Monday, January 23, 2012

Johnny Fincioen's "India Charming Chaos": Book Review

For five weeks, this Flemish couple, now living in California, visited Northern India. Dozens of temples filled their itinerary, and as with their dutifully memorizing guides, the array of facts and dates slowed the pace of how much they or we the readers could keep up with such unfamiliar data. So, illustrations help us take in images when words may tire. Johnny Fincioen wrote the text and his wife Claudine Van Massenhove took 178 photos, some within the pages and many more linked to the e-book. These capture what words cannot, and the combination of Johnny’s careful, precise descriptions, and his Claudine’s photos make this a virtual slide show, as it were, with extended narration. (I’ll call them by their first names, as they become familiar here as if characters themselves.)

I liked Johnny's observations about Indian culture and modernization within tradition. Social engineering’s impact on the poor in education earns thoughtful consideration; “affirmative action” programs fail rather than ease disparity. Long-term implications of “gendercide” also gain reflection as female fetuses are aborted throughout Asia. The culture so reliant on inequality makes itself known as Johnny and Claudine are treated far more considerately by many of their hosts than how Indians treat each other.

Johnny offers novel insights into Flanders-Indian ties to nationalism, cultural celebrations, religion, and WWI memorials. He keeps a jaundiced view of how religion generates scams, no matter the faith. He wearies rapidly of business as usual full of middlemen, bribes, and “offerings.” The wealthy build Hindu temples to generate donations from the poor while owners rake in tax-free, untraceable income. Still, “charitable contributions” given by the couple for hard work done do get money directly to those who labor to serve tourists and who merit reward for diligence, and this, the author reasons, beats handouts.

An afterword by Dr. “Reddy” balances with a Hindu’s perspective, perhaps to counter the skeptical view of Johnny advanced doggedly in the previous 250-odd pages. Similarly, a forward by Dr. Koenraad Elst from Antwerp sets this narrative within a context of how India’s policies have or have not advanced the nation, and how the impacts of technology will alter what his compatriots have seen in these pages.

Traffic congestion, lack of rules, roadblocks for the Delhi-Mumbai highway to create business along the side of the road, the stenches and sights and smells--all are described with clarity and wit. Luckily for the couple who have a background in exporting Belgian beer, Kingfisher bottles, if no comparison for their native brands, manage to show up in most places they visit. While the details do weigh down the narrative at times, more a journal for privately recalling one’s hosts and costs and purchases rather than one a reader might expect, the level of attentiveness to such a journey’s requirements and expenses does put you in the same position as Johnny and Claudine as they deal with the unexpected detours as well as the planned itinerary. One learns not to plan too tightly, too cheaply, nor too ambitiously!

For a multilingual writer, Johnny does a solid job of expressing his honest, forthright report in conversational English, and the added angle which he and his wife’s Flemish upbringing and European mindsets provide enriches their encounters as set out on the page.  The book may err on the side of generosity when it comes to the level of information shared. For once, we get a travel account which does not edit out any meal, driver, payment, meeting, or sight seen.

The e-book is split into two volumes due to the welcome abundance of photos. The first half goes from Delhi to Naguar and Jaipur, then to Agra and the Taj Mahal. Orchha, Khajuraho, Varanasi and the Ganges, Allahabad, Kanpur, Bithoor, and Old Delhi comprise part two. 

The amount of data about temples and lunches and accommodations may please those wanting to consult this as a practical guide for planning a similarly ambitious and thorough visit. For me, as for now a traveler only via a book, this reminded me of listening to a sharp-eyed, sharp-witted pair who’d come back from a journey with lots of photos to share and lots to relate. We hear—language barriers permitting-- from everyday Indians, and not only guides or docents. This adds to the grittier texture of the travelogue, but it may make its fidelity to the daily grind too burdensome for some. How much detail is welcome and how much is overwhelming may depend on how much you as an audience wish to hear or see. Overall, passing these data heaps amassed along the couple's long Indian road, it’s an intelligently rendered, if very minute-by-minute, intensive journey worth following.

Johnny sums up wryly one of India’s newest inventions: "Nano, the mini-car sitting twenty Indians on four seats." He and Claudine see, one morning in Orchha, silent old men crossing a river bridge into the jungle. These eccentrics move as if zombies "with their eyes set on infinity and their brainwaves tuned to zero." Such scenes, and Johnny’s humanistic but business-savvy tone, make this a fine companion for an armchair traveler, and one which may inspire some readers to become actual visitors to India themselves. There they can match their own perspectives with those captured by Claudine’s camera.

(I note I was provided a copy online {Kindle E-book] of this by the author who requested my review, posted on Amazon US 12-19-11.)


Tony Bailie said...

I find travel books and features quite hard to read, even though I'm presently trying to distill my recent two weeks in India into a 1,000 word newspaper article. India is such a sensual place to visit in terms of sights, sounds, smells and tastes but it also challenges you mentally, especially if you travel alone. Too often I find travel writers seem to use what they have experienced as a simple jumping off point to exercise their jewelled prose, witty/profound insights and observations. Thubron's To A Mountain in Tibet draws on deeper wells of insight and he, like Manchan Magan, seems prepared to strip back and let us examine his own psyche and the hidden layers that the experience of travel have exposed.
Unfortunately I'm not brave enough to do that which is probably why my article will be an exercise in witty/profound insights and observations with hopefully some jewelled prose.

Fionnchú said...

Tony, astute comments on Magan & Thubron, two of my favorite travel writers for precisely the reasons you note. As rather reticent narrators, they peer out at a new realm and into themselves without the sense they must play to an audience with the usual tropes and spins. Instead, they scrutinize their own reactions, and in the midst of crowds as in solitude, they face the human, and the inexplicable.

I look forward to your account. A thousand words? That will be a feat to compress so much into an article. Best wishes with it!