Travels in South India book review: Foreword to the past

By: | Published: November 15, 2015 12:07 AM

A long-winding journey through India just before the start of economic reforms shows nothing much has changed since then

Three-Quarters of a Footprint: Travels in South India
Joe Roberts
Pp 282

WHEN I know how people love in a country, I know that country well enough to describe it, although I may never have seen it”, Guy de Maupassant wrote in his 1882 short story Marroca to describe the north of Africa. In Englishman Joe Roberts’ travel book, Three-Quarters of a Footprint, in which he narrates his journey through the south of India, it is how people talk that helps him describe a country.

Arriving in Bangalore as a paying guest with a north Indian family, Roberts gets his itinerary drawn by a middle-aged Bengali widow, a friend of the family. “What I want to know is, where first? There is no time to waste,” says Mrs Sen, who draws up a month’s worth of excursions for the stranger. Later, sitting in a railway coach at the Bangalore station, Roberts learns the most important lesson about Indian train travel from a teenage college student: “Never sit when you can lie down.”

Three-Quarters of a Footprint is a reprint of a 1994 book Roberts wrote based on letters he sent home. Thanks to the preface the author has written for this new edition, we learn that his journey happened between two governments, first of VP Singh (prime minister from 1989-90) and then Chandra Shekhar (prime minister from 1990-91). “India in 1990 was such a different place,” he writes. “The liberalization of the economy hadn’t started, and the country was a long way from its current status as an Asian superpower.”

At that time, it took two weeks for the author’s letters to reach England. Not that Roberts, who was 32 years old then, bothered about it much. He was in India after quitting his job and ending a burdensome affair. His sight was set on southern India, which he knew from a picture showing sailing barges on Kerala’s backwaters.

Roberts digs deep into the places he visits for myths, legends and slices of history. In the book, he recounts to the Coimbatore collector the birth of Ooty, the queen of hill stations, discovered in 1818 by two young British assistants, who were astonished to find a 50-mile-long plateau 8,000 ft above sea level, while chasing a gang of tobacco smugglers. The story of King Mahabali and Onam is told in similar fashion, with a touch of humour.

When a British friend asks for help in writing The Oxford Companion to Food, Roberts returns to Mysore a second time to research the botanical names of some Indian fruits and vegetables at the Central Food Technological Research Institute. In Three-Quarters of a Footprint, an account of a journey endured through stifling experiences at poverty-stricken inter-state bus stations and railway platforms, the author paints evocative scenes, which, he says, a Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo would have recognised. As he travels in overcrowded rail coaches, Roberts takes refuge in Indian classical music, like the shehnai of Bismillah Khan (equivalent of the serious jazz music of John Coltrane) that described the landscape outside.

During his first visit to Mysore, he comes across students protesting against the Mandal Commission and, in Bangalore, he hears about the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. When he arrives in Pondicherry, “a clean city without cows or dogs”, the relief is palpable in the pages. However, it evaporates when he witnesses a near-date-rape situation involving an Indian hotel manager and a Spanish woman at the next destination.

In the middle of his travels, Roberts takes a break from the southern comfort to see Khajuraho, where he hears from an Indian woman that the erotic paintings were to prevent lightning from striking the temples. He also doesn’t miss a chance to visit the “strange, other-wordly” Varanasi, where he casts off a guide, who describes himself as a “Brahmin, supreme caste”. He returns to the south for Onam in Kerala, only to fall asleep in Kovalam, frustrated by incomprehension after watching a lecture-demonstration of Kathakali on a hotel rooftop. With a “higher percentage of literacy than in Britain”, Kerala appeals to him as a “sparkling Douanier Roussesu landscape of palms and flowering trees”, but is appalled when a local boy offers to sell him heroin in front of the Jewish cemetery near Fort Kochi.

Mesmerised by the backwaters, Roberts takes a nine-hour ride from Kollam to Alappuzha, the serenity and beauty of nature working like a medicine to heal him from the aftermath of a gastric flu scare from visiting a gruesome public lavatory. As he is lured by the beauty of the land, Roberts seems to become more an Indian than a socially-conscious European. When a British woman travelling with her boyfriend is being molested by a native man, he wonders why she was wearing “a thin cotton singlet without a bra”. His devotion to expressing a journey to a dreamland is, however, impeccable.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

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