On a Shoestring to Coorg

Dervla Murphy

Read February 2005

This is a loving account of a trip done on the cheap to India in the early 1970s. Somewhat like Mustoe's account nearly three decades later, Murphy approaches India with trepidation derived from less happy experiences, but leaves in love with the land. Unlike Mustoe's solo bicycle journey, Murphy roughs it out with her five-year old daughter. (Murphy, Mustoe, Morris: what's with the letter `M'?)

Murphy is something of a dual to Jan Morris, with whom she is so often compared. Morris brings an sphinx-like icy intellectualism to her work; Murphy is perfectly happy to curse. Morris writes in a language more sublime than English; Murphy, the proletarian, uses puns for humor (like the rest of us). Morris seems to float above her environment in a spaceless, timeless way, while Murphy walks on dirt roads and falls ill and gets drunk like we do. That alone makes Murphy's accounts human and compelling.

There is an important way in which Murphy's book isn't just another travel book about India: it's an account of South India, which is virtually a different nation than the touristed North of camels and palaces. It is also, not to put too fine a point on it, my India—of my languages, ethnicities, foods and familiarities. So perhaps I was prejudiced to feel a slightly warmer glow from it, though Murphy's book can hold up without my positive bias.

If there is one complaint, it's that a skeptical and experienced traveler ought to be less taken in with the bourgeois Coorgi society. Perhaps her embrace of it represents a certain longing for home and stability, but there is a clear price a society pays for such conformity and adherence to tradition; Murphy pays only the smallest attention to this cost. But as a writer, not a journalist, that bias is her privilege.

Thanks to Kaushik Sridharan for bringing this book to my attention!