Deccan Tamasha – South India on a Motorcycle by Robin Brown

The definitive motorcycle travel book.

Deccan Tamasha by Robin Brown is the definitive book on touring India by motorbike, written by one of the original freaks to have survived the overland journey to India in the early 70’s. Contrary to the usual clich├ęs about left-over hippies, Robin Brown is a traveler who knows and loves India inside-out, even if the intimacy has left him with a perspective that would terrify the current stable of writers on India who prefer to write about encounters with bell-boys and diplomats.

Brown, on the other hand is the real thing. He washes under taps, sleeps in hotels with bed bugs, drinks local spirits and talks to everyone he meets. Aware of his automatic status as an embassador for the Western world (being the first white man many Indians will ever meet), he finds himself in the tricky position of answering for an entire culture.

So when he hears some locals calling him a ‘white monkey’ he yells back:

‘”Kala Banda,” or black monkey, which brings delighted cat calls that I can’t understand but which are almost certainly something marvellously obscene about my parentage or my mother’s anatomy. All classes [in India] including religious persons tend to use amazingly gross and graphic language.’

‘Tamasha’ refers to the Hindi word for ‘spectacle’ or ‘excitement’ and Brown recognizes that it’s an essential part of life in the Indian countryside where life is at its most tedious and any form of entertainment, at anyone’s expense, is the ‘time-pass’ that makes it all bearable.

Deccan Tamasha is all written in the present tense and whilst the writing feels occasionally a little self-conscious and constrained, the overall tone is almost poetic and there are paragraphs that will stay with you forever, as the author condenses decades of experience in India to a few lines. Indian money frequently becoming so ragged and torn that no one will accept your rupees, Brown informs us of the existence of the torn-note wallahs who will buy your banknotes for a percentage.

“There is absolutely no enterprise known to man that is not practiced in India, no such thing as unemployment, every person is an entrepreneur and everything is negotiable.”

Robin Brown is a guide into the heart of India and saves us the trouble of having to endure the endless Indian illogic for ourselves. With a perception and understanding won through endless broke pilgrimages and bike tours through most corners of the country, he has the heart and wit to convey the essence of modern Indian life in a way that you’re unlikely to have heard before. He can be a little parochial at times and the writing occasionally veers towards the archaic but the essence is that he’s a freak on a motorbike touring through a sub-continent that he understands better than most.

The spirit of the book is perhaps best expressed by the cover on which the real hero of the book, the Enfield Bullet motorcycle is stood beneath the shade of a banyan tree, while the author only makes the back cover, sat cross-legged with the Deccan Herald newspaper obscuring his face.