Amazon sales commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project,
University of California, Berkeley, CA.
The following review appeared 2 May 2013 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2013 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
The Indian Equator: Mark Twain's India Revisited is not, strictly speaking, a sequel to Strathcarron's book, Innocence and War: Mark Twain's Holy Land Revisited, but, from a stylistic and thematic standpoint, the reader could be forgiven for thinking of this book as "deja vu all over again." In the earlier book, Strathcarron set out to follow the route Twain took when he traveled with the "innocent" American tourists through Europe and the Holy Land, the "great pleasure excursion" that was the basis for his first best-selling work, The Innocents Abroad. For The Indian Equator: Mark Twain's India Revisited, Strathcarron applies the same strategy, mimicking the 1896 trip taken across India with Livy, Clara, and his tour manager, Carlyle G. Smythe, the trip that would constitute the basis for the largest section of Following the Equator. As in the first book, Strathcarron is obsessive in the detail to which he attempts to follow the route of the Twain party, seeking out the sights Twain described, the train routes they followed, and, where possible, the hotels they stayed in and the places where Twain gave the lectures that paid off his debts after the collapse of his Webster and Company publishing house. His determination to replicate Twain's 1896 trip includes comic touches, e.g., renaming his Indian guide Sita, after a Hindu goddess, an ironic tribute to Twain's substitution of the unpronounceable name of his own guide with the more accessible (especially for Twain) moniker, Satan.
The route followed in the "Strathcarron Re-Tour" replicates, as closely as possible given practical and political obstacles, the route of the Twain party through the India of the Raj era, the period of British domination between the Sepoy uprising of 1857 and the partition and independence of modern India in 1947. It includes the cities of Bombay (Mumbai), Poona, Baroda, Allahabad, Benares, Calcutta (Kolkata), Darjeeling, Muzaffarpur, Lucknow, Cawnpore (Kanpur), Agra, Jaipur, Delhi and Lahore and Rawalpindi, the latter two in modern-day Pakistan, necessitating navigation through a bureaucratic nightmare Twain likely never encountered. This is a journey that Twain, with Clara, Livy, and his acquired agent for the trip, Smythe, as well as Satan, covered in a span of two-and-a-half months, a reminder that, despite his then six-decade cigar-smoking history, Twain was still up to the strenuous requirements of world travel when circumstances, i.e., the self-imposed moral necessity of paying his creditors, demanded it.
Twain had ample opportunity to record his travel observations in the course of his India itinerary, since his speaking obligations consisted of delivering variants of the "At Home" lecture he had been giving in the preceding U.S., Canadian, New Zealand and Australian legs of his tour. From the start, Twain was entranced by his encounter with Bombay, which he described as "A bewitching place, a bewildering place, an enchanting place"--a judgment quoted by Strathcarron, who is in apparent agreement more than a century later. An encounter Twain likely could not have enjoyed anywhere else in his world, with one of India's most revered gurus, prompted Twain to write that "We got along very well together, and I found him a most pleasant and friendly deity. Meeting him was a strange sensation, and thrilling. I wish I could feel it stream through my veins again." Strathcarron, as far as can be known from his account, did not enjoy a similar experience, but nonetheless, like Twain, thought it important to learn something about "that mainstay of Indian Life," Hinduism. His digression on the subject of Hinduism is useful for its insight into the undefinable array of ideas, gods and practices which somehow bind the nation's 1.2 billion inhabitants.
Population, and crowding, are aspects of India, then and now, which figure prominently in the experiences of the Twain entourage and Strathcarron's party of three. As Strathcarron notes, however, given the estimated population of about 150 million in Twain's era, and an eightfold increase since then, Twain's experience of crowding must have been decidedly different. Accompanying the population explosion is a concomitant increase in congestion and noise pollution that presents a challenge to any but the most determined modern-day traveler. Other changes include the deterioration encountered by Strathcarron with depressing frequency when he locates the site of a Twain visit. In Baroda, on reaching the guest house of the Maharaja of Gwaekor, where the Twain party stayed, Strathcarron notes that "the solidly cubed eight-room guesthouse has fallen on hard times, being a crumbling squat for the lowest castes, feral dogs and listless--if still holy--cows" (p.35).
There are, however, many sights common to both travelers, including the air and water pollution, the dramatic disparity between the rich and poor classes living in close proximity, and the packs of freely-roaming monkeys. The caste system which was entrenched in Twain's time is no less evident in Strathcarron's India, underscored in dramatic fashion by the cremation ghats witnessed by both Twain and Strathcarron on the banks of the Ganges in Benares. The extraordinary sight of burning bodies in open sight was arresting to both travelers, who stopped at the Manikarnika Ghat, described by Strathcarron as "the most auspicious place for rich or high-caste Hindus to be sent on their way to the next incarnation" (p.74). Strathcarron then digresses into a detailed discussion of the caste-driven differences between "A-level" and "C-level" cremations which concludes with the fate of the "D-listers" who don't warrant, and can't afford, cremation, but are instead "soaked and drowned into the next life (p.85)" at the Harishchandra Ghat, a spectacle witnessed by Strathcarron and Twain.
Scattered throughout the book are references and asides relating to the Sepoy uprising against the British in 1857 and its brutal suppression. These discussions serve to re-create the context in which Twain would have understood the India he observed, still under the rule of an imposed bureaucracy and military presence that would last for another half century.
Twain's travels through the India of the Raj period are often punctuated with visits to memorials to the British victors of the Sepoy uprising, e.g., the "Residency" complex in Lucknow in which British soldiers and their families endured a siege lasting four-and-a-half months until saved by the arrival of outside relief. Strathcarron underscores, through reliance on Twain's own descriptions of these sites and his version of the then recent history, Twain's strong Anglophile leanings and his tendency to view the Indians as beneficiaries of the Empire. Having the obvious benefit of hindsight, Strathcarron is not convinced by Twain's argument that the Raj was, relatively speaking, less oppressive than the rule of the East India Company it replaced, but the discussion is a reminder that the anti-imperialism for which Twain would become known a scant few years later, especially in such writings as "To the Person Sitting in Darkness," was not, at least in 1896, all-encompassing.
Strathcarron's digressions are critical for an understanding of the cultural and historical forces with which Twain was either familiar or made aware of in the course of his itinerary. In addition, as an added bonus, his digressions regarding the pitfalls of travel in today's India are of consequential value to the reader who wishes to tackle the challenges inherent in traversing the country. From eating, tipping, and proper temple protocol, as well as the pre-eminent requirements of successful travel in India, adaptability and patience, Strathcarron's book is a primer for the prospective traveler in this exotic, but demanding, country. For matters as mundane as city transport, for example, Strathcarron describes a useful method for using the tides of foot and motor traffic to accomplish the otherwise daunting task of crossing a street and, be forewarned, when your turn comes, an ample supply of earplugs is an absolute necessity. Since authenticity was one of Strathcarron's goals, his sacrifice, in his reliance on rail transport, even when unnecessary, is salutary, although, by his own account, required the acquisition of an ability to utilize his elbows likely unnecessary for Twain, not to mention Clara and Livy. His advice is experienced-based, without the taint of pedantry, and is often applicable to specific venues, such as Kolkata (Calcutta):
Kolkata is not an early riser so the sightseer or history hound has a normally-populated city to explore until about 10:30 a.m. when the working day starts. After that you have to take your chances with the broad masses en masse, and boy, are they broad and en masse. There isn't one square piece of sidewalk that isn't being slept on by night or sold from by day--or used by rushing coolies with enormous bundles on their heads (p. 114).
The Indian Equator is bookended with clippings from contemporary editions of The New York Times which provide the context for Twain's 1896 trip--first, accounts regarding the debts he had accumulated with the collapse of his publishing house and, finally, the successful payment of his indebtedness following the equally successful journey and lecture tour. Throughout the book are extended sections of Twain's observations from Following the Equator. The illustrations are primarily contemporary black-and-white photographs taken by Strathcarron's spouse, Gillian, with a sprinkling of reproduced drawings from the original 1897 edition of Following the Equator. There is no bibliography and no section of endnotes, only scattered explanatory footnotes in the body of the manuscript.
Strathcarron's research for this "Re-Tour" is implicit. This research is quite evident in nearly every site visited by Strathcarron, when he finds that library curators and bureaucrats alike are blissfully unaware of Twain's visit to their city and require his assistance to locate ancient hotels or public speaking venues.
Strathcarron's second effort at following in Twain's footsteps
ultimately suffers by comparison with his first, for obvious reasons. In Mark
Twain's Holy Land Revisited, Strathcarron's platform was not only Twain's
itinerary, but Twain's frequent caustic commentary on the fawning attitudes
of the travelers to Old World shams and the striking differences he frequently
encountered between the myth and reality of the venerated shrines of the Holy
Land. Twain also utilized comic relief in the form of the foibles of the Quaker
City retinue, including such characters as Bloodgood Cutter, the "Poet
Lariat" of the group, and, not surprisingly, himself, as the embarrassed
observer of the Parisian "can-can" who placed a hand over his eyes,
but spread his fingers apart. These elements were missing from Twain's India
journey. Thus, Strathcarron's task in the present book is hampered from the
start, often confined to a literal stepping in Twain's footsteps accompanied
by a discourse on the history of a particular site and a detailed description
of its present state of decay and neglect. Nonetheless, those who have read
Following the Equator can profit from Strathcarron's contrasts and
comparisons of past and present and his detailed discussion of the political,
economic and religious strains that characterized the sprawling, densely-populated
India of the Raj, and the sprawling, densely-populated India in its present-day
independent era, smaller in territory following the division between Hindu
India and Islamic Pakistan. In a section of Following the Equator quoted
by Strathcarron, Twain observes "You soon realize that India is not beautiful;
still there is an enchantment about it that is beguiling, and which does not
pall. You cannot tell just what it is that makes the spell, perhaps, but you
feel it and confess it, nevertheless." The Indian Equator: Mark Twain's
India Revisited reinforces the fact that Twain's assessment remains valid
for the twenty-first century.