Scribbles while on the road

Don’t ask any bloke for directions
P G Tenzing ,
Penguin, 2009, pp 218,
Rs 250

Don’t Ask Any Old Bloke for Directions is a travelogue based on the experiences of a 43-year-old man who decides to resign from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), after 20 years of life as a bureaucrat, and take to the roads of India on an Enfield Thunderbird. P G Tenzing rode 25,320 kilometres during his nine-month journey.

“The daily runs were anything between six to twelve hours,” we learn early in the book, which carries the sub-heading ‘A biker’s whimsical journey across India’. Any journey of such magnitude is likely to have highs, lows, plus the odd accident and challenging moment; Tenzing recounts his in the first person, charting his personal development from a retired IAS officer into a biker.

We learn that Tenzing’s professional disillusionment played a role in his decision to retire and head into the unknown. However, two close encounters with death, in the form of hepatitis C (which was initially diagnosed, incorrectly, as terminal lung cancer) and then a serious car crash, acted as “a clear clarion call to do my stuff before it was too late.”

The anecdotes which pepper Don’t Ask Any Old Bloke for Directions stem not only from Tenzing’s encounters with strangers on the road, but also from his en route liaisons with old friends and former colleagues. Viewed through Tenzing’s eyes — a man from Sikkim who studied in Delhi and served in various localities across the country, most latterly in Kerala — these meetings provide insights into India’s regional diversity and national cohesion, plus the mindset of government employees. The author paints a picture of a heavily flawed bureaucratic system which is peppered with both hardworking ‘saints’ and ‘ghouls’ who enter into a macabre dance with pot-bellied netas.”

During his travels, Tenzing has several verbal clashes with police officers, hotel employees and other petty, authority wielding figures. The quarrels take a predictable pattern. The author is not afraid of using insulting terms to describe his opponents, nor of telling how he shouts them down to win the day. “You know how much my small victories over officialdom mean to me,” writes Tenzing, about an altercation with “a pig of a policeman” whom the author suspects is about to ask for a bribe.

It’s a shame that the author writes so sparingly about the landscapes through which he rides. Yes, travelogues are about the personal experiences, the stays in cheap, shabby hotels, the food and the encounters with persons both good and bad, but it’s always nice to get a feeling for the context. More time spent on scene setting and descriptions would have added value to this book. Tenzing tends to tell rather than to show. Greater detail would have been a better reward for his readers and more appropriate to his own efforts in riding over 25,000 kilometres on a motorbike. When a venture takes such immense effort, why spare at the back end? At times, Don’t Ask Any Old Bloke for Directions reads too much like a sheet of cribbed notes rather than a finished book.

Chapter 5, for example, opens: “Skedaddled from the place. To Chennai. Presidency Club, where the rich frolic. Nice, clean room. Renjith Jacob was the host.”

More than anything, this book spotlights the typical challenges faced by travellers while traversing India’s budget hotels and restaurants.

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