Sean Doyle says he misspent his twenties travelling the Asian, especially Indian, road. As a wide-eyed 22-year-old, he landed in India for the first time in 1984 and fell in love with the country. It would make him return there many times over the years. The ‘remarkable’ experiences would play a significant role in his life and in his relationship with his first-born daughter Anna.

A travel writer and editor, Sean wanted his daughter to have a richer experience than ‘schoolies’ when she finished Year 12. He decided to take her there as “India is not a theme park with a traffic problem, it’s a huge, pulsating, unpredictable land that knows every cruelty and every tenderness”.

So, the duo set off on a two-month trip—an adventure for Anna and a holiday for Sean. The result is a memoir Night Train to Varanasi, which has been described as “a dual homage, a love song from a father to a daughter and to India”.

Night Train to Varanasi is being released this week. Sean says one of the main themes in the book is connection, which is fundamental to a good life. “That theme itself links the various threads of the book: the connection between Anna and me, Anna and India, me and India, me now and my younger self, between Indian culture and the West, especially since the hippy era; and between life in India and all of life.”

In an exclusive interview with The Indian Sun, Sean gives us an insight into his understanding and love for India. Anna also shares some of her thoughts. And, of course, once the world opens up, Sean says he cannot wait to bask under the Varanasi sky again. Read on.

 Interesting that you chose India as a rite of passage in your daughter’s life. Why India?
When my daughter, Anna, was in Year 12, I had an idea: after her graduation, she and I would take a trip somewhere. She liked the idea. I suggested India. She was initially a bit nervous, then she said yes.

Why did I suggest India? On the one hand, it’s India, but it could have been Italy or Indooroopilly—the point is, the place has played a significant role in my life. It means something to me, and that’s what I wanted to share with Anna—that meaning. Like the music and TV shows/films I’ve turned her on to, I want to share the things I love with her. Isn’t that what all parents do—or want to do—with their kids? I think we’re lucky, as parents, if our child shows genuine interest in our passions. I certainly feel lucky that Anna has embraced some of mine.

On the other hand, I have loved India since I first went there as a wide-eyed 22-year-old in 1984. I’ve returned many times since and have had some remarkable experiences there. It has indeed played a significant role in my life. So there was really no other choice.

★ Tell us about the whole experience and the message you wanted to get across.

Our trip might sound a bit like ‘Indian schoolies with Dad’, but it’s not. I see it as a rite of passage in a way schoolies isn’t. Schoolies has nothing to do with what comes next—as its name indicates, it looks back, not forward. A rite of passage involves letting go of the life you’ve had, and preparing you for the next stage. I wanted Anna to have a richer experiencethan Schoolies, and I wanted to be a part of it—partly so we have that shared memory for the rest of our lives, partly to spend more time with her before she left home.

I tried to ‘manage’ the subcontinent so my daughter could have a nice time. But India’s not a theme park with a traffic problem, it’s a huge, pulsating, unpredictable land that knows every cruelty and every tenderness. Entertaining an Aussie teenager is not a local priority.

We had a plan, an itinerary, when we flew into Delhi—and, for the most part, it went smoothly. But India has a way of taking over. Any plan is provisional at best, and … sure enough, things happened. We had to change our plans, change our trip, and those things left their mark on us.

The trip exposed Anna to the harsh realities of the world for the first time, as my first trip to India did for me. Anna is a very sensitive person, so I wasn’t sure how this aspect of the trip would go. There were some tough moments, unavoidably, and some luminous ones. India is another reality compared to Western society. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it. The frame you look at the world through has shifted, expanded.

The same is true of parenting. Anna, as my first child, gave me that expanded view of life. Taking her to India was, in a way, an attempt to repay her.

Throw some light on the Night Train to Varanasi. And why that title?
There’s a chapter in the book about our ride on the night train from Jaipur to Varanasi. During that ride, we were shown tremendous kindness by two parties of travellers. So, part of that choice of title is to acknowledge and celebrate Indian generosity and hospitality.

Otherwise, a single strong, evocative image tends to work well as a title. This is such an image. A night train conveys a sense of excitement, adventure, and mystery. India exudes all of these qualities. And without getting all Orientalist about it, India does contain mysteries for a foreigner, especially one visiting for the first time, as Anna was when we went there.

I remember my first visit, in 1984–5: I was bamboozled by a lot of what I experienced. Two examples: one, I get on a bus in Kerala with my girlfriend. There are vacant seats beside two solo female passengers. My girlfriend takes the one next to the older woman, I slip in beside the younger one. Immediately the younger one jumps out of her seat, standing straight up and looking alarmed. I stand up too and step back, confused, wondering what has just happened. It’s a bit tense all around until the older woman beside my girlfriend explains that I, as a man, mustn’t sit next to a woman I’m not related or married to. No problem: I fully respect that. She orchestrates a bit of musical chairs so she and the younger one sit together, and I’m with my girlfriend. I regret the younger girl’s brief discomfort, but it was an interesting experience that taught me something important about gender in India.

The second example is from the same trip. My girlfriend and I were on another bus, this time in western Tamil Nadu, after crossing the Western Ghats. We were driving through a small town, seemingly very remote, when we came upon a huge crowd. The road ahead was pulsating with people. We had to stop. Before long, three police vehicles with little sirens bleating forced a path through the throng, and following them was a jeep covered in political symbols, towing a trailer carrying a well-dressed, middle-aged woman standing in a cage. She was smiling and waving at the crowd. When people saw her, they went nuts: they pushed towards her, only to be beaten back by policemen swinging their lathiswith disturbing enthusiasm. This put some of them off, to an extent—but only some, and only partially. The waves of adoring fans just kept coming. I sat there, gobsmacked—I’d never seen anything like it, this confronting combination of celebrity worship, violence, the cage, and primal politicking. I asked someone sitting close by who she was. ‘Jayalalithaa,’ he said. I got him to write it down for me. I didn’t know the name then; when I later read about her, the frenzied veneration made a little bit more sense.

That’s a long answer! Basically, it took me some time to understand enough to function well there.

As for why have Varanasi in the title, well, I have a great love for Varanasi. The Old City of Varanasi has a timeless, ethereal, hypnotic atmosphere, and even by Indian standards, it’s a special place. I’ve been there many times since first visiting in 1987, and I’ve spent months there since the trip with Anna. Once the world has opened up again, more or less, I plan to head back there. I need it.

Will Australian readers be able to connect with the world you are writing about?
I hope so and yes, I think they will. One of the main themes in the book, maybe the main one, is connection, which is fundamental to a good life. That theme itself links the various threads of the book: the connection between Anna and me, Anna and India, me and India, me now and my younger self, between Indian culture and the West, especially since the hippy era; and between life in India and all of life. And, at the meta level, writing the book is an act of connection with everything in it—all the pertinent memories and reflections … So yes, I hope Australian readers connect with these connections.

What would you say is the top misconception people have about India?
It’s not so easy to speak for others, but maybe one major misconception is that India is little more than the sum of its clich├ęs, as the West sees them: i.e. cricket (especially the IPL), Bollywood, faux-Bollywood films like Slumdog Millionaire… and that there are yogis and gurus on every street corner. And I think many people who don’t know India would be surprised by how developed it is—in places, of course—and how well educated many people are. But as I say, these are the assumed opinions of other people.

What inspires you to write? What’s your next project?
I’m a reading/writing sort of guy. I’ve often kept a journal over the years, and have always written one when travelling. I’ve been a travel journalist as well, so for me writing is a natural response to, and an enhancement of, actual experience.

Also, I’m an introvert by nature, so reflection is instinctive to me. It always has been. Writing a memoir, travel or otherwise, is an act of extended reflection, recorded, then shaped and polished. And in terms of why write about these particular subjects, Anna and India, well, they both mean a tremendous amount to me. They inspire me. In a nutshell, for me, Anna embodies life’s preciousness; and India, its wonder.

I also wanted to re-live the trip, by writing it. It was a great experience, sharing India with my daughter, and I wanted to enjoy it again, as well as shape it into something others will hopefully enjoy too.

My next project, currently under way, is a follow-up memoir about a prolonged period of ill health I endured some years ago. The book will chronicle my descent into an unfamiliar and surreal world where no one was able to give me the help I desperately needed. I was in a dark place—something had to give. I needed to feel alive again so, despite still struggling with my condition, I went back to the place in the world where I feel most alive: India! And it was incredible. I’d call that a happy ending.

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