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Down the Brahmaputra

Smitten by wanderlust and lured by India, Mark Shand has travelled across much of the country. SUCHITRA BEHAL speaks to him about his latest book River Dog.

OF course, he has a slightly goofy explanation for the name of his latest book River Dog. Roll it around your tongue, much as you would savour a new wine. It has a nice feel. But then that's Mark Shand for you. Quintessentially, a man with a touch of the absurd. He chose the title of his book because... "it rolls off the tongue nicely." Of course there is a dog in the book which travelled with Shand down the Brahmaputra.

"A river that has fascinated me for years. I love legends and the Brahmaputra has more than its share of them. I suppose that's one of the reasons for my attraction to this river. Also I was inspired by Charles Allen," said Shand, explaining how he decided to journey from the source of the great river. But eclipsing his adventures are those of the river dog — Bhaiti — which he picks up from his friend's house. The dog and he — almost like two lost souls — recognise instantly that their fate is together. It's almost karmic, except that Bhaiti, instead of ending up as the great guiding star on the trip, turns out as a wonderfully "humane" companion whose misadventures make him even more lovable.

"I've always travelled with animals. One gets bored of human beings, particularly myself. After I travelled with Tara (his elephant for Travels on My Elephant). I realised that I loved travelling with people. But animals, they don't mind making fools of themselves... and I like animals, especially dogs. They are like a comfort zone."

Shand doesn't consider himself a great explorer and though he says he always wanted to travel, he got down to it by accident. "I've tried my hand at many things, I had different businesses but I could never see myself in a suit. Also I always wanted to travel. So I really started to write to be able to travel. I first came to India in 1969. I was on my way to Australia — you know when people didn't get themselves a university education they were sent to Australia... but at 16, I fell in love with India and then just kept coming back."

Shand, who is a member of the Royal Geographic Society, has written and made a number of wildlife documentaries. But the book that earned him the most plaudits was Travels on My Elephant where Shand with Tara, the elephant, travelled through most of India. Shand was awarded the British Book Awards Travel Writer for 1992. He hasn't forgotten Tara and during every visit to the country, he makes sure he goes and sees her at the Kipling Camp in Madhya Pradesh. He is also setting up the Asian Elephant Foundation, which according to him "is a low key affair with a select number of people. The idea is to work at the grassroots level. I want to set up a state-of-the-art vet centre and have lots of interaction."

His love for elephants is evident as he reminisces about his journey with Tara. "I think elephants taught me that you just have to deal with things as they come even if there is an element of danger in them." For Shand, who has travelled extensively and in some of the most difficult terrain, it is Nature that is more dangerous than humans. "Nature is so much more powerful. And I keep travelling, thinking at some point I will see something that takes away your breath. In a way it is not surprising that people just bow down in front of such images."

While River Dog is a mind-boggling account of one man's travails with an awe-inspiring river and a crazy dog, it is definitely not your regular travel book. Admitting that his books often become "more personal" than travelogues, Shand said, "When you write a book, I believe, you have to open yourself up — be able to make a fool of oneself. In River Dog, the journey is prominent, but it is not a linear account. There are many different facets and the river is the central thread. It's a bit like a washing line."

Shand was inspired to undertake this expedition after reading about the Brahmaputra. The river remained an enigma to him just as it did for earlier travellers who for long maintained that it was actually two rivers till they finally discovered the one huge big, desolate source that led to the Brahmaputra.

Perhaps, Shand's own words, where he describes the reasons for his journey are the most apt answer: "In 1982 the writer, historian and explorer Charles Allen compiled their stories in his book A Mountain in Tibet: The Search for Mount Kailash and the Sources of the Great Rivers of India. Here, in the high adventure, colour and excitement of his pages, I found the inspiration and makings of a journey — a journey that was to haunt, fascinate and frustrate me for over 20 years and does so still... ." Was it then his natural destination eventually or a karmic twist of fate?

The answer could well be a little bit of both. As he explains, Shand's eyes turn shadowy almost as if mesmerised. "India is like a great wheel I always say... a wheel with many hooks and you may catch any one of them. For me, too many strange things have happened, a progression of events — just something as simple as who I get involved with, the way I meet people, sometimes they have met me even before I meet them... ."

Whatever the reasons, whatever the twist of fate, Shand remains a believer. And so here's a toast to the traveller who is not afraid to make a fool of himself even if the world is watching. River Dog is Mark Shand's story of himself and his greatest passion.

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