13 May 2018



'(You need) a horn, good brakes and nerves of steel to drive in India.'

I've always wanted to wander around a foreign country, referring conspicuously to my hard-backed guidebook and loudly saying things like: 'Yes, well, according to my Bradshaw...!' Lucky old Michael Portillo, posh bloke and former Conservative MP who has served under both Margaret Thatcher and John Major, gets to do exactly that in this excellent travel series, one of the best I've ever seen.

The Bradshaw's in question is a travel guide from 1913, properly entitled BRADSHAW'S HANDBOOK OF INDIAN, FOREIGN AND COLONIAL TRAVEL and Michael- he won't mind us calling him that- refers to it constantly on his travels around India.

India, of course, was still under British rule back in 1913. They didn't achieve their independence until 1947. This particular subject is so fascinating and absorbing that I was thrilled to see that it's mentioned frequently throughout the four episodes of the documentary.

Of course, it would be hard to talk about India without making reference to the ninety or so years that this beautiful country was under British rule. The series doesn't shy away from discussing British atrocities while ruling India, rather it's open and honest about these things. 

Like the time when British soldiers under a chap called Reginald Dyer opened fire, inexplicably, on a group of thousands of Indians who had been to see the fabulous Golden Temple at Amritsar, Michael's first stop. This happened in 1919, but it hasn't been forgotten about yet. 

Michael refers to it as 'surely one of the most disgraceful moments in the whole of the British Empire.' Well, let's just say that the actions of Reginald Dyer, sent to quell unrest among nationalist factions who, even, as early as 1919, were calling for independence, didn't do much for Anglo-Indian relations.

The Golden Temple, a fabulous structure set by a tranquil lake, lies at the heart of the Sikh religion and is adored by all Sikhs. Michael visits the Temple, but only after donning a headscarf, taking off his shoes and washing his tootsies in a specially laid on bath thingy.

This 'spectacular spiritual complex,' founded in 1588, has 10,000 visitors daily and they all get a free meal, regardless of their religion, cooked and served up by volunteers. Nice, eh...? 'The meal is served with speed and accuracy.' Well, I guess it'd have to be if you're feeding the multitudes daily, lol. It kind of makes the whole Biblical loaves and fishes thing pale by comparison, if that's not too blasphemous to say. Which of course it totally is. I'll have the Christians on my back now for that...!

On to Ludhiana then, where Michael visits the Christian Medical School. Medicine is a big deal in India, where 50,000 doctors are trained yearly. We get a lot of students from India and Pakistan studying at our Royal College of Surgeons here in Dublin, as it's apparently a very prestigious school for would-be doctors.

The Christian Medical School, known formerly as the Womens' Medical School, was founded in 1894 by Dame Edith Brown, a doctor with the Baptist Missionary Society (if she's not English I'll eat my hat!), when she saw that Muslim women had no access to healthcare.

Here, she trained women to become doctors and midwives and her name is still respected today amongst the staff of the school, one of whom made medical history herself when she had the world's first scalp and face transplant after she got her pigtails caught in a threshing machine. Yes, I know. I'm actually trying not to think about it too deeply...

Back on the crowded choo-choo Michael goes, to drink free chai tea and chat easily with the incredibly friendly and open, smiley Indian people who are his co-travellers. Twenty-three million passengers use the Indian railway system daily, after all. That's a lot of travellers.

'You don't get people riding on the roofs any more, do you?' Michael smilingly asks one of the men, obviously referring to the old stereotyped image of overcrowded Indian trains that we get from television shows like THE SIMPSONS. Amazingly, the answer comes back: 'Well, not as much any more...!' You will note that the practice hasn't altogether been eradicated, then.

More history now as Michael travels the border between India and Pakistan where a lot of blood was spilled around the time that India finally gained her independence from Britain. What should have been a time for rejoicing was marred by chaos and killings as Hindus and Sikhs scurried to the part of India that was still called India and Muslims fled to the part that is now known as Pakistan. This extremely painful process was known as Partition.

England apparently was a bit smug about the fact that India seemed to fall apart the minute they left it but, as they hadn't put anything in place for after their departure or even done a proper hand-over of power, what did they expect was going to happen?

This giant exodus of people was characterised by brutal violence and even rapes and abductions. The independence that India had longed for was marred by this initial hatred and recrimination, and apparently the lasting image of Partition was of 'the moving train, loaded with corpses.' That fair chills the blood a bit, anyway.

Onto Ambala now, where Michael visits the largest cloth market in India and gets fitted for a really snazzy kurta and pyjama, the brightly-coloured knee-length smock worn by Indian men with pyjama-style trousers. Very becoming, Michael. I think you might just have found your look...!

Michael visits the ultra-modern city of Chandigarh, built after Independence to be 'a symbol of the nation's faith in the future.' Designed by a chap called Le Corbusier to be a kind of Utopian city, it's got greenery and flowers everywhere and an orderly network of traffic systems and roundabouts.

Many, many roundabouts. You could get lost in them, the one flaw in the otherwise perfect design of Le Corbusier, who envisioned 'a timeless kind of architecture' with 'nothing remotely Indian about it...!' Well, then.

I adored the bit where Michael took the Kalka-to-Shimla line, 'one of the world's most celebrated railway lines.' It rises up to a distance of eighty miles and navigates the doubtless precarious route up and down the mountain- the Himalayas, no less!- and on the top of this mountain is where the British Viceroy used to spend his summers. La-di-dah, eh?

That's right, back in the day India's British administration used to decamp here for six to eight months of the year- that's a bloody long summer, innit?- and ruled India from the tiny village on top of the mountain. Can you imagine the kerfuffle of trying to get everyone and everything up and down the mountain twice a bloody year...?

It was the place where the toffs came to hobnob with each other and a certain Rudyard Kipling was a society journalist here as well. The Independence negotiations were also held here at Shimla, India's summer capital for a whopping seventy-five years.

It must have been like a different world to the one we live in now, literally like something out of the history books. What I'd give to go back in time and get just a peep at one of their posh dos...! The opinionated men with twirly moustaches, setting the world to rights over brandy and cigars, and the women, all in white summer dresses and massive hats and parasols to protect their white British skin against the burning Indian sun, gossiping away and instructing the Indian ayahs on how to look after their precious little charges.

Anyway, watch all four episodes and you can join Michael as he learns about the two Opium Wars between Britain and China, the Indian Railway Library which greatly benefited that certain Rudyard Kipling, and that magnificent piece of architecture Taj Mahal, 'the greatest monument to love the world has ever seen.'

Find out about the poet and author Rabindranath Tagore, the peace activist Mahatma Gandhi, the jolly bunch of chaps known as The East India Company, India's gold-mining and silk production businesses, the IT startups worth millions, if not billions, of bucks, and something known as the Siege of Lucknow which happened in 1857.

One of my favourite bits is where Michael visits Bodh Gaya, the town known as 'the cradle of Buddhism,' and sees for himself where Buddha found enlightenment through meditation under the bodhi tree. 

'Have you achieved enlightenment yourself yet?' Michael asks a visitor from Singapore, who bursts out laughing at the question. 'Ah come on,' the visitor replies. 'I'm only here for a month...!'



Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens' fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra's books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:


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