Heading for a long flight on a budget airline? Going to be in the train for more than 24 hours? What keeps you awake at night a week before leaving? What's the last thing you do before locking the door? Paranoid types turn off the gas, those with sensitive systems go for Pre-Departure-P/ P-D-Poo . My personal idiosyncrasy is obsessing over journey reading material. Of course, if I'm going on holiday, there's a whole separate obsession about holiday reading, but this is not the blob post for that.
The ideal journey book is light and entertaining, but not too gripping, so I can let go of it and nap, if needed. And not too frothy or reread 500 times- one doesn't want to be seen publicly as the Girl with the Georgette Heyer. One week before the journey, I buy the perfect book. Three days before leaving, I finish reading it. Two days before leaving, I'm filled with rage and panic at being reduced once more to a nothing-to-read situation. The day before leaving I scramble and pack something that's sat around the house, unread. An hour before leaving, I remove the unread book, look around for a better one, don't find anything, repack the unread one and add another book that is dull/ fat/ both. O Pamuk's Snow has been that unread book. Twice. And on two flights I have gnashed my teeth and breathed deeply all over the sleeping spouse to wake him up and entertain me because I couldn't bear Ka (narrator) in perpetual kar (snow) in Kars (town) anymore.
While my ideal book (yes, it’s still a book, no kindle/ Ipad here) for the journey is usually fiction, there has been the occasional brilliantly researched and Guha-written exception.
I have twice stumbled on a book which fuses with the journey into one inseparable experience.
Item 1. NYC on a Friday evening, waiting for the Amtrak to DC
I got there early with some sort of international-people-can-use-multiple-times pass, stood in a LONG line to book a seat and then waited without anywhere to sit for a LONG time for my train, as the next few trains were full up. Edging away from the mass of New Yorkers who were beginning to resemble Dadar commuters waiting for the Deccan Queen while the 6:50 fast to Virar arrived at the same platform, I drifted into a bookshop. Umberto Eco’s How to travel with a salmon deposited itself into my waiting hands and opened to a page that read,
“American trains are the image of what the world might be like after an atomic war. It isn’t that the trains don’t leave, it’s that often they don’t arrive, having broken down en route, causing people to wait during a six-hour delay in enormous stations, icy and empty, without a snack bar, inhabited by suspicious characters, and riddled with underground passages that recall the scenes in the New York subways in Return to the Planet of the Apes. The line between New York and Washington, patronized by newspaper reporters and senators, in first class offers at least business-class comfort, with a tray of hot food worthy of a university dining hall. But the other lines have filthy coaches, with eviscerated leatherette cushions, and the snack bar offers food that makes you nostalgic (you’ll say I’m exaggerating) for the recycled sawdust you are forced to eat on the Milan-Rome express.”
(found the quote here. My google skills never fail to amaze you)
Umby was exaggerating, of course. I know why, though. He had probably had to wait as long as I did. And while grateful for the little metal bars below the seat in front of you that are such a help for weary long-legged travellers, he’d also probably found that they are mysteriously absent on the train that brings you back from Washington to NYC. And it wasn’t just in my train that they were missing- I asked around.
That was then. More recently, I boarded a Bom-Del flight- Indian Airlines it was. Or Air India. Or Apache Indian. Or whatever they’re calling it these days. Plumped onto seat, kursi-ki-peti-d and de-shoed. My seat-neighbour quickly described her living situation – married, no kids, joint family, great cook for parties. As we waited for a late passenger to board, she asked me for my phone number*. My reading material proved hefty enough to silence her for a while- Trotter Nama packs a literal punch.
The captain announced that the flight was delayed, and I began the book. The narrator, for those of you who haven’t read it, started with a chat to a seat-neighbour on an Indian Airlines flight, explaining his strategy of getting onto the plane at the last moment, to score an upgrade.. and well, I don’t remember the rest of it, but I was struck by the coincidence. Struck enough to tell her about it. Turns out she was “into books, but only by Chetan Bhagat”**. Mid-way through the flight, she took out her phone to check the time. And this was before the days of the iphone with its airplane mode. Eyes almost falling out of my sockets, I hurried into an explanation of the potential dangers, the accidents that had led to the cellphone ban and as a post-script- the lack of concrete evidence, as well as current thinking that the ban was more for cellphone companies than airline safety. She smiled indulgently, patted me on the head and turned it off to pacify me. The book Trotters onto an incident in a hot-air balloon that ends in grisly fashion. It is not mentioned explicitly, but I sense that an annoying co-passenger with a cell phone is involved. Sub text is everything!
And finally, I should note that I actually finished reading the Pamuk. Didn't buy the Eco. And Trotter has now occupied the spot vacated by Snow.
*How to deal with this without giving rise to massive sulks for the next 2 hours, and more importantly, without feeling embarrassed and guilty? This is particularly difficult if the askee is same sex/ at a community event /doesn’t seem to be asking for fraansip reasons.
I just gave the woman my number, because I was too slow to think of a way out. It’s not a bad strategy though- the kind of people who randomly ask you for your number probably do it to so many people that your number is lost in their database. I hope.
**Far be it from me to be a book snob, but it just goes to show you, doesn’t it?