Published by Fulcrum Publishing
Publication date: May 29th 2012
Laura Pederson’s book Planes, Trains, and Auto-Rickshaws is a catch-all of travel information, history lessons, etiquette guidelines, and all things India. The majority of the book covers her travels through the country with a plethora of statistics and useful information about modes of transportation, appropriate garb, and how to protect oneself from Delhi Belly. She also has chapters on the various religions in India and key political players throughout the years.
A few facts to consider:
- Today with 1.2 billion people, India is the world’s largest democracy and the second most populous country after China. There isn’t a national language but rather an official language, which is Hindi. English is the second official language.
- Calcutta is home to more literary magazines, movie houses, concert halls, and theater companies than any other metropolis in Asia. Poetry reading regularly attract hundreds of listeners. (Meantime, American poet Thomas Lynch says that he considers a successful event one in where poetry readers don’t outnumber audience members.)
- Mumbai commuter trains transport 7 million workers per day.
- India is a predominantly Hindu country (83 percent) but also has 177 million Muslims making it the 3rd largest Muslim population in the world.
- India is one-fourth the size of the United States but has four times the population
In spite of the wide variety of topics Pederson is thorough and knowledgeable without being boring. The only hitch in the flow of the book comes towards the end when she introduces a chapter about women and children. After reading so much about India from a traveler’s perspective, it feels a bit misplaced. However, she’s done the research and the statistics are staggering and largely of a kind to infuriate Western women. Close to half of all children under the age of three are malnourished; at least 50 million school-age children work in factories, agriculture or as prostitutes; and 47 percent of the female population have no education and cannot read or write. She then goes on to propose socio-economic changes to improve the life situation of both women and children. Admirable, but despite her early years in the world of finance this is not a book on global policy and feels incongruous with the rest of the book.
In her summary chapter about India’s future (which she believes is positive unlike some of their neighbors), Pederson does put forth a theory that may be well known in political circles but was new and unnervingly logical to me:
…when development form the ground up leads to more opportunity and prosperity all around, citizens are less likely to become radicalized and involved in terrorism. When a young person has hope and dignity and the prospect of a bright future, living is viewed as more meaningful than dying for a cause, whatever it might be. The biggest threat to any society is the creation of citizens who have nothing to lose.
By and large, Planes, Trains, & Auto-Rickshaws is fast-paced enjoyable reading, largely thanks to Pederson’s sense of humor. However, without an index and given the number of its non-travel related chapters, this book is best used as an adjunct to a travel guide (if you’re headed to India) or just as interesting read for armchair travelers.