An Indian Odyssey by Martin Buckley

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An Indian Odyssey by Martin Buckley

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Category: Travel
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A though-provoking recreation of the journey of Lord Rama in Ramayana gives a look at modern India, warts and all. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: July 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099458906

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More than a quarter of a century ago Martin Buckley went to Sri Lanka and then on to India. It was time off before settling down to the business of earning a living. Two things happened to him – he fell in love with India and knew that he wanted to stay there - and he discovered the Ramayana. Valmiki's epic was written round about 500 to 700 BC – much the same time as Homer's Odyssey (the title of this book is a very clever play on words) – but it still holds a central place in the hearts and minds of Indians although it is strangely unknown in the West. Ramayana – The Wanderings of Rama – tells the story of Lord Rama's search for his kidnapped wife and his subsequent battles with Ravan. Much of it is certainly myth. Some may well be based on fact, but it's inspirational and has achieved the status of Holy Writ.

It was a long-held dream to recreate the journey undertaken by Rama. On his earlier visit he had intentions of visiting some of the sites associated with Rama, but was distracted by his female companion. Our itinerary turned west, towards Allahabad and Bodhgaya, the birthplace of Buddha. I was pursuing not Buddhism but orgasm – not the ineffable, but the effable. On his return in the twenty-first century, leaving wife and family at home, he was more single-minded and followed the journey undertaken by Rama from his birthplace at Ayhodhya in northern India to the final confrontation with Ravan in Sri Lanka. He travelled, perilously on occasion, by motor bike, bus, train and light plane.

There are four journeys in the book. The first – the root of everything – is Rama's journey as told in the Ramayana. Buckley retells the story and it runs as a thread throughout the book. We see not just the story itself, but how it has influenced modern India. It's interpreted differently in several parts of the country, even as a colonial war with the lighter-skinned northern Indians being seen as invading and colonising the lands of the indigenous darker-skinned Indians.

Buckley's earlier trip to India sets the scene for what is to follow. The nineteen eighties was a time of civil war in Sri Lanka and the politics and the horror are conveyed with sensitivity and understanding. There's a sharp contrast when Buckley moves on to the parental home in Ooty in Southern India but he'd made up his mind that he was determined to stay and work in the country. As a journalist and broadcaster he's since worked in over forty countries and it was with this background that he returned to India some quarter of a century later.

Buckley's telling of his recreation of Rama's journey is compelling. He has the ability to bring people and places alive in a few words. From Ayodhya, along the Ganges and through the cremation ghats at Varanasi, he visits all the sites, or supposed sites, associated with Rama. What evolves is a picture of modern India in all its beauty, squalor, corruption and kindness. It's not tourist India, but the India inhabited by Indians and the storyteller in Buckley conveys it to perfection.

The final journey is one that I suspected would be intrinsic to the book and one that I wasn't looking forward to. Buckley tells of his spiritual journey, his reawakening as he travels through India. Despite my initial scepticism this proved to be the most intriguing part of the book. Because he takes the approach that religion should not be explained and makes no attempt to proselytize what develops is a thoughtful exploration of the way in which the Ramayana affected him spiritually. It was thought-provoking and lyrical in places.

This book isn't an easy or a quick read. It's one to savour and consider: a hurried read would simply not do it justice. As a book reviewer with a pile of books waiting to be read it was a rare indulgence to spend nearly a week on one book, but I'm glad I treated myself.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For another trip to India we can recommend Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India by Rory MacLean. If a trip across Africa appeals then we don't think that you can do any better than Traversa by Fran Sandham.

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Buy An Indian Odyssey by Martin Buckley at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy An Indian Odyssey by Martin Buckley at


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