Saturday, April 18, 2009

Motorcycle diaries


A ride from Kerala to Sikkim ought to be a meaty travelogue. Sadly, this one falls short

Dilip D’Souza

From Ladakh, P.G. 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 16 hours of hard riding but it had been worth every crazy minute.”

In some ways, that sentence captures this little book. I read it and 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, and an overturned bike. Also something made Tenzing cry copiously, but he won’t say what.

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?

From the nine months and 25,000-plus km that Tenzing rode an Enfield Thunderbird around India, he must have duffel bags full of experience and memory. He drove from Kerala across Tamil Nadu and up the east coast to Sikkim and Assam, then through Nepal to Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh, back to Sikkim and through the middle of the country to Kerala again, then up the west coast to Mumbai. 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. But sadly, Tenzing gives us mostly quick, superficial impressions. His narrative is staccato, jumpy, often disconnected—like notes in a diary.

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 Wayanad, 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, and then an inexplicable five-line lament on “disappointing” Bangalore. 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”. Geology, history, shapes—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.

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 at his musings on many things: climate change, poverty, the administrative services, tourism and grotty, cheap hotels. 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, on that Enfield Thunderbird.
It didn’t take me 16 hours of hard reading to get through this book. I can’t say, either, that it was “worth every crazy minute”.