Reviewing Monisha Rajesh's 'Around the World in 80 trains'
'Trains provided a ready-made, rolling community where you were free to be as involved or as aloof as you wanted. Conversation and good food were almost always within arm's reach, and even if you didn't want to be the centre of attention, the sense of belonging was innate. The white noise of other people's laughter, guitar-strumming and movies, provided a cloak of comfort, and the reassurance that as long as you stayed on board, you would never be alone.'
In what I consider to be a truly fantastic piece of work, Rajesh takes us on a seven month journey across the world, capturing the unique quality of train travel and her experiences of different countries, cultures and people. For 45,000 miles, we explore every corner of the world - from Japan to Canada, Austria to China.
I adored this book. Rajesh provides the perfect balance between subjective experience (which I found to be extremely interesting and engaging) and the reality of each place she visits, giving you a true sense of what each country is like. She reminds us to remain open minded when thinking about and experiencing different countries, something I found particularly poignant when reading about her journeying to North Korea. A country that is often met with frowns and comments of fear at the very mention of it, North Korea is one of the places that Rajesh claims is 'a trip of a lifetime'. This is the first time she is able to discover North Korea in the flesh, and is, therefore, the first time she is able to make her own decision on what the country is like, rather than conceding to Western mass media portrayal of it.
One aspect of the book I really enjoyed was the passenger conversations, whereby we hear from a diverse range of voices from all across the world. Whilst in Japan, she meets Tsutomu Yamaguchi, survivor of both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs, and speaks to Sir Harold Atcherley, prisoner of war for over three years in Malaysia. In addition, we also hear from the ordinary people she meets on the trains, from nuns to solo travellers to frustrated married couples. This gives the book a raw, honest and real touch, as we are given the chance to meet the people who shaped Rajesh's trip.
'On my travels around India I'd often been harassed - which was never my fault - yet the onus always fell on women to protect ourselves, to dress down, cover up, look away, keep off the streets...No one ever told men not to grope, not to stare, not to touch, not to follow women, and not to rape...This was why so few women explored the world with the freedom and abandon of men: they were far too frightened of what might happen at the hands of one of them.'
And so Rajesh's book offers another stand of exploration: the experience of the female traveller. This particular quote resonates deeply with myself; when I think about the places I want to travel to in the foreseeable future, I am pulled back to earth by the reality that, unless I have a man to accompany me, my dreams will remain just that. There also echoes my experience of travelling in India in 2018; despite being in a large group with eight adult males, I was conscious of the fact that I was a target for the male predator at all times, especially in touristy areas. The injustice of this is painful.
'Travelling is synanomous with escape, the desire to create distance and observe differences, but for me it now meant the opposite. I took comfort in identifying with others, bridging distance and erasing the idea of otherness. I wanted to know who had stood on this spot, and if they'd felt the same chill I now felt in my fingers.'
This book has made me want to travel even more than I did prior to reading it, especially via train. The romantic portrayal of the beauty of train travel is enough to excite any one into the possibilities travelling can offer. Trains allow us to slow down, take in our surroundings, and ground us by highlighting the very essence of what it is like to live in the countries we visit. In the Capitalist world we are a part of, we rush around and busy ourselves with tasks to fulfil the criteria of the successful man or woman. Rajesh reminds us of the need to pause, reflect, and live in the moment.
There is a whole community to be a part of when you step on a train. Rajesh's book is so vivid, rich in detail and insightful in facts that you feel as though you are on those trains with her. It is truly spectacular.
'Trains were symbols of strength, weapons of war, and political tools. Trains provided salvation for the poor, and a lifelines for commuters. They offered the chance to escape, and homes for the lonely. Trains were a link to the past, and a portal to the future. And to me? Trains would always be an open window into the soul of a country and its people.'
The book captures everything that is uniquely brilliant about train travel, and I hope it inspires more readers to embrace everything exploring different cultures and countries can offer. There is a world out there to explore, and this book makes me want to experience it even more. I really can't recommend this book enough.
Wow. What a book.