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A country with no countrymen
There Are No Gods in North Korea
Author- Anjaly Thomas
Publisher- Niyogi, Rs350
This book does a neat job of tying memory with new exotic experiences and establishing that our past, presumptions and phobias are forever with us, judging, connecting and reprimanding, writes SHALIM M HUSSAIN
On page 163 of Anjaly Thomas’s There are No Gods in North Korea, the writer finally finds a seat in a metro train in China after a traumatic experience trying to communicate in a country with which she shares no common language and meditates upon a beautiful young woman who shares her compartment. “I followed her extremely silky smooth legs to her panty line… watched her muscles tighten as she spread her legs apart to balance herself with the train’s rhythm...” writes Thomas wondering why China produces so much body wax (the women are flawless!). When the train jerks, the woman raises her hand to grab the handrail and ‘my eyes had come to rest on a small but determined bush straining to get out of her armpit.’ This breaks the image of perfection created in the author’s mind about the porcelain smoothness of Chinese women and awakens her to their misplaced priorities regarding waxing. The tone of the passage defines Thomas’s book about backpacking across continents where just like ungroomed underarms, it takes a sharp eye to notice the mess hiding behind the polished gleaming facade.
A journey into North Korea with which the book opens is an excellent description of experiencing first-hand the process of Government-sanctioned mythmaking. The extent to which the state controls the lives of the citizens and moderates every aspect of the tourists’ itinerary is unnerving, beginning with correct dress code to threats of correctional treatment for ‘folding or damaging a newspaper containing pictures of the ruler’. In the book, North Korea becomes not only a country with no gods (Juche, the state ideology of North Korea mandates the worship of former leader Kim Il Sung as the supreme deity) but also a country with no countrymen.
When her group descends at the airport, Thomas and her co-travelers find three Air Koryo planes tethered to the ground like cattle, grass growing around their wheels. In North Korea, the history of the world is changed to suit the ruler and capital Pyongyang is populated with only the most presentable and ‘functional’ citizens while the rest are relegated to the countryside. To add to the illusion, there are magnificent restaurants to give visitors a false sense of well-being while little is done to hide the frequent power cuts and the emptiness of apartment buildings and the 10 lane highways. Despite the grimness, what remains with Thomas and the reader is the soulful folktale their Korean companion Miss Deer sings them a day before they leave.
North Korea is followed by a freer, more relaxing trip through the wide expanses of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia where, as Thomas mentions, there are five times as many animals as there are people. Her travel companions and guide are friendlier and here Thomas learns about the folk belief in avoos or guiding spirits and eats aruul (dried curd), khuushur (a meat pastry),airag (fermented mare’s milk) and the rather distasteful kimichi or fermented cabbage which she first encountered in Pyongang. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t provide recipes for the exotic dishes which is my personal gripe against travelogues. It then moves swiftly through Uganda, Turkey and China. My favourite section is set in a hostel in Turkey where the author fancies a beautiful fawn-coloured coat that belongs to a middle-aged out-of-work woman named Safak Deniz who is willing enough to part with it for a little money. Thomas’s reaction as she makes the purchase is a mixture of joy, sentimentality, pragmatism and intense sorrow, making the section the most profoundly touching part of the book. In the ‘acknowledgments’ section, Thomas mentions that her meeting with Safak Deniz led to the inception of her initiative Travel and Relief. There is also an almost surreal account of her cruising on the crocodile-infested waters of the Nile with Maurice, an alcohol-loving hog and another where a hippo sneaks past her tent at night but these episodes are better read than written about.
Mixed with Thomas’s humanism is the brutal honesty of her introspections. Though seasoned by travels all around the globe and a compulsive believer in the inherent goodness of people, she acknowledges the pain of being subjected to racism and insensitivity. While visiting the Kasubi tombs in Kampala, she is made to wear a sarong to cover her legs and given the alternative of staying back as one of the wives of the Kabaka (king of the Buganda kingdom).
In Uganda, she meets another classic walking stereotype — a middle-aged Indian restaurateur who is initially kind but tries to hit on her when she is drunk. But Thomas doesn’t let these acts of trespass pass without a fight. For example, a local man tries to proposition her in Uganda and when she repulses his advances, he calls her a ‘white bi***’. She responds with the most powerful weapon available — a smirk! ‘A smug and condescending smirk has always succeeded in reducing anyone to smithereens and eased me out of tight or embarrassing spots wonderfully.’
There are No Gods in North Korea is not your average travel book; it dwells more on the people the writer meets during her travels than the places themselves. Only about one fourth of it is set in North Korea and the rest is devoted to Thomas’s journeys across Africa, Europe and Asia. Whether it is the grooming of young women, the lonely trips in the vast open expanses of Mongolia or the disturbing experience of trying dog meat in China and being reminded of one’s pet dog, the book does a neat job of tying memory with new exotic experiences and establishing that our past, presumptions and phobias are forever with us, judging, connecting and reprimanding. Bollywood follows Thomas to North Korea where the rain, valley of flowers and abundance of curious tourists makes her want to break into dance and the chipathi (a version of the humble Indian flat bread) seeks her out in Kampala.
The reviewer is a research scholar at the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia
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