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Chasing Rainbows in Chennai
Review of Colin Todhunter's travel book by Heather Neal

+ new foreword
by S. Theodore Baskaran

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Chasing Rainbows is an ambitious first book set in India, that analyses life’s larger questions through the guise of travel anecdotes. It’s blockbuster style in a budget film situation. Author Colin Todhunter offers a series of sketches, accounts, tales of his time spent in India: falling in love with Swedish babes, musing over shrines set up in Indian gyms, starring in a film called "Poison Kiss," and bumping along potholed roads in rickshaws with a bad case of dysentery.

All the while he’s philosophizing. "It does not matter if we cannot keep what we find- at least we once held it, and hopefully gained from the experience before it slipped away. Enjoy the temporary for nothing lasts." The stories entertain. Todhunter’s glib writing style and zany experiences keep readers compelled and spark curiosity about a nation that’s both spiritual and deprived. He discusses the cultural importance placed on gender and religious affiliation as well as his own reticence to provide straight answers to eager inquirers on these subjects. He looks at consumer trends and how the effects of globalization are hitting hard there, deflowering many aspects of Indian culture. But then, "why be aware of the world’s ills and challenge anything when you can live in the dark, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok and shop ‘til you drop?"

Todhunter describes an India where Coke is It and Mao and McDonald’s are interchangeable. Where one thousand dead Indians get less media attention than one white corporate type dead in New York. He paints a picture of film stars being deified, just like gods at gym shrines. Where tourists stay on the "banana pancake circuit, " (a.k.a beaten path) out of fear, when really the big revelations to be had, the cultural beauty of India, and the historical memories lie off that path.

Todhunter challenges travelers to exist for the sake of experiential learning rather than making a destination list and checking it twice. This man knows a thing or two about life. If it weren’t for a handful of typos, I would have nothing but good things to say.

© Heather Neale November 2002

The Forward to the new 2003 Edition of the book Chasing Rainbows

When I finished reading Chasing Rainbows in Chennai, I asked myself what is it that makes Todhunter¹s writing so endearing? I think it is the ring of authenticity, not only of people and places, but, more importantly, also of his thoughts and feelings. By understanding the power of detail, he manages to recreate and pass on to his reader a feel of the places he has frequented, such as the teashop in Triplicane.
Many writers have written on Chennai earlier. Todhunter captures the spirit of the place with ease. This quality, coupled with his style that flows like a stream in the plains, is what characterises his writing. Often travel writers hurry though a country, stop for short periods, talk to taxi drivers and sit down to write. It is evident that Todhunter takes time to soak in the ambience of the place and time before he writes. This is the secret behind the Big Street of Triplicane coming alive in the pages of this book, as does the atmosphere in an Indian train compartment. Not only places, but individuals too are constructed in living colour. Think of Sach and his short but intense life. This factor endows Todhunter¹s writings with a credibility that many travel books lack.

In India we come across two kinds of travel writing; one that gives information, may be in a readable format, and the other that is a piece of imaginative prose by itself. It has its own cadence, in addition to echoing the feeling of the author as he journeys from place to place. It is the second category that appeals to me and it is through this kind of writing that the writer is able to share his experience with the reader. Natalie Goldberg, American writer and poet, says in her book Writing Down the Bones, that writers live twice, in the sense of reliving their experience as they recall the details when they sit down to write. There is another dimension to this process. By reliving certain moments, they let the readers partake as it were in that experience. Todhunter's work clearly belongs to the second category. This kind of creative travel writing that makes you feel the pulse of a place is rather rare. In the last two decades travel writing on India has been suffering from a persistent problem: the temptation to cater to New Age aficionados. The purveyors of New Age writing tend to provide a highly sanitised view of India, often ignoring the underpinnings of social injustice that go with it. Todhunter is not under this burden and he is not playing to any particular audience. There is a refreshing quality of transparency in his pieces. In his introduction Todhunter says, "We are all searching for something. What we seek and what we find can be two entirely different things." May be. But what I found in his writings is something I would like to hold on to.

© S. Theodore Baskaran Chennai, India S. 2003
Theodore Baskaran is the author of The Dance of the Sarus (OUP, 1999).

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