Two Wheels in the Dust

Anne Mustoe

Read December 2003

Following her global circumnavigation, Anne Mustoe has turned intro a travel writer whose primary vehicle is the bicycle. Her earlier trip through India left her unimpressed; indeed, she gave it one of the least sympathetic treatments of any country she visited. Then, one morning, while in Ujjain amidst he mayhem that passes for Indian roads, she saw a worshiper stop at a roadside shrine. She was so taken by the god that would inspire his faith (and serenity) that she resolved to learn more about Hinduism and return. The deity in that temple had been Hanuman, a monkey and a key character in the epic Ramayana. This plunged Mustoe into the epic, and led to this book.

Mustoe, who had earlier followed historical routes, decided to instead traverse India along a mythological one: that of Rama in the epic. (An especially pious Hindu might wonder about the distinction Anne makes and I repeat, but enough lives have been shed over that topic....) The Ramayana is a particularly touchy topic, given the politically charged climate the BJP's adoration of Rama has created. Mustoe is highly sensitive to this, and repeatedly returns to the effects of this in her book.

This, then, is really two books in one. One part of it is a travelogue through India (and Sri Lanka, where part of the Ramayana's action takes place). The other part is a narration of the story of the epic itself. For the latter, Mustoe has given herself enough of a knowledge of the story to present it—and she's learned enough in the ways of classics to describe variations and their possible origins. In the process of her study (and travels, which she splits over several winter trips), she has grown quite sympathetic to the underlying faith without embracing its more cynical and exploitative manifestations, so the result is (at least to my eyes) very balanced.

As before, Mustoe is good at reaching out to locals and learning telling lessons from their lives. For instance, she finds a Salvation Army member who gives her (p. 159) a nuanced appreciation for Karnataka's Deve Gowda, dismissed by many as a hayseed but really (or perhaps, consequently) much more sensitive to the needs of the rural poor. (In the process, though, she glosses over his more populist parts, and this in general is part of the problem with Indian politics: not a lack of sympathy, but one of balance.) She notices the marvelous and infuriating Indian tendency towards arson. She learns about the devotees of and the growth of the cult of Ayappa. Instead of dismissing Sri Lanka's problems as one of egotistic terrorism, she digs deeper to find their roots in protectionist language policies (p. 235-6). But it isn't all intellectual; as in her previous trips, she keeps her wits about her. She records a conversation (p. 101) where she immediately bonds with an Indian family due to the common cultural ties of Monopoly boards—the Indian ones are based on London, so every child who has played with one immediately begins at Old Kent Road. She takes the time to note such gems of Indian roadway signs as “Better be called Mr. Late / than the Late Mr.” (p. 88). (Incidentally, I haven't seen any of the ones she lists, which suggests the North and South have different bands of geniuses inventing their road signs. A federal works program, perhaps.) But where ever did she come up with “Hanumen” (p. 119) as the plural of Hanuman?

Only rarely does she lose her composure. Walking along Anna Salai in Madras (Chennai), she records (with an unstated smirk) the titles of numerous American self-help volumes, and is immersed in dealing with the pesky locals who bother her incessantly. Had she paused, however, she might have noticed an engine of society at work. However silly some of the books and their authors (she can't help but tell us that they are “Americans with names like Herb Cohen and Dr Wayne W. Dyer” (p. 161)), their cheap and plentiful availability suggests a market of readers aching for self-improvement and topics northward. There should always be hope for such a people.

In general, as a born and bred South Indian (and a composite of many of its parts), I couldn't help but take joy in her discerning recognition of the South as a superior place in so many ways to the North, even if the political calculus of India means power will invariably rest in the North. It's a welcome relief from the hordes of foreign visitors who think India begins somewhere in the palaces of Rajasthan and ends at the Taj Mahal, with terra incognita south of the Vindhya's.

India is a difficult country to visit; as Mustoe says, it's “not a comfortable country”. A solitary Western woman would find it especially challenging, and I was not surprised by her reaction to it on her world tour. Yet I was also saddened by it, and hoped she would find a reason to give its riches another chance. Hanuman gave her that chance, and she has richly redeemed herself and the country as a result. Thanks to Moy Easwaran for sending me this enjoyable volume!