When Jules Verne wrote Around the World in 80 Days, it became the most intriguing work of fiction in the genre of Travel writing, and to say that sometimes reality is stranger than fiction would hold true when you read Monisha Rajesh's non-fictional account of her circumnavigating the globe in eighty trains in her book, Around the World in 80 Trains. Through the pages of her book you are made to travel alongside her on a carefully plotted route that covers 45,000 miles – almost twice the circumference of the earth – coasting along the world’s most remarkable railways; from the cloud-skimming heights of Tibet’s Qinghai railway to silk-sheeted splendour on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. A witty and irreverent look at the world and a celebration of the glory of train travel, Monisha offers a wonderfully vivid account of life, history and culture in her book that will make you laugh out loud – and reflect on what it means to be a global citizen – as you whirl around the world in its pages. We delved more closely into the book and where travel writing as a genre is headed in a coversation with the author.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how and why did you start loving trains.
I was born in Norfolk and grew up all over the UK, spending most of my younger years in Yorkshire before moving to Chennai for two years aged nine. My parents are both doctors and they had always intended on moving back to India after their training and setting up there. However, they found it impossible to settle and came back within two years. I left with a bitter taste in my mouth and only after 20 years decided to go back and see India as a tourist and write a book about the experience. In all honesty I was never interested in trains but I quickly realised that travelling by rail around India was the easiest, most economical way to see the country. The trains also helped me get into the nooks and crannies of the country in a way that planes would never have allowed for, and brought me into such close proximity with a cross-section of Indian society that I was able to pick up stories all day long. Before long I couldn’t travel anywhere without taking a train journey or two and it fast became my preferred method of transport, largely because trains don’t get in the way of whatever else you want to do. You can gossip with friends, read, catch up on Game of Thrones, sleep, gaze out of the window, enjoy roast chicken and a bottle of chardonnay and still arrive at your destination.
Broken down Thai train
What were some of your early formative readings?
As a child Roald Dahl was my favourite author. Like Mathilda, I hankered after his books and couldn’t believe my luck when I discovered in my teens that he’d written a bulk of adult fiction (Tales of the Unexpected, Kiss Kiss etc). Like most other English school kids I lived on a diet of Enid Blyton, but was quite precocious and would often swipe a Jeffrey Archer or Sidney Sheldon from my parents’ shelves when I was eight or nine and read them in hiding. I remember being caught in a downstairs toilet reading Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh when I was 13 and my grandma taking it away from me.
“Trains have often symbolised escape and romance, the idea of packing your bags and steaming off into the distance with every opportunity lying ahead of you. The very set-up of the inside of a train lends itself so beautifully to anonymity.”
What has your relationship with writing been like?
I find it strange whenever I see other writers moaning on social media about how much they hate writing, how tedious it is, how painful it is to sit down and write, when I genuinely adore the process. Given that being a writer isn’t something anyone goes into to make money, why would you do it if you didn’t at least enjoy the act of writing and producing books? Perhaps writing non-fiction is completely different from fiction, but I’ve always loved it. Getting lost in my words and finding my way out again, watching an essay or a chapter take shape like a painting appearing on a canvas. And the more I write the better I become at it. It’s a joy to look back at old work and see how much my style has changed and my methods improved.
Published by Bloomsbury.
Trains have been an important motif in literature from their very inception — perhaps one is reminded of its use to signify exploration and journey both inward and outward in 19th century. In present day literature or any from narrative, what do you think trains symbolise?
Trains have often symbolised escape and romance, the idea of packing your bags and steaming off into the distance with every opportunity lying ahead of you. The very set-up of the inside of a train lends itself so beautifully to anonymity. From the moment you board a train you can be anyone you want. You can express your deepest feelings, recount your darkest secrets or remain as mute and enigmatic as you like, absorbing everything around you in a way that few others modes of transport allow you to do. A train passenger can have an impact on your life in a way you never imagine and then in the morning they’re gone.
“For too long travel writing is a genre that has been dominated by middle-class white men with unchecked privilege striding off to discover the natives, and it’s a tired post-colonial format that doesn’t and shouldn’t work any more.”
What was the writing process like behind Around the World in 80 Trains? Were you writing while journeying or is the book completely based on your memory of your travels?
I never write while travelling as it distracts me from paying attention to what’s happening around me. If my nose is deep in a diary I’m more than likely to miss the fight breaking out in the dining car, the Goth runaway crying on the shoulder of a man on the way to his daughter’s wedding or the sound of the wheels thudding on the tracks below. If something truly delicious catches my attention then I often slip away to a quiet place and make detailed notes about the waves of someone’s hair, the smell of their breath or the way they hold their cigarette, but I try not to make it obvious that I’m writing. From time to time if it felt appropriate I would simply ask if it was all right to record a conversation on my iPhone and most passengers were perfectly happy with that. Writing while talking to someone often puts people on guard and they become reserved with what they’re telling you. Once the phone’s on they tend to forget about it and talk a lot more openly. Photographs also helped to jog my memory once I was back at home writing and I’d often have a separate laptop open next to me with a slideshow of a journey playing while I went through old notes, ticket stubs and dinner menus to piece a chapter together.
Amtrak panoramic car
Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne was perhaps revolutionary in terms of travel writing as a genre per se, and the book has remained popular even today after more than a century has gone by. What do you think travel writing is like today and where do you think it is headed?
The future of travel writing is something that is always discussed in terms of modern-day technology and Google, but travel writing is here to stay, it’s just evolving like anything else and any other genre. It’s certainly less easy these days to invent great swathes of writing and publish them as non-fiction as the internet and bloggers and the speed of social media make it very easy to out a fraud. It’s also hard to pinpoint what travel writing really is. For me it’s any kind of writing that takes you somewhere else whether that’s Mark Twain taking me to the muddy banks of the Mississippi river or Cheryl Strayed traipsing up the Pacific Crest Trail. The one thing I am pleased to see is far more women and people of colour writing about travel. For too long it’s a genre that has been dominated by middle-class white men with unchecked privilege striding off to discover the natives, and it’s a tired post-colonial format that doesn’t and shouldn’t work any more.
Please tell us what’s next for you and if there are any other current projects that you are working on.
The current project I’m working on is the arrival of my second baby in June. I think I deserve a little break now and the chance to put my feet up!
Text Nidhi Verma