‘Around The World In 80 Trains’: Monisha Rajesh On Writing, Wanderlust

Monisha Rajesh

From the author of Around India in 80 Trains comes another telling experience of a train journey — this time, a 45,000-mile adventure around the world. UK-based Monisha Rajesh, offering a fascinating account of life and culture, has penned another reflective tale with Around the World in 80 Trains.

SheThePeople.TV spoke with Monisha Rajesh about her latest work that was published in January this year, her experiences as a female traveller, challenges along her way and more.

What connects you the most to train journeys? Why did you decide it was time for this book?

In 2010, I spent four months travelling on Indian Railways, which became my first book, Around India in 80 Trains. Before I set off, I wasn’t particularly enthralled by trains, they just seemed like the easiest, most economical way of travelling the length and breadth of the country and allowing me to mingle with a cross-section of Indian society that I otherwise wouldn’t have such privileged and direct access to. However, I returned home to London not realising that a bit of the railways had come away with me. Everywhere that I travelled after that, I found myself drawn towards trains, and unable to keep off the rails.

I decided to write another book that explored railways around the world to see if I could emulate the adventure I’d had on Indian Railways – but on a grander scale

The book chronicles your journey, interactions and conversations too. Personally, how has this particular writing process been?

For seven months, I sat next to everyone from Tibetan nuns and Thai monks to teachers, railroaders and runaways, German Baptist Brethren, North Korean minders, Russian barristers, American retirees, Chinese newly-weds, and the terminally ill. Each day brought a new story and a new perspective that left a small, but indelible mark. Sifting through these experiences to pick the most significant ones was the hardest part of the writing process, but bringing them to life again was easy — each one was memorable in their unique way. My job was simply to capture their mannerisms, intonation and character and recreate the moment.

Monisha Rajesh

Tell us about your experience as a woman on this trip.

I travelled with my fiancé, now husband, largely because this was the kind of adventure that most people wait a lifetime to undertake together and it seemed crazy to leave him behind. Many male travel writers have been accompanied by their wives and girlfriends on their journeys, and much as it would have been bold and glorious to travel solo, I was being realistic and practical about the safety aspect of travelling alone for seven months and I didn’t care what people thought of me for taking him.

As a brown woman, you’re not always treated favourably in certain countries and I was harassed in suburban Moscow, groped on board the Trans-Mongolian, and chased into an ammunitions shop in Almaty, Kazakhstan. But those were exceptions, and for the most part, I felt perfectly safe. And even though my husband was there, I spent most of my time wandering off, sitting at one end of the train and with him at the other. Then we’d meet to exchange stories and introduce new friends. In fact, as a woman writer, I was at an advantage: when in group settings, most people paid little or no attention to me and focused their conversations on my husband, leaving me the perfect opportunity to make notes, eavesdrop on conversations and slink around undetected.

What were roadblocks that came your way during this extensive journey?

Logistically, it wasn’t easy to plan a 45,000-mile journey over seven months through 26 countries, with visa requirements and inevitable delays and cancellations that could have derailed the whole trip. But with some surgical precision and neurotic timekeeping, I managed to make it happen without feeling restricted.

What was the hardest thing about writing the book? How long did it take for you to write it?

I gave birth to my daughter eight months before my manuscript was due to be submitted to my editor. While pregnant, I’d already written 15,000 words, focusing on the most complex parts of my book – Tibet and North Korea – but I had another 95,000 to go.

When my daughter was born, I gave myself four weeks off and then got back to work — writing every day from 7am until 10pm — on less than four hours’ sleep, often breastfeeding my newborn while I typed. I realised that if I could do that, I could do anything and completed the first draft in nine months

Who are the women who have inspired you?

My mum. When we were babies, she took a break from training as a plastic surgeon to make sure that we didn’t have nannies and that we were reading and writing long before we started school. Her input in our formative years was immense and initially came at the expense of her own career, but she didn’t let that stop her and went on to become a senior GP and was made a fellow of the Royal College of General Practitioners in her fifties.

My mother made me see that hard work and persistence will take you anywhere at any age

Travel writing is stepping up to be a highly popular medium these days. What do you have to say about that?

Naysayers are always sounding the death knell for travel writing and it’s not going to go away – any more than our love of people and stories is going to go away. All that the internet, blogs, Google, Instagram and Twitter have done is force travel writers to be more rigorous in their research, finding new angles and unexplored territory and that can only be a good thing.

It’s also heartening to see more and more women moving into the genre which has traditionally been a male-dominated area  

Monisha Rajesh

Monisha, writing on the Sunset Limited Amtrak train from New Orleans to Los Angeles.

Which are the experiences while travelling which have been life changing for you?

While researching my first book, I sat through a Vipassana course in South India, which completely changed my outlook on life. Sitting in silence for ten days with nothing but your thoughts for company can only bring about extraordinary changes in your psyche and it forced me to confront my most intense mental struggles. It also taught me about the significance of impermanence and that everything arises to disappear; holding on to anger, disappointment and resentment are pointless as they only ever destroy you and no one else. Since then, I’ve found that the skills that I learnt have become a part of my everyday existence and whenever I’m tired or stressed, getting barged out of the way on the Tube or unable to sleep, I begin to meditate and use the technique to settle myself and it’s the most invaluable tool I have at my disposal.

What would your advice be to any woman who wants to zone into travelling, is there a particular mindset needed to take this journey on?

You have to be open-minded and be willing to accept anything that comes your way. Being able to adapt quickly to cultures and lifestyles that you might find different from your own is a must unless you want to sit in a hotel room alone every night with no one to talk to. It also depends on what kind of travel you want to undertake. If you’re the kind of person who needs to have creature comforts at hand, then backpacking and slumming it in hostels might not be the best option, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but make sure you’ve done your research before you arrive in a new place and know what you’re getting yourself into. That said, you can always take along small things that make you feel a bit more at home: favourite tea bags, a pair of comfy socks, a luxurious face cream and a playlist of familiar tunes.

You have to be open-minded and be willing to accept anything that comes your way

Any future literary plans?

Definitely. However, my second baby is due in June and I’m going to take a break for now and enjoy her.

Feature Image Credit: Marc Sethi

Also Read: Meet Shivya Nath, At 23 She Gave Up Her Home To Travel

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