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Reviews: India: 10/10. Shantaram 3/10

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I know.  You can’t really review a whole country.

Railway station in Chennai – all photos Robert Pimm

Especially not India: more than 13 times the size of the UK, massively diverse, and packed with history.

But I wanted to write for two reasons.  I’ve just made my second visit, to Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry.  I’m writing this in Chennai.  My first visit, a couple of years ago, was to Kerala and Goa.  Yes, I need to visit the north of India too.

Second, I’ve been reminded of one of the finest pieces of parodic writing I know: a review of “Shantaram”, a 2003 novel by Gregory David Roberts.  The novel itself is in my view almost beyond parody; but gets roughly 90% positive reviews on Amazon.  I was with the 10%, and found the review by R Gray laugh-out-loud hilarious.

“Shantaram” sums up the challenges for a non-Indian person wanting to engage with such a tumultuous, many-layered place.  The hero of the book depicts himself as someone who has got to the heart of India, with countless adventures and love affairs along the way, thereby earning himself plaudits from every person he meets.

Who wouldn’t want to do that?

Understanding India is a seductive concept.  No wonder people like to read “Shantaram”, whose title, characteristically, refers to the author himself and means “Man of God’s Peace”; and feel they’ve come closer to discovering the place, or themselves.

I would give “Shantaram” 3/10 on the basis that although the hero is irritating beyond measure, it’s a pretty fast-moving read.  But overall, as at the rather New Age-ish idealistic settlement of Auroville, which I also visited, I am reminded of this postcard published by the admirable – I urge you to buy their products:

Copyright Gathered Images – tons of good stuff

So I won’t go further in these attempts to sum up the richness that is India except to publish below a few photos taken over the past week, and to make three observations:

(i) India is indeed, as the slogan says, Incredible, and worth a visit;

(ii) in Chennai in particular I saw much evidence of rapid economic growth, in what a recent FT article argued may already be the world’s most populous country;

(iii) much also remains in India which is traditional, in terms both of customs and historical artefacts.  Long may both remain preserved.

Pictures below, in rough chronological order:

Nurses crossing the street near Chennai’s historic nursing college

Family group with 1,400 year-old statue at “5 Rathas”, Mahabalipuram


Visiting the Shore Temple, built 700-728 AD, also Mahabalipuram

The Elephant God Ganesha decorates a bus in Pondicherry

Kamakshi Amman Temple, Kanchipuram, with bell-tower and Gopuram (entrance tower)

The mighty Ekambareshwara Temple, Kanchipuram, is mostly 10thC

Brahmans at the 7thC Kailasanatha Temple, Kanchipuram

One of countless street vendors between Kanchipuram and Chennai

You can see a few other photos of India if you follow my Twitter account (see sides of blog) or my Instagram account robert_pimm.  I’ve also published a wodge of photos on my Facebook page.

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