Book Review: River Dog – Gloriously eccentric and entertaining

By Nimish Dubey
They do not make too many travel authors like Mark Shand. The Englishman made headlines when he decided to buy an elephant and travel more than a thousand kilometres on it in India, inspiring two brilliant books, Travels on My Elephant and Queen of the Elephants in the nineties. In the new millennium, he decided to travel once again in India, down the Brahmaputra river actually, and do so with canine, rather than pachydermic company. Most people would have laughed at the notion of trying to travel down the river with a dog, but Shand, being the obstinate type, does right that. And once again, comes out with an extremely entertaining book of how he went about it all – River Dog: A Journey Down the Brahmaputra.

And as in his previous books, Shand’s accounts of his adventures border are extremely entertaining. From negotiating deals with boatmen to trying to find a dog to ending up in a sex shop while trying to buy a chain for the aforementioned canine and then actually having a long conversation with the dog when under the effect of opium, Shand does it all and with utterly charming and humorous elan to boot. And just as he did in his Travels on My Elephant, Shand elevates just about every incident to the level of high adventure with his skilful narration. As in that book, he has his companions in travel, the most outstanding of whom is Aditya Patankar, whom he refers to as the Great Maratha, and who was also seen in the elephant books. In fact, Shand’s description of Patankar perfectly encapsulates his ability to make even the mundane extremely entertaining (if a trifle inaccurate historically):

“Aditya was a Maratha nobleman, a direct descendant of the fierce clan that had ravaged India in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A man of legendary ingenuity and resource, he would not, I knew, consider my request (for a dog) in any way out of the ordinary.”

Sure enough, Patankar gets Shand a dog, insisting that he take a street dog rather than a high-class breed because “they are hard as nails. They eat anything – anything. They are survivors. ” He also keeps trying to ensure that Mark keeps his feet grounded in reality, given his penchant for the romantic. He succeeds sometimes, but for the most part, Shand is pretty much a literary force let loose on the Brahmaputra and its banks. In fact, the only disappointing facet of the book is that he does not actually spend more time on the river – he actually gets on to the river well into the book. But that is a sin that is easy to forgive, given the sheer volume of entertainment that Shand doles out.

Truth be told, River Dog is not really about how Shand went down the mighty river. If you are looking for an account replete with geographical, historical and social detail, this is not the book for you. It will not open your eyes to new aspects of the Brahmaputra or the regions it flows through. Nay, River Dog is the story of an eccentric, but lovable, Englishman who wants to travel in a different manner and does so, notwithstanding all the natural and bureaucratic barriers that pop up in his path. Unlike many travel writers who love to spend time describing things, Shand is more at home talking to the people he meets on his travels – River Dog is brimming with conversations, from the simple to the sane to the utterly eccentric. And this gives the book a very human touch – you feel you are actually with Shand, a sensation that most authors aspire for, but few succeed in accomplishing. Some readers might think that Shand trivialises things too much to draw laughter and at times adopts a tone that is close to patronising, but there can be no doubting his love for travel, for his friends, for India and of course, the dog who accompanies him along the Brahmaputra, Bhaiti.

When you put down River Dog (and we assure you that you will do so within a couple of days of starting it – so well does it flow) you might not end up knowing too much more about the river and the regions surrounding it, but you will definitely have learnt a lot about some of the most colourful characters that have inhabited the pages of travel literature. And it is a fair chance that you will be smiling.

River Dog is not a book about charting out and going on a journey, it is about enjoying the ride, with all its pitfalls and potholes. And that is what we really believe travel is all about. If you love travel, this is just the book for you.

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