The Imperial Way

During the nineteenth century, when British rule determined India’s commercial and cultural fate, a series of railways were established across the entire subcontinent to carry people and goods, and establish the elements of English civilization in this land far from the British Isles. Paul Theroux’s brief account of a recent journey across the lands once held by British rulers shows vividly how the railways still determine the character of the Indian people and are still a vital part of their lives long after the European masters have relinquished control of these lands.

Beginning at the Khyber Pass on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Theroux makes his way across Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, the three countries that now form the political entities which were once British-held India. Along the way, he sketches the countryside and the people who inhabit it, highlighting the way that the railroads still play a major part in the lifestyle of the millions who live in this region. Vivid accounts of people who catch his eye are interspersed with long, knowledgeable discussions of the impact of the railways on these people. The author’s keen sense of phrasing makes the land and the people come alive, both in squalor and in splendor.

Theroux’s travelogue makes up less than a third of the book, however. More than a hundred pages are given to Steve McCurry’s superb photographs. In them, the faces and places of India speak as powerfully to the reader as does Theroux’s prose. Text and photography present a truly harmonious account of the everyday life beneath the political turmoil in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.