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Hands Across Borders


Bill Aitken

BETWEEN HEAVEN AND HELL: TRAVELS THROUGH SOUTH ASIA
By Akhil Bakshi
Odyssey Books, 2004, pp. 556, Rs. 495.00

VOLUME XXVIII NUMBER 5-6 May/June 2004

Between Heaven and Hell is a successful travelogue for the wrong reasons. Intended  as a lively  (but overlong) account of the “Hands Across the Border”  expedition that  roamed around the SAARC nations of the subcontinent in a mass contact exercise for the youth of South Asia ( to show their solidarity for a shared future—turning a blind eye to the past) the  book showcases instead Akhil Bakshi`s extraordinary range of talents, from management guru to Bill Bryson providing en route  a short history of  almost every   South Asian problem. His is an extraordinary performance  considering the hassles involved in even planning this cross-border marathon that takes three months (in early 1999) and includes invitees from the SAARC countries along with  that veteran peacemonger Sunil Dutt. They  travel  anticlockwise in five  Mahindra jeeps (complete with red lights)  from Sri Lanka to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal  and hopefully to  Pakistan. They run parallel to the  Pak border, then  to Mumbai  and  return to Delhi awaiting a visa that never arrives thanks to the Kargil episode.      At first sight the title Between Heaven and Hell  hardly seems flattering  to the striving of  South Asian peoples. However  as an icon of the region the cover photo of a folksy Buddha with an alert monkey seated in his lap cleverly captures the essence of this outing and  suggests we  have an exuberant  and  insightful guide to a terrain much talked about but rarely visited in one go. Also the choice of  the  “Hands Across the Border” logo is brilliantly apt and points to an inspired helmsman of this idealistic excursion. Bakshi has got plenty of  attitude plus “yuva shakti”and writes with a Rabbelaisian wit that starts on the first page with an anecdote involving the jaws of a former regional dictator  and the backside of  Uncle Sam`s ambassador to his court. (Of the few things that bind  the region, opposition to  Ugly American policies  continues to be a unifying factor.)       Light-hearted in the best sense of being warm and caring  with regard to the feelings of his companions  of different persuasions, Bakshi‘s  outrageous jokes about the various religious establishments his caravan crosses would not have been tolerated from the pen of an outsider. He manages to be trenchant without sounding tiresome and irreverent without being offensive.His  habit of  providing potted versions of local history, politics and  culture  inevitably raises a few eyebrows ...


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