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The train of thought
Pen Friends
Paul Theroux at a city bookstore. Picture by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya

Paul Theroux is a man of strong dislikes. One V.S. Naipaul features in an older list (though Theroux will always tell you that he is a great fan of Sir Vidia). Right now, he isn’t terribly fond of the Publishers and Booksellers Guild. Sixteen hours’ notice is no way to call off something as big as the Book Fair, and Theroux makes no bones about the fact that “given a little more time, we would have planned our travels differently”.

One understands the importance of the words “plan” and “travel” to the author of The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express and Sailing Through China. His new book, which he released “symbolically” at the Oxford Bookstore on January 31, is called The Ghost Train. And the “ghost” is — hold your breath — Theroux himself! But that is only because when he went back to the places he visited more than 30 years ago, he felt like one, faced with pictures of change and decay, but also renewal.

“There are travel writers who write about themselves, and there are travel writers who write about other people,” he explains, and there can be no doubting which category he belongs to. The reason for Theroux is very simple — his own life is not half as interesting as each one of those he has met on his travels. He talks of the man in Myanmar who he thought was his twin. Exactly as old as Theroux and a retired schoolteacher — Theroux used to be one too — he lived on a pension which was far less than what he needed to support himself and his family. So he drove a cycle-rickshaw, which happened to have Theroux as a passenger. The story ended with Theroux giving him over $1,000 — “perhaps a month’s income for me but enough to keep him going for three years”.

Theroux wrote about this man, and about the American he met on a boat who said that he had given $1,200 to a young man in Vietnam to buy a motorcycle and make a living. Yet another twin, and this time from closer home. Both got a place in Theroux’s books, because the writer believes that all men love their stories to be picked up and told.

Not absolutely everyone, though, as Theroux discovered once he had written about his ex-wife in My Other Life. Though the book was technically a work of fiction, Theroux accepted that his ex-wife was indeed the inspiration behind the character. The ex-couple continue to be good friends.

At the Oxford Bookstore, where he preferred to talk about the genesis of his books to reading from them, and where the audience preferred to debate the wisdom of holding the Book Fair at the Maidan to talking about contemporary literature, Theroux had plenty of autographs to distribute.

The hand that held the pen had a bird tattooed on it. On the left wrist, hidden under the watch was a snake eating its own tail. “Hawaiian symbols of regeneration and creativity,” he explained, before adding with a twinkle in the eye, “If I knew you well enough, I’d show you my other tattoos as well.”

And with that, he let himself be whisked away to board yet another train, his favourite mode of transport.

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