14 March 2019

Book Review: Notbremse nicht zu früh ziehen! by Andreas Altmann

This is a travel narrative that made me think a bit. I suppose if you are a journalist and you decide to spend months in India travelling by train, then you don't gravitate to the typical things that typical visitors gravitate to. Instead, your attention gets focused on other things, like the beggars, the holy men, the prostitutes, the poverty, and the other factors, both human and non-human, that make a country like India not so pretty.

In this book, Andreas Altmann chronicled his experiences travelling through the Indian subcontinent. And it's not an easy experience. After you read this book, you probably would not want to go to India, as it narrates firsthand how different this country is compared to the First World. There are people begging, people urinating on the streets, people defecating on the side of a stopped train, and people looking for sexual cures suggesting that the population is completely sex-deprived. This picture of India makes me think, not only about India, but also about the Western person's obsession to see how life can be different in the Western bubble.

Altmann lashes quite a bit of critique on colonialism: and sure I think he's right to point out why the British are always the ones getting mentioned as the one who built India's railroads, for example, when it's actually the thousands and thousands of Indian workers who toiled and sweated just to have the steel rails be set on the ground. What is unclear is how India moves forward from that: yes there are the freedom fighters who fought against the colonial masters and for independence, but now that India is independent, there's still a long way to go before the country can be advanced and prosperous, at least if you take Altmann's narrative to be true.

What disturbs me a bit is that there is this feeling of the narrative being one-sided. If you think that Altmann's India is the only India there is, then you would think that this country is quite similar to the poorest nations on earth in Sahelian Africa. I find it slightly disturbing that the picture Altmann paints doesn't really include the modernity that the country also has. Heck, India is a nuclear power country, something that you wouldn't expect if you're reading this narrative.

I cannot shake off the feeling that Altmann deliberately picked the worst parts of the country and of the society that inhabits it when gathering material for this book. He went to quack sex doctors, to prostitutes, to beggars, and deliberately mingled with them, something that typical visitors don't really do. I am trying to imagine parallels to Germany: what if an Indian writer goes to Berlin, and interviews the panhandlers in Bahnhof Zoo, or the women standing on the sidewalks of Bülowstraße offering a quick blowjob. If the entire book is made of these stories, isn't that a little one-sided? As much as I think India has lots more to do in order to raise its Human Development Index (it's currently ranked 130), I also think it's naive to think that the entire society is composed of these unfortunate individuals.

Then again, maybe Altmann didn't want to write a book that showed the entire spectrum of society. Of course he wasn't writing a guidebook, that was clear. But perhaps he's writing a book that wanted to focus only on the dirty sides of a society, who knows. I am giving this book 3 out of 5 stars. It's not the best travelogue I have read, but at least it makes me think.

See my other book reviews here.

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