wide circle, clockwise, from London, Europe to the Far East and back through the USSR by train.
Over the years, I have been reading other travel writing by Paul Theroux and luckily, he has travelled a long distance since. And when I saw his latest travel book 'Ghost Train to the Eastern Star'
retracing the original Bazaar route, it was too hard to resist.
The book is like the trains he took along the revisited route. Some chapters are First Class. Most are good but some are like the General Compartment in a train that's headed for UP/Bihar.
In the earlier book, the Indian leg of the journey was good. He wasn't famous then and he spoke to regular people and stuck to describing what he saw. In the new book, he seems to get lazy. If he had spoken or met more people, it's not reflected in the book. It reads like a superficial journey a Western journalist on a hurried trip to India would write.
But he's right about the various new traits he has noticed among the 21st Century Indians, the Times Of India and ET reading types, especially the ones he meets in Bangalore.
This is how he sums up Bangalore:"The longer I stayed in Bangalore, the less I liked it. Many of the Indians I met there wanted me to be dazzled by the changes, but I was more horrified that awed. What went under the name of business in Bangalore was really a form of buccaneering, all the pirates wearing dark suits and carrying mobile phones instead of cutlasses. The place has not evolved; it has been crudely transformed..."
This is what happens when you rub shoulders with the IT people and Call Centre guys in Bangalore. What would you expect them show a visiting American writer who came to Bangalore to know what Banagalored meant?(Also, there are a lot of factual errors. Eg.: Puttaparthi is on the road to Hyderabad from Bangalore. not Chennai. Anyone from India can spot them. And if the Indian stretch has mistakes, so could the other parts he's visited. No editor?)
But his Chinese section is the most interesting. He doesn't even bother to hang around. He says:"China exists in its present form because the Chinese want money. Once, America was like that. Maybe this accounted for my desire to leave...Who wants to hear people boasting about their greed and their promiscuity? ...Ugly and soulless, China represented the horror of answered prayers, a peasant's greedy dream of development. I was happy to leave."
I'm sure that description holds good for the kind of people he met in Bangalore or Mumbai too.
The rest of the book is very interesting, there are quite a few valuable insights and quotes that will be remembered for decades to come. But the book, is like that drunk man Floyd's cooking (when he was in India). It's entertaining.