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The Royal Society for Asian Affairs

Review of India: The Elephant's Blessing by John Harrison in The Royal Society for Asian Affairs Volume XXXVIII Number III dated November 2007

This book will be of particular interest to those contemplating the temple trail and visits to the historical and cultural sites of southern India. But it is much more than a travelogue since the author, Aline Dobbie, draws richly from her wide experience and love of India, stemming from happy childhood memories. It would be rewarding just to dip into it for perceptive insights into specific places, but it should preferably be read as a seamless whole. Only then can one gain the full flavour of the author’s commentary on the contradictions, realities and potential of a significant area of India emerging somewhat breathless into the 21st century from a past steeped in traditional customs and attitudes.

Aline Dobbie, accompanied by her husband Graham, covered similar ground in her travels to that traversed by the Society’s tour of southern India in January/February 2006 (on which I reported in the July 2006 issue of Asian Affairs). She visits all the major tourist sites but follows a slightly different itinerary taking in various additional places of interest, including Mysore, and has more focus on wildlife. Her enthusiasm can be infectious but she has the priceless benefit of perspective from her earlier visits to the region and a broader experience of India as a whole. This book is, in fact, the third part of a trilogy of travel books on India which have been appropriately recognised through her reception last year of the prestigious Pride of India Gold Award.

Although invited by the Indian government’s Ministry of Tourism and also the Tamil Nadu government following the Indian Ocean tsunami on Boxing Day 2004, Aline Dobbie is by no means in thrall to her hosts.   Generous praise is given where it is due, either to individuals or specific establishments and authorities, but she is not afraid to criticise.  Indeed she found that even in planning the trip she had become a victim of “the infamous Indian inertia and inefficiency”. Many visitors will also relate to her comments on the contrast between the official glossy brochures and some of the less comfortable realities in the form of poor hotels, inadequate infrastructure and unimaginative management of cultural sites and wildlife conservation areas.

The Malligi Hotel in Hospet comes in for particular censure – and indeed it was not our favourite resting place on the Society’s tour, especially after a bumpy 12 hour coach journey from Hyderabad. The fascinating World Heritage site at nearby Hampi, the imperial city of the Hindu Vijaynagar dynasty, deserves better. It was, after all, visited and praised by ambassadors and rich merchants from foreign lands in the 16th century. It could be a huge asset to India’s burgeoning tourist industry with improved access and appropriate tourist services.

The author is also justifiably saddened by what she sees and hears of the social and economic after-effects of the tsunami. But she had more encouraging experiences elsewhere, particularly around Mamallapuram and in Kerala. Indeed she finds much to appreciate and savour in southern India’s many cultural, religious and scenic splendours.  As a Scot, her advice on improving facilities and practices, where appropriate, is down-to-earth and certainly well-intentioned, springing from a sincere desire to see India prosper.

The book is very much a personal odyssey and, as such, has considerable charm, but her excursions into history, culture and local customs are always well-balanced and informative. It would have provided a valuable extra dimension had it been available before the Society’s tour.  It is also well illustrated with an excellent set of colour as well as black and white photographs. A DVD is included in the package.