‘Without Reservations: The Travels of An Independent Woman’ by Alice Steinbach

aliceDo you remember that exhilarating feeling when you meet someone and instantly feel connected? Your thoughts seem to be similar, you react to things the same way, you even seem to complete each other’s sentences and you decide, at last, I’ve found someone who totally gets me. Then, you get to know more of each other and a sense of foreboding starts creeping up, the sixth sense that seldom goes wrong tries to warn you that what you see may not be what you get. And ultimately, a sense of resignation, a foreboding feeling of being fooled does you in. That’s exactly what happened to me with this book.

Alice Steinbach, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist had always dreamed about chucking it all and seeking out an unencumbered life free of plans and schedules, at least temporarily. And she does just that, her sons having moved out and she herself having reached a phase in life where she could afford to do it. The book is a chronicle of her journey through Paris, London, Oxford and Italy over a period of six to seven months.

The connect was instant. The yearnings and the apprehensions were very familiar. On one side were the years of longing to go out on one’s own, be just who you are sans any limiting definitions of being a daughter, wife, sister, mother, professional and all hundreds of labels by which one is defined. On the other side, the thoughts of whether one could actually do it, that nagging feeling of what would the family and friends say, however sure you are they would encourage you. These were the exact thoughts that seemed to have gone through the author’s mind as well. The beginning was quite exciting. The flutter in your heart as you anticipate the unknown, interspersed with the excitement of finally doing something that you have always wanted to. Adding to the lure was the thought that here is a woman who seemed to have transcended the need for a man in her life, one who could stand on her own and enjoy  life on her own terms.

The fascination started waning even before Paris was done. It was probably a mismatch in expectations. Here I was on one side, with an audacity to think that a prize winning Baltimore Sun columnist’s journey would be similar to a nobody’s week long solo trip to an unknown place. The fault is entirely mine. Instead of on a shoe string budget sojourn across Europe that was expected, what I got was exquisitely beautiful people, exotic shopping and dining in gourmet restaurants. And of course, an adoring and understanding, rich Japanese man who falls in love with you at first sight. Yes, the fault is entirely mine, what right did I have to expect anything different?

Paris is detailed and charming as expected, London a little less so, Oxford is fine and Italy is a rush. More than the places, it is the people and the author’s reminiscences that stayed with me and that is what I loved about the book. I was amazed at the manner in which she strikes conversations people and how she is able to get their stories out so easily. But then, that’s what she’s been doing for a living is a consoling thought. The one thread that runs through is the bonding between women, wherever you go and whatever you do. After a certain age, the rivalry for men is long gone, women gets to know and is comfortable in their own space and they realize that other women are their best allies. The liberated feeling is so well brought out in Jeanne Moreau‘s words as narrated by the author,

She told me that at twenty she was considered ‘unphotogenic’ and that it hurt her to read such a description. But as a woman in her fifties, she had stopped – and this is the way she put it – “looking into the mirror that others hold up to me”

What I found quite unsettling is the fact that in spite of portraying herself as the quintessential woman of today, she still seemed to feel incomplete without a man in her life. Even while writing about the places she traveled to and the people she met on the way, it was as if her mind was revolving around her Japanese love. Everything else felt incidental.

 

Verdict – Loved the language and her insights on places, relationships and life in general. Passing through a similar phase of trying to seek and find who I really am, I could relate to her thoughts. She failed to impress  as an independent woman, though. As mentioned earlier, could be a mismatch of what I wanted and what I got 🙂
An easy read, for a lazy afternoon. You will love it , if you love Danielle Steele novels.

3.5/5

(Bindu Manoj dabbles in numbers for a living, dreaming of words all the while. A mother of two, wife to one, sister to four and friend to many, she hoards books by the score. An arm chair traveler who does some real life off roading now and then, she prefers the moves and shakes of jeeps and trucks to the cushy comfort of normal vehicles. Her wandering soul muses at http://ruminateatleisure.wordpress.com/ and she ruminates her reads at http://wanderlustathome.wordpress.com/)

CHAI CHAI – A BOOK REVIEW.

Duties can be taught but not the responsibilities – Station Manager, Guntakal.

When Susan Deborah sent me two books, my first choice was Murakami’s “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman and other stories;” for obvious reasons that I have read Murakami before and Fiction is my genre. Bishwanath Ghosh is someone I had not read before…neither his column in The Hindu nor his books. Now, I can somewhat sheepishly deduce that I saved the best for the last!

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This is one of the non-fiction books (I like Biographies in this genre) that I could relate to. Though this book has got an overall rating of 3 on Goodreads, it made a delightful read. Traveling by trains is what I miss most. I used to travel regularly from Ahmedabad to Bangalore and vice versa  between the years 1993 – 2003…45 hours of journey on each side.  My two memorable longest train journeys were – 1. From Chennai to Srinagar in the Jammu Tawi Express for a college tour, where we spent 4 days on the train 2. From Calcutta to Bangalore, the Howrah Express….3 days of journey. They seemed like a life time then.

The Blurb –

Chai, Chai: Travels in Places Where You Stop But Never Get Off describes the brilliant journey that Bishwanath Ghosh undertook all over India. This book is not just about the wonderful places but the people he meets while on his adventure.

Biswanath Ghosh paints an amazing and mystical picture in this book, where he starts his journey from the Itarsi Station, Madhya Pradesh. Chai, Chai: Travels in Places Where You Stop But Never Get Off allows the reader to join the author-narrator while he experiences new places and faces. The beautiful sun, the rich cultural history and the people are all rendered with humor and love. One can almost feel the narrator going through the little lanes in Kanpur and then end up in Madras.

Whether one is drinking tea at a local café or sitting with numerous people in a local train, Ghosh breathes life into every moment. While speculating on life’s little moments, the author also realizes the amount of hours spent in waiting at railway junctions. The destinations are not just stations and stops for trains to drop commuters off. They represent a different life and a new adventure everyday. There are little towns that people have never heard of which Ghosh talks extensively about such as Shoranpur, Arakkonam, Itarsi, Jhansi and Mughal Sarai. What makes this work unique is that these places are described in terms of the people encountered. Trains play an important role in bringing people from all parts of the country and all walks of life together. This is where the true story lies.

Ghosh enriches this story with various descriptions and personal insights. The book is witty, humorous and helps rediscover those areas of India which most have forgotten about due to commercial tourism. No matter how obscure a town maybe, it still holds a rich cultural history which Ghosh describes with avid details.

Of all the railway junctions that have been mentioned in the book, I am one of those millions travelers who have set foot on some of these – Itarsi, Jhansi, Guntakal and Jolarpet. While traveling from Ahmedabad to Bangalore, we used to stop at one such junction – Jalgaon in Maharastra, maybe not as big and as famous as the others.

Excerpts from the book that I could relate to –

“India can have no better symbol for national integration than the railways. The railway reservation form doesn’t ask you anything beyond your name, age, gender and address. The journeys are not just about the leveling, but also about getting acquainted with each others culture, especially food habits.”

This is so true as I learned more about people by traveling with them than by just knowing them as neighbours. By the end of those grueling 45 hours we would have become very close friends, promising each other to stay in touch for a long long time. Well, promises are meant to be broken :)

And unlike me and billions of others, he did not carry the burden of proving anything to anyone. He was what he was – a simple man who claimed no special powers when he could easily have, living in the midst of people whose faith in religion can make them completely blind to reason.”

Even the simplest of lives must have a routine. Or maybe, it is the routine that makes lives simple.”

Such profound words for the Phalaahaari Baba whom he met in Mughal Sarai, the birthplace of India’s 2nd Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri.

About Benaras – “Technically, I was standing by a colourless river in a small town in UP, watching people go about their business. But the moment you identify the river and the twon, the earth under your feet becomes worthy of worship. Unlike other places whose history is measured in years, Banaras has defied time: its history is as enchanting as, and entwined with, that of the gods.”

This is what everyone who has been to Benaras say…the town never changes…this is somewhat refreshing in today’s time.

Eating roasted peanuts, or moong phali, is a great pastime in itself,  just like munching on popcorn at the movies. But there’s difference between popcorn and peanuts; you much on popcorn only when you go to the movies, whereas when you start munching on peanuts, life itself becomes a movie and you become a passive spectator for that entire duration, additively cracking open one shell after the other and putting the nuts into the mouth.” 

While talking to a friend about his former classmates, girls in particular, this is what he observes – “Girls were expected to migrate to a land called Marriage and become its faceless citizens. Their identities merged with that of their husbands, making it almost impossible for any former classmate to trace them out.” So true even in this day.

On the face of it, a sword-wielding queen and a gold medal-winning hockey wizard might appear to be belonging to two remote eras. But, Dhyanchand, in spite of the larger-than-life statue in Jhansi, is neither relevant nor remembered in present day, cricket crazy India. The towers of cellular phone companies, many of which are promoted by cricketers, stood taller than his statue and dominated the horizon of Jhansi.”

This poem about the statues of Khajuraho is amusing –

“Wave your magic wand,

Turn us into stones.

So that we get embedded

in the walls of Khajuraho.

We can make love in peace

For another thousand years.

The sun would not flinch at us

neither would the rain,

And no ugly human

to cry, ‘What a shame!’

They would only gape and wonder:

‘Does this pose have a name?”

On encountering a woman who by circumstances would have taken to prostitution – “This was a strange encounter: people usually spend an hour with a human being who had turned into a prostitute, but I had just spent an hour with a prostitute who was also human being.”  Wish all the people could think like this and make the life of prostitutes much better.

India had most number of mills which provided employment to the men…sometimes to the men of whole town. The mills were the life line and towns grew around these mills. Trade unions with their fight with the management gradually put an end to the mills across the country. “I have always wondered if there would have been trade unions or calls for strikes, had this been a woman’s and not a man’s world. had managements and trade unions been headed by women, I am sure they would have arrived at a mutual comprise during standoffs to ensure that the kitchen fires kept burning. Women rarely talk big or raise slogans: they are always in touch with what you call the ground reality.”

I liked this book because the author has introduced some history, a personal history relevant to the place he visited. The language is very simple, the anecdotes are subtle and at right places without making this a boring read. Reading this book was personally nostalgic for me.

 

Janaki Nagaraj, a blogger for a little more than 3 years is a full time homemaker. Poetry and tea her weaknesses along with all things sweet. Photography is a hobby for her as she has a cinematographer as her life partner and a daughter who is an amateur photographer too. Her son shares her passion for adventure and running.  Memoirs of a Homemaker, is her blog and Vithika, her picture gallery.