Books I read in India (and on the plane there and back) [January 2008]

Jean-Dominique Bauby, translated Jeremy Leggatt, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Fourth Estate 1997)
Richard E Grant, The Wah-Wah Diaries (Picador 2006)
Ruskin Bond, Roads to Mussoorie (Rupa & Co 2005)
Henning Mankel, Kennedy’s Brain (Harvill Secker 2007)
Philip Kerr, The One from the Other (Quercus 2006)
Michelle De Kretser, The Hamilton Case (Knopf 2003)
P Sainath, Everybody Loves a Good Drought (Penguin India 1996)
Tohby Riddle, Pink Freud (Penguin Australia 2007)

Deciding what books to take travelling is probably always problematic. They need to weigh little enough, be discardable or relevant enough, and preferably be likely to be read by more than one traveller. My reading on this trip managed a fairly decent combination of those criteria.


The Jean-Dominique Bauby memoir rates high on the light-of-weight criterion. Given the manner of its composition, it’s just as well. Bauby was suffering Locked-in Syndrome in the aftermath of a stroke: his mind was unimpaired, but his paralysis was so extensive that he could communicate only by blinking his left eye. Just reading about it was enough to restimulate my mild episode of Bell’s Palsy from some decades ago. He dictated this elegant, even lyrical book one letter at a time by blinking that eye. I’ll never look at the immobile and unresponsive people in the nursing home the same again: they differ from Bauby in being demented, but the powerful lesson of the book is surely that inability to communicate is not at all the same thing as lack of ability to perceive and respond.

I read the whole thing before we reached Singapore. As it had been lent to me, it stayed with me for the whole remainder of the trip, and came home safely. I recoil from the idea of the film (which is coming to Sydney soon). This is a quintessentially verbal creation, and I can’t see that a film could be anything other than a travesty.


I expected the Richard E Grant book to be discardable, but it’s such a good read that it too stayed with me for the whole trip and is now on loan to an emerging filmmaker. The thing about REG (as he is called in the captions to the location photographs) is that as a first-time, perhaps even one-time writer-director who is also a well-established character actor, he is at the same time an insider and an outsider in the movie business. Wah-Wah is an intensely personal, autobiographical film, and the diary of its making is also intensely personal, an account of revisiting a difficult but rich childhood. It’s also the story of a multinational, multimillion dollar enterprise in which it sometimes seemed that anything that could go wrong would go wrong. The diary form serves the subject well, and in his producer REG finds a perfect villain. It’s hard to believe she was ever as incompetent, as obnoxious, as French-arrogant as she is portrayed, but the joy she gives as a character in the book is directly proportional to the pain she apparently gave in the real/reel world. I remember enjoying the film. I’d now like to see it again. And I’d love to see a version that includes some of the (correctly) excised scenes.


By now we were in Delhi, and when in the Central Cottage Industries Emporium on Jarpath Radial near Connaught Place I saw books by Ruskin Bond, a sometime contributor to a magazine I once edited, of course I bought one – an interesting experience in itself, as the process was broken down into its parts: agreement to the purchase and receipt of a docket at the counter; payment and having the docket stamped at a cashier two floors down; receipt of the book and surrender of the docket just inside the exit door.

The book is a collection of rambling essays about the joys of living in Mussoorie, a hill station in Uttar Pradesh. It turned out I’d read a number of the pieces before when RB submitted them as typescripts to the magazine (corrected with white-out and ink – I can verify his assertion in the book that he doesn’t use a computer). We published at least one of them. But there was a special pleasure in reading them so close to the place where they were written, and where Ruskin still lives, as far as I know. Among many delights, one that stands out is the little excursion into the history of potato in India – we had an Irish soldier to thank for the plentiful potato that seemed to feature in every meal.


The Henning Mankell book made the cut because both Penny and I have enjoyed his detective stories, and I’m respectful of his two books for young people (one of which deals, like this book, with AIDS). Written, according to an endnote, in fury at the role of the West in relation to AIDS in Africa, it appears to have been revised in haste, to have done without beta readers altogether, and been copy-edited on a tight budget. The result is that, though the same endnote asks that the book be taken seriously as shedding light on terrible things, it actually comes across as a clumsy fantasy of wickedness, a rickety, even incoherent, echo of Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener, a trivialising of the issues about which Mankell undoubtedly cares deeply. The translation may be partly to blame, but I don’t think so.

We didn’t have the heart to inflict this on any of our fellow travellers, so it found a bin in the pink city of Jaipur.


We brought The One from the Other for pretty much the same reasons as the Henning Mankell, except I haven’t read any of Philip Kerr’s children’s books. It ranked low on the relevance scale, though as I took my malaria tablets one morning, I enjoyed the moment’s connection to the book’s maguffin, a cure for malaria which was to be found at monstrous cost.

It turns out to be a ripping good yarn, in an amusing tough-guy voice; its incidents and conspiracy theories are plausible; and its endnote provides quite a bit of information on the sources on post-war Germany and Austria where it is set. Of course, Kerr has the advantage over Mankell of a setting nearly 60 years in the past, which is well documented and much storied, and in which he has already set a number of novels. Still … we didn’t have any qualms about passing this one on.


Michelle De Kretser writes a pretty damn good sentence, and a pretty damn good yarn. Our copy of The Hamilton Case is a hardcover, so not designed for ease of packing, and neither Penny nor I had read anything by this author. We must have thought its setting made it relevant. And indeed, Ceylonese complexities did resonate with our experiences in the land of the former British Raj. The resonances weren’t always comfortable. I noted down a couple of neat observations:

There is an old instinct, at work in bordellos and the relations of East and West, to convert the unbearable into the picturesque. It enables a sordid existence to be endured, on one side, and witnessed, on the other, with something like equanimity


The coloniser returns as a tourist, you see. And he is mad for difference. That is the luxury commodity we now supply, as we once kept him in cinnamon and sapphires.


On the train from Delhi to Agra we got chatting with an Indian couple from Pune who were also sightseeing. In a wide-ranging conversation, I asked if they would recommend any books about India by Indians. They mentioned Everybody Loves a Good Drought. The first time I got to a bookshop was in Pushkar in the last couple of days of our trip, and sure enough, there it was, along with just about every other book by an Indian or about india that I have ever read. I read it on the plane home, and haven’t quite finished it. The subtitle says it all: ‘Stories from India’s Poorest Districts’.

It’s wonderful, powerful journalism: P Sainath spent some years travelling around talking to the poorest of the poor and writing articles for The Times of India. This is a collection of the articles linked by short generalising essays. It gives faces and voices to the poor, and it’s unremitting. Nothing picturesque or ‘different’ here.


Tohby’s collection of cartoons from the weekend magazines of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age was on the hall table on our return, a very welcome gift. I was still making frequent visits to the toilet, and this book made the experience much less unpleasant. I include it here, because it was part of the India experience to come home to something so very Sydney: warm, witty, elliptic, muted, spiritual and sometimes laugh-out-loud. I particularly liked the image of a search and rescue worker who, when asked where he’s going, says, ‘I’m going to India to find myself.’

One response to “Books I read in India (and on the plane there and back) [January 2008]

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