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'A Reflection On How India Has Changed'
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Why should a reader pick up this book? What is in the book that one can find here and not on a travel site or in a Lonely Planet book?
The book isn't a travel guide. It's a first-person travelogue about my personal journey around India and a reflection on how India and it's people have changed since 1991 when I first lived there, to 2010 when I did the train journeys. It has a narrative arc and a proper story.
Chasing trains, meeting deadlines if any, taking notes, the travel itself — did you ever lose interest in the whole project during the course of it? What does the book mean to you?
Absolutely not. I enjoyed the travels so much that I couldn't wait to get home and start writing the book properly. When I set out to do things, I do them properly and this was something that was very important for me to see through til the end. It was not just a personal goal but a professional one too, to travel all 80 trains and publish the book.
A very predictable question: The best train and the worst one...
Best train was the Mandovi Express for its sheer beautiful scenery and the worst was the Jaisalmer-Bikaner passenger train at 11:00 a.m. in the middle of March which was so hot and dusty I thought I might die of dehydration, or asphyxiation, or a combination of the two.
How difficult was it to put the book together? Did you write notes during every journey? How did you collate them all?
Writing the book was tough, only in the sense that I had to whittle down what I wanted to include. It could have been twice the length but I needed to choose the episodes that would be most interesting, unique and entertaining to the readers. I carried a dictaphone, several notebooks, a video camera and had thousands of photographs to sift through afterwards to jog my memory.
How did you manage the 6/3 sleeping pad and stinky toilets? And most importantly the food...
I Didn't really mind, to be honest. I had no expectations, so I couldn't be disappointed by anything. Sure, the toilets stink but then I wasn't travelling in them. Once you adjust your mindset to something it doesn't really make a difference what the conditions are like. I made the decision to travel in that way and so I couldn't complain. The food was great, we ate everything that came our way as we never knew when the next meal might be or when the next station was going to appear for us to hop off and hunt for snacks.
You are a journalist and now an author. Tell us a bit about your writing habits? When and where do you write?
I work full time at The Week magazine in London. I don't write which suits me very well as I am then free to write after hours and at weekends where I can enjoy writing about the things I choose to write about, rather than being reliant on it for my earnings. When I wrote the book I was freelance and sat in my Hampstead flat day and night, with occasional breaks to walk across Hampstead Heath and to go to the gym, but I was very focused. I could never work in a coffee shop as there was too much distraction and I had a comfy spot at my dining table, surrounded by all my books, notes, pictures and maps.
How did you find a publisher?
I didn't, my agent David Godwin sold the book to both the Indian publisher and the UK/US publishers. David read my blog 80trains.com while I was still travelling and called me one evening when I was in Gangtok to tell me he enjoyed the blogs and wanted to meet me when I got home. And the rest is history.
What’s your energy drink?
I don't like energy drinks, but if I am desperate for a quick fix then, coffee works just fine.
What makes a book a really good read or a bestseller?
It's all down to personal opinion. A beautifully written book that warrants revisiting time and again to reveal its layers gradually might be a really good read to me, but tiresome to someone else. Similarly if something like Fifty Shades Of Grey can be a bestseller than perhaps books with simple writing, requiring little thought are fine. Not everyone goes to a book to learn something or to think too hard. Some people just want light relief, and that doesn't make one any better than another. Calling a book "the best" novel of this year makes no sense. What you really mean is that it's one of your favourites of the ones you happen to have read. Good, better and best are utterly subjective.
What's the hardest thing about being a writer?
I dont' find it hard, I love it and am just very lucky to be able to make a profession out of it. Perhaps the isolation was the hardest thing for me, but now I have found a good balance by having an office with wonderful colleagues, and my own time at home to write.
What are you reading now?
I am actually reading two: Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil for the second time as it is a beautiful book that reveals more of itself the second time you go back, and also XXBright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerny which is fast-paced and a lot of fun.
So, what’s next?
I am having a little breather for now and will crack on with the next book when the time is right for me.
(Compiled By Sanjitha Rao Chaini)