In a long narrative divided into three sections, detailing his journeys in the 1970s, 1980s and the 21st century, the author spins incredible tales to make his inevitable slips match the chaos and confusion around him
JRR Tolkien paid the ultimate tribute to the traveller when he said, “Not all those who wander are lost.” But the author of The Lord of the Rings would have certainly left Murray Laurence out of that tribute. The Australian writer travelled through India, China and south-east Asia for four decades—starting from the early 1970s—and almost always found himself lost. During his first visit to Kolkata in the early 1970s, a murky meeting with a dodgy tourism official resulted in him getting on the wrong train. At other times, he boarded the right train to the wrong destination, didn’t spot his bus even when it was within earshot, and even when he did board the right bus, ended up reaching nowhere. The cascading absurdity resulted in a rollercoaster ride to Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital, that took forever. Laurence’s elaborately described details of such journeys fill up Subcontinental Drift: Four Decades Adrift in India and Beyond, his book on old journeys.
Laurence’s Chinese excursion in 1988 as a marketing man to sell seats in Australian universities to Chinese students tops the list of the immaculate imagery of being lost in a new land. His meetings at Chinese universities ran into trouble, as students began to stage demonstrations against Japan refusing them visas to study and work. Suddenly, everybody the author met in China wasn’t just talking about the loss of business, but “more trouble coming”. Nobody knew then that it was the start of the historic 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
Another remarkable story the author narrates is his attempt to write a screenplay on Naxalites, a mission he confesses was “outlandish and misguided”. It was 1985 and he had come to Kolkata, settling into a hotel on Shakespeare Sarani, which he emphasises was “next to Russel Street and a block away from Ho Chi Minh Sarai”. His research started from a “communist bookshop” whose manager had contacts with Naxalites. The next meeting was with Bengali filmmaker Upalendu Chakrabarty, who had just made the National Award-winning film Chokh (1983) about oppression of jute workers. Chakrabarty offered to recommend him to a sociologist in New Delhi, who, in turn, offered nothing. The journey of that script—which Laurence tells in a chapter titled Revolutionary Raag—ended there. Later, travelling from Delhi to Agra in a “one hundred per cent fully imported Nissan Cedric” on the Grand Trunk Road, the author is amused to see relatively slow vehicles around him. “It will be truly a hell when post-1955 automotive technology arrives on the subcontinent,” he exclaims.
In a long narrative divided into three sections, detailing his journeys in the 1970s, 1980s and the 21st century, Laurence spins incredible tales to make his inevitable slips match the chaos and confusion around him. One such story is about him and a couple of backpacking friends losing a notebook filled with information on bus and train times, restaurant and hotel prices, and tips on everything good, bad, bizarre and wicked. The story reaches its logical end when he says the notebook was incarnated as the Lonely Planet guide.
Laurence also finds himself in Sri Lanka during the civil war, in Karachi at the time of an attack by the Muttahida Quami Movement, and in Thailand during the massive student uprising of 1973.
For those who love laughing at themselves, Subcontinental Drift offers enough material to feel nostalgic about a wondrous past.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer