On a Shoestring to Coorg

In the prologue to ON A SHOESTRING TO COORG, Dervla Murphy describes the anxious turns her mind took in deciding to return to India. At first, her recollections of the merciless heat, the poverty, and the seeming chaos of Indian life left her feeling irritated. This reaction was, she reflected, a result of her sense of defeat at having been unable to appreciate the complexities of Indian culture. But excitement at the thought of returning to India was stimulated by the challenge of trying once more to fathom the subleties and paradoxes of Hindu life. Her decision to take her daughter with her presented an additional challenge, one that carried surprising bonuses.

Written like a diary, the book begins with the arrival by air of Murphy and her daughter in Bombay, where they are immediately immersed in the richness and density of India. Rachel is fascinated with the details of Bombay’s open markets, riotous architecture, and profusion of humanity. Where an adult might be repulsed by a toddler carrying a begging bowl, Rachel is simply curious.

After leaving Bombay they take a steamer to Goa, where they encounter a colony of hippies. Trouble strikes at Colva beach when Murphy has her wallet stolen. Nevertheless, on foot and by local transport they finally reach Coorg, where they stay with an agreeable family of rich Indian landowners. Murphy vividly describes Coorg’s dense green forests, open scrublands covered with flowers, and neatly planted acres of coffee fringed with silver oaks. The whitewashed native dwellings are capped with red-brown tiles. Because Rachel interacts so easily with the local people, Murphy is drawn into the timeless nature of life there. While sojourning in Coorg they stumble upon a sacred grove where a local god receives votive offerings and attend a festival in celebration of the new rice crop. There are also descriptions of a forest funeral, a naming ceremony, and a wedding. Before they leave India they travel to Cape Comorin in the southernmost state of Kerala where the Indian Ocean meets the Arabian Sea.

By the end of the journey, Murphy and the reader discover a new sense of the harmony and rootedness found in daily tasks like grinding flour, drawing water, and gathering firewood. Graced with intelligence, sensitivity, and good humor, this memoir reveals India in an unfamiliar aspect.