'Nautanki Diaries' book review: Cartographer on a cycle

On the night before starting out on his cross-country solo cycle trip from Bengaluru to New Delhi, Dominic Franks turned up at the Bengaluru Medical College and Research Institute, from which he had graduated more than a decade back and to which he had returned almost everyday to, in his own words, read, play badminton, drink and stretch. Standing on the familiar campus, he recollected friends and made a litany of where they were now — mostly in the US, pursuing successful careers. “All the birds except one had flown the nest,” he writes, and then promised himself that he would make up for all the lost time.

Such a sense of being stultified has sparked some of the most memorable travels and travelogues, such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries. The influence of the second one on 

Mr Frank’s book is evident even from the title. The similarities between him and Guevara are also not too stretched: To begin with, both are trained doctors, and for both, a long road journey proved cathartic and enlightening. But, an even greater influence — from the languid tone to narrative detours — is The Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance. It is a tone that captures the pace of a cyclist’s journey.

Though trained as a man of medicine, Mr Franks had abandoned the Hippocratic profession to pursue his love: Sports, albeit as a journalist. He is candid about lack of talent: “I had neither skill nor sporting ability and had tried my clumsy hand at every position [on the hockey team].” But, along with that was a dogged perseverance, recollect Mr Franks’s friends who never doubt that he will complete the mission, though he has — till the start of the journey — been only too happy to give up and drop out. This dogged perseverance, mainstay of athletes — amateur or pro — is also the subject of this book.

Mr Franks’s expedition is, in turn, inspired by another one taken by his school sports teacher, H P Shivaprakash (nicknamed Shikaari by his students). In 1982, he had cycled from Bengaluru to New Delhi for the Asiad Games. The sporting extravaganza, one of the first hosted by India, was supposed to showcase the country’s progress since Independence. Almost 30 years later, as India tried to claim its place as a leading economy with the Commonwealth Games, Mr Franks attempted to replicate his mentor’s achievement. Naturally, for both, it turned out to be cartography of their country, as well as of themselves.

The author did not undertake the journey alone; a team of documentary filmmakers accompanied him. Though he had refused to perform for the camera at the very beginning, the aspect of performance is never far from a sporting feat, especially one like this. So, finally at the CWG opening ceremony in New Delhi, as cameras flashed incessantly, Mr Franks’s thoughts focussed on his own achievement: “I imagined every camera flash was for me.” He felt confident that besides the athletes in the stadium, who had undertaken a similar journey through years of training and tough selection processes, no one felt more satisfied.

Of course, sporting achievements and arduous journeys deserve all the praise they get, but this is a book also about the many hurdles, challenges, roads not taken or wrong detours. Travelling through this country of gross inequality and indomitable spirit is never without revelations. Mr Franks fills his book with all sorts of people he meets: Labourers, dhaba owners, social workers, policemen. A number of subsections in the book are named after people and it provides unparalleled dramatis personae to the book. Few, however, have more character than Nautanki herself — the doodhwala cycle on which Mr Franks made his trip. 

In the beginning, on one of his practice trips, Mr Franks, after performing the act of nomenclature tells her that it’s now the two of them and the long road ahead. It is the sort of fantasy every traveller entertains, and she sticks with him through thick and thin — a testimony to the compatibility of Indian infrastructure and technology. Bought for the princely sum of Rs 3,400, Nautanki proves again and again that she is the perfect perch for the imperfect roads on which imported cycles worth Rs 35,000 get flat tires or simply breakdown.

Finally, in a way, Nautanki Diaries is also a book about writing. At the very beginning, we are told how Mr Franks had begun and abandoned a 99-chapter novel; in the end, he resolves to “write all those books I had been promising myself over the years — about the women I had known and the men I had loved.” Even this jaded reviewer was delightfully surprised by the calm wordsmith’s skill on display in this book. The epilogue delivers a sort of a heartbreak, which I shall not disclose. You must read it to find out yourself. And once you have done that, you will be waiting for the other books that Mr Franks promises.

Nautanki Diaries; Dominic Franks; Rupa; 244 pages; Rs 295

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