Argentina’s Sikh policeman and other encounters of a globe-trotting Indian (Book Review)

Title: By Thumb, Hoof and Wheel: Travels in the Global South; Author: Prabhu Ghate; Publisher: Bloomsbury; Pages: 156; Price:Rs.299

Planning a holiday abroad? Skip the tourist traps of Europe, the US and Southeast Asia to follow the footsteps of this peripatetic Indian who abandoned the much-beaten track – and in the process, forestalled V.S.Naipaul in tracing a community of Sikhs during Argentina’s “Dirty War” era (and nearly ending up among its victims), having a front row view in the revolt that unseated Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, became the first visitor to Zanzibar after its Arab ruler’s overthrow, and got whacked by a penguin in Antarctica for obstructing its way.

A bureaucrat, development and microfinance expert but above all an indefatigable traveller, Ghate has had a richly adventurous life which could fill several volumes but whose recounting he (unfairly for a lot of tantalised readers!) restricts to this slim book – though one with some of his most memorable experiences.

With a matchless eye for telling detail, colourful descriptions, and keen insights, he subtly blends the memoir and travelogue genres to fashion a riveting account of his repeated brushes with history around the globe over four decades as well as encounters with rhythms of life and society long gone. Then there are visits to places – Somalia, Yemen and the like – where even the most foolhardy wouldn’t dream of going now or voyages now memories – on a steamer up the Nile through Sudan or the weekly Mombassa-Bombay passenger ship.

Ghate, who had clocked five ocean voyages and a flying boat trip by the age of seven, used his school holidays to explore Madhya Pradesh (he found Pachmarhi particularly alluring) but his own global travels – in which he avoided flying as far as possible, only began when sent to Britain to study. He took advantage of a holiday stipend to go to France and Spain in 1958 to study prehistoric cave paintings, made a side trip to Morocco, and returned through Portugal (despite an Indian consul in Spain calling him unpatriotic and warning of no assistance in case of any trouble – the two countries did not have any relations then over Goa).

After graduating from the LSE in 1964, he chose to return overland (“as many people did in those days”) but not the conventional Turkey-Iran-Afghanistan route, favoured by hippies for a three-month, 15-country odyssey from London to Kenya’s Mombassa port and then by sea to Bombay. On making landfall at Gujarat, he and another compatriot jumped in for a swim. Years later, his partner – a famous environmental filmmaker – introduced himself.

Ghate recounts five more journeys – three of them multiple country including down South America’s Gringo Trail (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina – in which he gets detained by police while trying to find Juan Singh but eventually succeeds with aid of policeman Hector Victor Singh, whose father is a Sikh!), around the Horn of Africa and beyond (Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea and Yemen), and in Patagonia (Argentina and Chile) and Antarctica. The other two are around the Philippines and China.

He may not be the first Indian to visit these countries, many of which have fairly large and well-regarded diasporas/visitors – teachers in Ethiopia, businessmen throughout East Africa, and moneylenders in the Philippines – but Ghate is certainly the first to write about his travels through a wide swathe of the global South.

At the same time, he is very keen to ensure his countrymen follow suit to these unjustifiably neglected areas, stressing travels here don’t need wealth or youth but being “just young at heart, reasonably fit, empathetic and curious”, as well as “an interest in other cultures, an empathy for people, some tolerance for uncertainty, and a willingness to rough it occasionally”.

Indians need to follow this advice if they want their country to attain global prominence!

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at )

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