Neither Here nor There: Bill Bryson

Neither Here Nor There

I’ve been a fan of Bill Bryson ever since I read Notes from a Small Island – Bryson’s wry voice and ability to bring out the interesting in the mundane captivated me. I picked this book up expecting something similar, and was left feeling a bit underwhelmed.

This book covers Bryson’s travels in Europe in 1990, interspersed with flashbacks to a summer backpacking trip he undertook in his college days. The book covers a multitude of locations across Europe, with most of the usual culprits – Norway, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy etc. This is partly the problem – Bryson hits the popular tourist spots, and doesn’t delve into the history of each place much, instead choosing to focus on the stereotypes of the places and the people. When I read Notes from a Small Island, I was both discovering Great Britain’s small towns through the eyes of someone who observed even little things, as well as laughing my head off at his observations. I felt that sorely lacking in this book, which seemed more like an entitled American tourist playing up European stereotypes. Which is not to say that anything he observes is untrue, but well, even a blockhead would have observed that.

 

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Around India in 80 Trains: Monisha Rajesh

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Monisha Rajesh wakes up one morning and decides to replicate Jules Verne’s classic novel, except that she aims to travel around India, and in trains. She finds her Passepartout in a Swedish photographer, and they spend three months travelling across the length and breadth of the country.

The book is interesting, in parts. Rajesh’s voice is wry and witty, and she has a knack for observation. She travels a variety of trains- the toy train in Matheran, the Lifeline express which is basically a hospital on wheels, the Golden Chariot from Mysore to Goa, along with a bunch of passenger trains, locals, Rajdhanis and Shatabdis- as she goes to the furthest points serviced by the Indian Railways, from Kanyakumari in the South to Udhampur in the North, from Dwarka in the West to Ledo in the East.

While Rajesh’s writing is commendable, I had some gripes with the book. She never really lets go of her NRI attitude, with the typical distaste for Indian heat and dust, which seems geared for a foreign audience. She travels mostly in air-conditioned compartments, and while there is nothing wrong in that, I can say, from personal experience, that most of the local color and liveliness can be found in non-AC sleeper coaches. Hence her book is devoid of interesting characters, and is more of an ‘I went here and saw this’ type of narrative.