Kaiyum reviews Alexander Frater’s book about his modern pilgrimage through India during monsoon.
Many readers, particularly older sannyasins, will be familiar with the important annual phenomenon of the monsoon, whether in India, Goa or somewhere further east.
When the rains finally come and break the intense summer heat and drought, there is an enormous sense of relief, relaxation and jubilation. After a fascinating conversation in London, which he describes in detail, experienced traveller, journalist and author Alexander Frater decides to pursue the Indian monsoon, from its onset in the very south of the country right through to Cherrapunji, reputed to be the wettest place on earth.
The book was first published in 1990 and has subsequently gone through numerous reprints. Those who are familiar with India will notice where it is dated, such as how, in the days before mobile phones, the writer has to deal with the archaic and unreliable telephone system. But they will also be aware of just how little more traditional features of the country have changed, such as the bureaucracy and the importance of having friends in the right places.
Frater is an inveterate traveller. It’s in his genes. Born into a line of Scottish Presbyterian ministers and missionaries in 1937 in the then ‘New Hebrides’, now Vanuatu, he attended school in Melbourne, moved later to the UK to pursue his career as a journalist, and continued his studies in Durham (UK) and Perugia (Italy).
Having worked for magazines such as Punch, The New Yorker and The Daily Telegraph, he finished his formal career at The Observer and now lives in south-west London.
Frater himself describes his book as:
… an anthology of the information, advice, help, anecdotes and stories proffered by countless people throughout India.
And indeed, the numerous colourfully written chapters abound with real-life stories that shape and accompany Frater’s journey, just as film music supports, frames and enhances the action on the screen.
Frater is above all a pragmatist and an alert observer. He describes the various and numerous religious rituals that he comes across in a neutral, non-judgemental way, just as he deals with the complexities of Indian bureaucracy in acquiring the necessary permissions. Yet there is an underlying theme throughout the book of the pulsing vitality of this enormous and highly diverse country that in a sense is the true spiritual heart of India.
Above all, the reader is treated to a well-documented travelogue, with brief but fascinating cameos of history, geography, botany and especially meteorology.
As Frater follows – pursues! – the monsoon northwards and eastwards, he provides accurate descriptions of the people and places that made India the place it is today. Just this alone is reason enough for both the seasoned and the less experienced traveller to relish Frater’s adventures.
Watch Alexander Frater’s 1990 BBC documentary on flying through Africa in a flyingboat.
Kaiyum is a regular contributor
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