A great event, this month, to see Eland reissuing On A Shoestring To Coorg: An Experience Of Southern India by the indomitable Dervla Murphy, now 84. Set in 1973, this book describes how Dervla, and her 5 year old daughter Rachel, meander slowly from Bombay to the southernmost tip of India. It’s the kind of armchair read which Indiaphiles will delight in: full of evocative descriptions of a virtually unspoilt South, and plenty of Irish cursing.
Why then my compulsion to go back she asks herself at the beginning. I had no quasi-mystical ambition to improve my soul by contact with Hindu spirituality, nor had I forgotten the grim details of everyday Indian life – the dehumanising poverty, the often deliberately maimed beggars, the prevaricating petty officials, the heat, the flies, the dust, the stinks, the pilfering. Is it, perhaps, that at a certain level we are more attracted by complexities and evasions, secrets and subtleties, enigmas and paradoxes, unpredictability and apparent chaos, than bu simplicity, straightforwardness, dependability and apparent order?
Dervla Murphy epitomises a particular type of travel writing: her books focus on diary like records and observations more than any grand sweeping themes. Here, India provides the perfect canvas for this type of approach: Colva she considers infested with foreigners, elsewhere she spots a fiercely handsome fish-eagle and an enormous pure white-humped bullock. What sets this book apart, however, is the presence of her young daughter, offering Dervla the chance for endless witty commentary, as well as the insight and freshness of a child’s viewpoint. Rachel seemed a little disappointed by her first corpse, reads one such passage. He doesn’t look very dead, she observed. Elsewhere, when attempting to draw a crocodile the young Rachel is struck by how little praise she receives from the adult Indians of their acquaintance: Don’t they know I’m only five! she exclaims. Mother Dervla comments, at this point: When Indian children attempt to exercise an adult skill their efforts are rarely judged as those of small children…..no doubt this comes of belonging to a society where economic necessity compels most children to perfect adult skills as soon as possible.
Coorg,the hill station in the Western Ghats of Karnataka, marks the central point of her journey. Everyday I fall more seriously in love with Coorg, she writes; it is the only place, outside of my own little corner of Ireland where I could imagine myself happy to live permanently. Several of our neighbours have wonderingly asked me, ‘Don’t you get bored, walking so much through the paddy and the forest?’ And they look equally delighted and puzzled when I assure them that, far from getting bored, I every day derive more pleasure from their lovely land. Wherever one looks there is beauty…