On a Shoestring to Coorg

Dervla Murphy


On a Shoestring to Coorg

Dervla Murphy


Dervla Murphy and her daughter Rachel – with little money, no taste for luxury and few concrete plans – meander their way slowly south from Bombay to the southernmost point of India, Cape Comorin. Interested in everything they see, but only truly enchanted by people, they stay in fishermen’s huts and no-star hotels, travelling in packed-out buses, on foot and by local boats.

Instead of pressing ever onwards, like so many travellers, they double back to the place they liked most, the hill province of Coorg and settle down to live there for two months. Dervla Murphy creates an extraordinarily affectionate portrait of these cardamon-scented, spiritually and agriculturally self-sufficient Highlands.

‘A travel writer of rare quality and freshness.’ - The Observer
‘Murphy spans the wide range of sensation of India, where moments of great happiness come hard upon frustration and stench.’- The Guardian
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On a Shoestring to Coorg: An Experience of Southern India
ISBN 978-1780600-12-3
Format: 256pp demi pb
Place: India

Author Biography

Dervla Murphy was born (and still lives) in Lismore, County Waterford in 1931. Full Tilt, her first book, describes her exuberant bicycle ride from Lismore to India, through Iran and Afghanistan. It has been followed by some twenty further titles, including an acclaimed memoir The Island That Dared, a series of journeys through Cuba, with her daughter Rachel and her three granddaughters.

Visit Dervla's website for recent news, interviews and a photo archive


Extract from Chapter One 

SNOVEMBER 16TH. YWCA HOSTEL, BOMBAY omewhere Apa Pant has remarked that air-travellers arrive in two instalments and for me this is Disembodied Day, that dreamlike

interval before the mind has caught up with the body; and because a natural parsimony compels me to eat all the meals served en route the body in question feels so overfed I wish it could have been left behind, too.

Oddly enough, Rachel seems immune to jet-lag, despite having had less than three hours’ sleep. I chose to stay in this hostel for her sake, thinking it would serve as a not too unfamiliar halfway house between Europe and Asia. But such solicitude was soon proved needless and I last saw her disappearing up the street with two new- found Indian friends. It seems she has gone to lunch with someone; I felt too exhausted to find out exactly with whom or where.

Of course even I was buoyed up, for the first few hours after our landing at seven a.m., by the simple fact of being back in India. Emerging from the cool plane into warm, dense air (72 oF., according to official information) I was instantly overwhelmed by that celebrated odour of India which I had last smelt many hundreds of miles away, in Delhi. It seemed to symbolise the profound – if not always apparent – unity of this country. And it is not inappropriate that one’s first response to India should involve that sensual experience least amenable to analysis or description.

Outside the airport buildings the scores of waiting taxi-wallahs made little effort to capture us – no doubt they understand by now the financial implications of a rucksack – and with the roar of jets in the background we walked for the next forty minutes through scenes of poverty, filth and squalor which make exaggeration impossible. On flat stretches of wasteland dozens of men were performing their morning duty, unselfconsciously squatting, with rusty tins of water to hand and sometimes a hopeful pig in the background. The Hindu opening his bowels must be the world’s greatest mass-manifestation of the ostrich- mentality. Your average Hindu is an extremely modest man, but because he can’t see you, having his gaze fixed on the ground, he will serenely evacuate while hundreds of people pass to and fro nearby.

So we proceeded, with bougainvillaea gloriously flourishing on one side of the highway and the stench of fresh excrement drifting to us from the other. All around were uncountable thousands of homes – many no bigger than small tents – constructed of bamboo matting, or driftwood, or beaten kerosene tins. Between and in these shelters people seethed like so many ants, and diseased pi-dogs nosed through stinking muck, and shrivelled-looking cattle were being driven on to the dusty, grey-green wasteland to eat Shiva-alone-knows-what. After some time Rachel observed dispassionately, ‘I must say this place seems rather shattered’ – a tolerably graphic description of the outskirts of Bombay. Yet I was not overcome by that nauseated depression which similar scenes induced ten years ago. Perhaps I am no longer quite sure that India’s dire poverty is worse than the dire affluence through which we had been driving twelve hours earlier in London.

Outside one sagging bamboo shelter at the edge of the road a graceful, dark-skinned young woman was washing her feet, using water taken from a stagnant, reeking pond with a lid of bright green scum. She looked up as we passed, and met my eyes, and smiled at us: and her smile had a quality rarely found in modern Europe. It recalled something I had read on the plane, in Dr Radhakrishnan’s essay on ‘Ethics’. ‘When the soul is at peace, the greatest sorrows are borne lightly. Life becomes more natural and confident. Changes in outer conditions do not disturb. We let our life flow of itself as the sea heaves or the flower blooms.’

Presently a taxi slowed beside us and the driver suggested – ‘You go Gateway of India for only Rs.40?’* He dropped abruptly and unashamedly to Rs.10 on realising I was no newcomer to India. Then, when I still shook my head, he looked sympathetic and advised us to board an approaching city-bound bus. The fare, he said, would be only forty paise for me and twenty paise for ‘the baby’.

*    One rupee equals five pence and there are one hundred paise to the rupee. 


The bus was crammed and we were nowhere near a scheduled stop. Yet the driver obligingly halted and the conductor curtly ordered a barefooted youth with dirty, matted hair – probably a tribal outcaste – to give up his seat to the foreigners. The youth obeyed at once, but sullenly; and his resentful glare so embarrassed me that I remained standing beside him while Rachel sat down. Then another young man, weedy-looking but neatly dressed, offered me his seat, told me his name was Ram and asked, ‘Where is your native place?’ He thought Glasgow was the capital of Ireland but claimed to be a Times of India staff reporter.

A cool breeze freshened the windowless bus as we slowly jolted through mile after mile of slums, semi-slums and swarming bazaars. Rachel was fascinated to see bananas growing on trees, cows lying on city pavements and a crow boldly swooping down to steal a piece of toast off a street-vendor’s stall. And I was relieved to feel myself rejoicing. On the plane it had suddenly occurred to me that this return could prove a dreadful mistake. But now, looking affectionately out at India’s least attractive urban-slum aspect, I knew it was no such thing.

Ram followed us off the bus and spent over two hours – ‘It is my duty...’ – helping us to locate this hostel. I can never come to terms with his type of doggedly helpful but obtuse Indian. To us such people seem too self-consciously altruistic as they offer help or hospitality, though in fact this is a gross misinterpretation of their state of mind. Nevertheless, the mleccha – the foreigner – is usually helped by Indians like Ram not because the Indian cares about the individual’s fate but because he regards the needful stranger as an incidental source of religious merit, a messenger from the gods who, if given aid, will act as a channel for valuable blessings. Granted, this is a nice idea: but from the mleccha’s point of view it tends to stunt many of his relationships with Indians. Few Westerners enjoy being discounted as individuals; and most travellers like to be able to feel that each new acquaintance is potentially a new friend.

This morning I would have much preferred to find my own way and we might well have got there sooner without a guide who refused to admit that we were repeatedly being sent astray. Everyone of whom we sought assistance gave us a different set of wrong directions with complete assurance. I had forgotten the Indians’ propensity for being ultra-dogmatic when in fact they haven’t a clue; and on a hot day in a big city with a small child after a sleepless night I found it excessively trying. Moreover, because Ram meant so well, and yet was being so stupid and obstinate, I felt increasingly irritated and ungrateful and therefore guilty. It is on such trivia that everyday Indo–European relations most often founder.

When at last we arrived here Ram held out his hand to say a Western-style goodbye and fixed his gaze on a box of cigars sticking out of my bush-shirt pocket. ‘Give me those cigars,’ he requested, in an oddly peremptory tone. I stared at him, nonplussed by the strength of my disinclination to reward him for all his efforts. Then I opened the box and handed him one cigar. He could see there were four others, but he seemed not to resent my meanness. Turning away from him I realised something was out of alignment, though I couldn’t quite determine what. Perhaps because of this being Disembodied Day, the whole incident made me just a little apprehensive. It seemed to conceal a warning of some sort, possibly to the effect that it is perilously easy for Indians and Europeans to bring out the worst in each other.

It is now two p.m., so Rachel should be back soon from her luncheon party. I had planned to sleep while she was out, but I seem to have reached that point of exhaustion at which sleep eludes one. Why do people regard flying as an easy way to travel?

Later. My philosophical acceptance of Indian destitution did not survive this afternoon’s stroll around Bombay. Men with no legs and/or arms were heaped in corners or somehow propelling themselves along pavements; lepers waved their stumps in our faces or indicated the areas where their noses had been; deformed children frantically pleaded for paise and hung on to my ankles so that, as I tried to move away, their featherweight bodies were dragged along the ground; and – in a way worst of all – perfectly formed children, who could be like Rachel, sat slumped against walls or lay motionless in gutters, too far beyond hope even to beg. One pot-bellied, naked toddler stood quite alone, leaning against the pillar of a shopping arcade with a terrible expression of resignation, and mature awareness of misery, on his pinched, mucus-streaked face. Should he survive he will doubtless end up resembling the next wreck we passed – an ancient, armless man, wearing only a token loincloth and sitting cross-legged beneath the arcade, his shaven head moving all the time slightly to and fro, like a mechanical toy, and his hardened, sightless eyeballs rolling grotesquely.

Around the next corner we came on a small girl who had festering scurvy sores all over both legs and was sitting on the edge of the pavement with her baby brother (I suppose) in her lap. He lay gasping, his mouth wide open, looking as if about to expire. He weighed perhaps ten or twelve pounds but, judging by his teeth, must have been at least a year old. Nearby, a young woman with the dry, lined skin of the permanently hungry lay stretched full length in the shadow of a wall. Her skeletal torso and flaccid breasts were only half-covered by a filthy cotton wrap and her eyes were partially open though she seemed to be asleep. She may have been the children’s mother. None of the passers-by took any notice of her. One five-paise piece lay in the tin begging-bowl by her side and a small glass of tea now costs at least twenty paise. As I dropped fifty paise into the bowl I was ravaged by the futility of the gesture. Of course one has seen it all before, and read about it, and heard about it, and despairingly thought about it. Perhaps it is too commonplace, too ‘overdone’, to be worth talking or writing about again. Perhaps the tragedy of poverty has lost its news-value. Yet it has not lost the power to shatter, when one comes face to face with fellow-humans who never have known and never will know what it feels like to eat enough.

This evening I find another of Dr Radhakrishnan’s comments more pertinent than the one I quoted earlier. ‘There was never in India a national ideal of poverty or squalor. Spiritual life finds full scope only in communities of a certain degree of freedom from sordidness. Lives that are strained and starved cannot be religious except in a rudimentary way. Economic insecurity and individual freedom do not go together.’

In the bed next to mine is an Iraqi woman journalist who also arrived today to report on India’s reaction to the oil-crisis. She admitted just now to feeling no less shattered than I am, though during the 1960s she worked in Bombay for four years. ‘One forgets,’ she said, ‘because one doesn’t want to remember.’

‘And why doesn’t one want to remember?’ I wondered.

She shrugged. ‘It serves no purpose to clutter the mind with insoluble problems. Tonight, as you say, we are shattered. And in what way does that help anybody? It simply boosts our own egos, allowing us to imagine we have some vestige of social conscience. It’s only when the Mother Teresas feel shattered that things get done. Now I must sleep. Good-night.’

A forceful lady – and a realist.