Thursday, August 02, 2018

Manchán's Travel: a journey through India - full reviews

Reviews  & Profiles for  Manchan's Travels: A Journey Through India (Brandon 2007)

Review by Shelley Marsden, The Irish World, Sept 2007
From maverick Irish documentary maker and professional dreamer Manchan Magan, this rioutous travelogue follows on from the critically acclaimed Angels and Rabies: A Journey Through the Americas
A crazy, entertaining and ultimately thought-provoking adventure through the mad masala of modern India, we follow the eccentric Irishman as he attempts to make a documentary in Gaelic, while commenting on things like cremations taking place on the Ganges River.
The story begins in the serene Himalayan mountains, where we meet Manchan (Mocha), taking a break from his travels and contemplating life from a dark, smelly cave. His introspective journey is interrupted, however, when his handsome and popular brother Tiger tells him he’ll be presenting a new travel series for Irish TV.
The mismatched pair come across sex-obsessed yogis, eunuchs, mad maharajas and nutty Norwegians on their travels around the continent.  The best part of this book is not the unique stories told (though they are fascinating and present you with an India you’ll never get in your Lonely Planet), but the way the Westmeath man recounts his experiences. 
Mocha proves to be deeply funny without even trying, and he lays his soul so  bare you could die of embarrassment at times.  Mocha ‘on the road’ makes for one unforgettable adventure. 

Manchan's  Travels, review by Tom Rowe, Village Magazine, Oct 2007
Author, documentary maker, gaelgoir and intrepid traveller Machan Magan talks to Village about his new book, an account of a journey around India.
Manchan Magan credits his youthful appearance on the cover of his new book, A Journey Through India, to his Peter Pan existence. Now in his mid thirties, the Dublin born writer, television documentary maker and international traveller has studiously avoided the trappings of adulthood such as a mortgage or children in favour of “getting to know the world”. This endeavour has been aided by his willingness to live in a house built of straw-bales for a several years, and also his endless globetrotting.
Having escaped the concrete drabness of UCD, he lived in Africa (the subject of a book he is currently writing), then Europe, South America, and India, where he was living in a hut in the Himalayas when he received a call from his brother “The Tiger”. Through a mixture of bluff and bluster, the Tiger had wrangled a contract from the newly created Irish language television station TnaG to make a documentary on India, with Machan as presenter.
The making of this documentary is the theme of A Journey Through India. The blurb makes it sound like an acid-fuelled journey through the sub-continent, a kind of Fear and Loathing in New Delhi, promising murderous environmentalists, sex-obsessed yogis and mind-reading children. The introduction of the book does little to dispel this impression, with our narrator talking about the places his mind had reached through life as a hermit in the mountains – “the no-man’s land connecting grasshoppers to blades of grass to the wind that blows on both”. We are quickly introduced to one of the main protagonists of the book, a sexually confused local boy called Tara, who Manchan decides to save from his violent family by bringing him to Delhi, where things get even stranger. The other inhabitants of the Himalayas are either lost Westerners or hardy locals, all high as kites on the local cannabis or the opium in their tea.
In conversation with Village, Manchan wondered what would have happened him if his brother had not called him away from this place. While many of those around him had dropped out, he was expanding his consciousness and enjoying life, ensuring he was open to all experiences, such as drinking his own urine, for medicinal purposes. He was totally unemployable, but had no intention of changing. Not realizing he needed to be saved, along came his brother, and the Irish language.
The documentary was to be presented wholly through what Magan describes in the book as “an awkward, inexact, barely fathomable, semi-dead language”. While a true Gaelgoir, he feels Irish makes sense only when he speaks his dialect in its context, in the Dingle peninsula. In Dublin for example, he feels alienated speaking his Irish. When making the documentary he was worried about using Irish to describe India, as for him it is an earthy language that focuses on depression and oppression, not much use for speaking of the enlightenment and new-age experiences he had had there.
Magan has since gone on to make several documentaries for TG4, including one where he tried to travel around Ireland using only Irish, an entertaining but largely unsuccessful endeavour. In 1996, when making his first travelogue for the fledgling station, he foresaw the possible rejuvenation of the language through this new medium. While TG4 has been successful, he now feels that Irish must find “a new context” if it is to prosper, and sees hope in Irish children, who do not associate the language with hardship.
These feelings about Irish did not prevent him and the Tiger from documenting everything from the Indian metropolis to the scorpion infested deserts, interacting with Indians who feel that all humanity is one, leaving little room for personal space. The variety they encounter, from goat herding nomads to Gucci-clad teenagers, the sexually ambiguous hijra to the high-society dames, is investigated by our guide with an open attitude, as he tries to understand the whirl around him. This occasionally results in rambling paragraphs on topics like gender or globalisation, but they never last long, and we are always quickly brought back to the melee of the Indian streets.
The book is more focused on people than places. Magan tells us that he always tries to discover the “national consciousness” of a country he documents. In A Journey Through India he does this, to such an extent that the book could scarcely be used as a travel guide to the physical side of the country, but is a fascinating introduction to the minds of the people.

 A passage through India, with his brother - review by Padraig Kenny, Sunday Tribune
THE travel book has become something of a debased genre in recent years. Where once it used to be about the collision of cultures, now it has become a vehicle for egoism and smugness; very often reducing the society encountered to the status of a mere sideshow. This usually takes the form of a collection of anecdotal quirks served up to paint the self-regarding narrator in a pseudo self-deprecating light. With the insufferably smug and superior writer able to unpack their suitcase, put their feet up, and smirk about the idiosyncrasies of the natives.
Thankfully Manchan Magan's new book is different. When we first meet Manchan he is drinking his own urine in a decaying stone hut, halfway up a mountain near the Indian village of Almora, while experiencing what he calls the "inner realms". His main contact with the outside world is provided by helping out at the local leper station. It's an inauspicious beginning to a travelogue that soon develops a subtle and steely narrative grip from early on. He confesses that "the whole reality set up had never been enough for me . . . I had always wanted more", and at this point it looks like he is about to drift dangerously away from reality until the unlikely intervention of his brother, Ruan, who phones him with the news that he is about to arrive in India with nothing more than a camera, and the blind faith of a newly-established T na G who want him to film a travel documentary.
It's this phone call that becomes the catalyst for Manchan's journey. A journey upon which he manages to gently re-discover himself without any of the traditional navel-gazing and attention seeking which can tend to mar the genre.
Manchan becomes "the last Dodo", the unlikely and reluctant saviour for what he calls "an awkward, inexact, barely fathomable, semi-dead language" as he and Ruan try to encapsulate India through the medium of Irish. His boyish openness leads him to allow a street vendor apparently poke around the inside of his brain with a wire, bargain with the hijras, India's all powerful hermaphrodite and gender nonspecific underclass, and attempt a dangerous descent of a mountain in a rickety van, with only the dubious pleasures of a cassette of Phil Collins' greatest hits for comfort. Each encounter is marked by open-mindedness and honesty. The humour is subtle and pleasantly unforced, and the effect of all of this is like having a close up experience of his TV documentaries with added bite.
The brothers Magan set to work, each in their own unique way. Ruan is energised by charm and a passionate attitude that gets things done. Manchan's approach is more oblique and reflective, and there are inevitable tensions. During one typically heated moment, Manchan, lost in a characteristically introspective moment, riffs along with a lovely reminiscence that perfectly encapsulates the big brother, little brother relationship, as he describes simply, and beautifully, moments from their childhood when Ruan showed filial concern for him.
What's most refreshing about this book is the lack of egoism. Manchan steers clear from heavy-handed preaching, and the lure of sweeping statements on Indian culture. Instead he poses questions and theorises without falling back on pat answers.
There is a tremendous sense of being immersed in a culture without being swamped; a sensual panoply which ebbs and flows through a narrative that is vivid without being showy. The effect is of being brought along for the ride, and having your eyes opened without feeling alienated.
It's Michael Palin as gaeilge; gently determined, inquiring, and refreshingly free of narcissism.

The surreal deal - review by Hannah Davies, New Statesman
We first meet Manchán Magan in the Himalayas, where he passes the time by drinking his own urine, hallucinating visions of angelic choirs and inadvertently instilling gay pride in a young leper. Then he is asked to present a Gaelic-language travel film, and so begins a surreal journey.
The book’s scope embraces the sublime and the ridiculous, taking in the crumbling palaces of the maharajahs, Hindu funeral rites and an aggressive troupe of hermaphrodite dancers. What saves this account from absurdity is the writer’s respectful handling of his material. While the narrative is often humorous, at times hilarious, Magan never opts for a cheap joke at the expense of the situation he is describing. Moreover, there is no breathless backpacker prose: he has an evocative and elegant turn of phrase, whether describing the “police-issue moustaches” of border guards or the courting rituals in a western-style cocktail bar in Delhi.
Most intriguing are the sporadic discourses on Irish history and the Gaelic language. While these may seem jarring in a book about India, the two cultures are in fact skilfully interwoven. The ability to bring together disparate elements with such lucid conviction is key to Magan’s skill as a travel writer.

Mad for the Road - Clare People,  Nov 2007
From Urine-drinking to battling rabies, travel writer Mancháan Magan has lots of incredible stories to tell, writes Christine Breen.

‘I just want to express myself,’ saying Manchán Magan sitting across from me in Kiltumper on a perfectly blue autumn morning. We’re discussing writing in general and in particular his new book on India in the series of Manchán’s Travels published by Brandon in September. It is the morning after the night before when 15 members of the Clare People Book Club interviewed Manchán for a couple of hours. As one member said, ‘I could listen to him all night!’  I think he looks a little weary but he assures me he slept well. ‘Must be the wide walls of this old cottage. It feels like a cave.’ I tell him that’s exactly what we refer to it as, and many a visitor has slept well and long there. He is only the second writer the book group has had the good fortune of interviewing. I admit to him in the morning that I had been anxious, that often out group can be very vocal in their opinion and that rarely have we all agreed on a book. ‘Well I think they let me off easy then,’ he says with a self-deprecating smile that is part waife and part sage. He admitted that being interviewed by the group was intense but also stimulating. ‘It was invigorating,’ he says. ‘You usually know after half an hour what the interviewer is about. What angle they are coming in at. So this was fresh and latent with different energies, each from a different part. Like mind candy. They didn’t just ask me about my whacky past.’
It’s his whacky past or his whacky way of looking at the world that does grab everyone’s attention, especially interviewers. But we were a full hour into the interview the night before when somebody finally asked him, ‘How do you feel about urine-drinking now?’ It’s inevitable that this subject will come up as Manchán has made no secret of having used this ancient form of self-healing and he answers unabashedly.
‘I’m glad I’m open enough to it,’ he says. ‘it’s called ‘shivambu kalpa’ in India and has been a principle of ayurvedic medicine for 2,000 years.’ That’s the thing that is most striking about Manchán. It’s his way of looking at the world and his knowledge of it. I am reminded of Mark Twain’s An Innocent Abroad. He’s game for anything. He wants to experience as much of the world as possible and he is unafraid of it. If you’re happy to live inside your own head for weeks, even months at a time, and if you believe as he and the Hindus do that reality is an illusion, then there is no reason to be afraid.
The other striking thing about Manchán is his curious mix of ego and non-ego. As he says himself, he’s a bit of a go-between. He lives in the world but at times one does wonder is he of the world – I mean the world we ordinary folks live in. He’s built himself two houses – the original one, made of straw bale and plaster, needing to be replaced as it was cracking, as they do – and he now lives in the second one, with a grass roof and plenty of light surrounded by the 36,000 trees he has planted on his 10-acre stronghold in the midlands. You could spend an hour just talking about building construction and the environment. He nearly suffered a life-threatening disease, schistosomiasis, which he got from the blood flukes (nasty worms) and another time needed to find a quick remedy for rabies having been bitten for a rabid dog. You could spend another hour just on healthy traveling, healing and urine therapy. He’s written several books, done 30 television documentaries, and he’s not yet 40. Although he is happy enough to talk about himself and admits to being somewhat self-obsessed, he says  he isn’t all that comfortable in social situations. Or, more accurately, he will retreat into his grassed roof abode in Westmeath and re-gather his energy. One thinks of a cheetah, admired for its exuberant agility but respectful of its need for rest after burning too much energy. The image of the cheetah has been likened to that of gifted children, and I imagine that was what Manchán was, or rather, still is.
No doubt about it, he has boundless energy. ‘Will there be another book?’ (I should have presumed the answer.) ‘Just finished the one on Africa, in fact,’ he says.’It’s the next book in the series, the third.’ It’s been 10 years since he was in India but even longer since he was in Africa. He explains that he kept diaries and they were the source of his material, as well as his memory. He believes he needed that much time and distance in order to write what he felt. ‘It’s a condensation of everything that happened to me. I wanted to write impressionistically. There are so many concepts that overwhelmed me at the time. SO many ideas in my head. It’s like finding a myth or a fable to express it, which is what I’ve done with the character of Tara in this last book.
And, I wanted to write, in a way, for the mainstream. Something that was easy to read. I wanted something on every page to engage with. I didn’t want to just write about what I saw in India, I wanted to get my feelings about it across.’
With so  many ideas in his head, his projects are many, with his radio show ‘The big Adventure’ continuing on Monday nights, and presently filming the next series of ‘No Bearla’ which airs in January. He is currently writing a love story in Irish, but on the horizon he would very much like to take a group of teenagers to Africa and witness the experience of it through their eyes, believing that we adults are a bit too deadened to be trustworthy interpreters. He wants to work with young people because of their fresh, unadulterated take on things and is currently doing writing workshops with a group in the midlands.
There is no end in sight for this lad who is mad for the road as we say in these parts, but he’s staying put . . . for the moment.’

IN A WORLD GONE MAD,  Sunday Tribune, 2 Sept 2007
Pioneering nomad or plain mad?  Whatever people think of the globetrotting gaeilgeoir Manchán Magan, Padraig Kenny find it hard not to be impressed by his fearlessness and self-possession.
If you were to listen to other people's opinions, Manchan Magan is either an irritating intellectual twerp who is all "lentils and tweed" or the strident gaeilgeoir fascist of No Bearla with no regard for people's sensitivities. In private, however, Manchan Magan is a lot more personable and grounded than some people give him credit for.
Talking to him reminds you of the lost persona of his new travel book on his time in India. It's a story which details his "rescue" by his brother Ruan, who arrives with a camera to convince him that making a travel documentary for a fledgling Irish-language station would be a good idea. The documentary became the first of many critically acclaimed pieces for what was then Teililfis na Gaeilge, and an unlikely TV star was born.
As Magan sees it, Telifis na Gaeilge and the Irish language saved him. When we first encounter  him in the book he is skirting the realms of insanity in a hut halfway up a mountain. Looking back now he realizes how important Ruán’s intervention was. ‘If that hadn’t come at that point I don’t know what would have happened. I was completely unemployable. All I had is what I call a useless degree in cretinhood. I was determined not to use it and not to get any other job.’
India was probably the final chapter in a personal trilogy which had taken him straight from the Leaving Cert to Africa, the Americas and finally to working in a leper station by day and dangerously descending into the self in his hut – where he transcribed ‘angelic messages’ and had the frightening ‘early stirrings of a messianic complex’ – by night.
But what becomes obvious is that he was different from the great mass of backpackers in the early to mid-90’s, a lot of whom were motivated more by personal vanity and a sense of being hip, rather than the urge to explore and understand other cultures.
‘It wasn’t a sense of wanderlust that sent me traveling, I was basically fleeing. The reason I went traveling initially was because I was just so disillusioned with life growing up in Donnybrook. And all these expectations of a mortgage and a nice job in some sort of consultancy just had no interest for me. I just couldn’t identify with any aspect of it.’
Others paid lip-service to this urge to escape the middle-class confines of society only to return to the job, the mortgage, the suit and tie – but Magan realised his own mortgage-free idyll by first building a straw bale house in Westmeath in 1997. This has since been replaced by another self-built house on a piece of land which he calls ‘my own little world.’
He describes his first year in college as ‘disillusioning’. Fully expecting the world to open up he found it restrictive and stifling. Fortunately it provided just the spur he needed to go traveling. “‘Severely disillusioned with life and depressed, I went to Africa. I saw things no kid ever should, getting so near death, facing appalling things, and I came out just thinking: ‘this is actually the most ecstatic moment of my life,’ so it informed everything, I thought, ‘if I’m not Afraid of death, then let’s just live life.’”
What he calls this ‘child man, Peter Pan sort of thing,’ of being open to experience led him down some very strange paths. On arriving in India he was given a book on urine-therapy, an essential component of ayuvedic medicine. Needless to say he took to it with gusto. He confesses in a low voice at one point that he is ‘afraid to admit to it it’ but this doesn’t stop him discussing its positive advantages with the kind of unaffected enthusiasm that has made his travelogues such compelling viewing.
He also describes a typically spontaneous moment in the book where he allowed a man put a wire into his ear, in a mesmeric feat that convinced him it was traveling into his brain. ‘Itls like when you’re faced with ice cubes in a foreign country, normal tourists will not drink the ice cubes. If you see someone wanting to put a wire into your brain in India you just say no. But I don’t.’ It makes for an interesting experience but probably a more dangerous one.’
His bookish appearance hides a tremendous fearlessness which has brought him to the edge on many occasions. All of this stems from a desire to oppose the ‘conditioning’ of society and a resistance to being labeled. He doesn’t care what people think of him, going so far as to present himself even further outside the mainstream when I bring up the subject of how close he came to insanity in India. He makes no excuses for his freeform moments of metaphysical introspection and postulating the kinds of theories about existence that might make others nervous.
‘I am mad. According to every convention set in the western world we’ve got to accept that I am mad. But if I choose to see that the Western world is mad, the conditioning and conventions of our society, that’s my choice. But it does mean that it put me at odds with the rest of the world so it makes me by definition mad.’
He believes offering himself up in such a way prevents him from going down the route of being a guru-like figure. For him it’s a mechanism, a means of making sure he resists both glib expressions of absolutism and becoming a tiresome, preaching, proselytizing type. ‘It’s so much better to present is as the ravings of a fool.’
He believes the line between really using your imagination and insanity is very thin. ‘There’s a different type of insanity, very often insanity in the west is considered as fear and deep depression. But one of the reasons I went to India was because I wanted to face the whole depression thing, and the whole fear we have of being alone and of trusting our minds. It was something I always wanted to do. I didn’t know what would happen, would I just go deep into a spiraling of negativity and depression or would I just come out the other side.’
He came out the other side and now seems to have a great degree of self-possession and a freedom from many of the tics and neuroses which can afflict other creative people. If anything the contradictions of being both a reclusive global traveler and an intellectual ready to push the boundaries of sanity have contributed to his fearlessness and his ability to immerse himself freely in any culture. So much so that it’s hard to imagine anyone else who would have had the nerve to continuously speak Irish in a Loyalist bar as he did in an episode of last year’s No Béarla.
On the surface he is calm and rational, and yet there is an urge to explore both physically and spiritually, which might express itself as unease in others. But there it is again, that sense of self-possession and self-knowledge, as he talks about this need ‘to see beyond the conditioning and have new horizons;, with a real sincerity that allows him to side-step the old backpacking ‘searching for myself’ clichés that can so easily become a default position.
As far as his preference for isolation, it seems to stem from an early age. He describes being a happy baby and remarks on his ‘good fortune’ to have been born with this tendency towards being positive. For a man who once described himself as an ‘isolated loser’ forever on the edge of things, he is remarkably well-balanced.
Neither was he a typically miserable teenager. ‘I went through my teenage years as an isolated outsider, but actually more or less confident and happy in that.’ Now, he feels well-qualified to comment on the ‘sad miserable existence’ of all those bachelors living on the sides of mountains in our past. He describes them as people who were hiding. Magan, on the other hand, at least has some contact with the outside world through the internet which he claims is ‘almost creating tiny utopias the whole time.’
‘In the past you had to be a citizen of Ireland, and so you had to share all the ideas that Irish people had, the interests like going to the pub and being interested in the latest hurling game, and now weirdos, isolated people on the margins of society, can form their own societies online. Even if it’s just people obsessed with Paul Auster novels and rare types of apple trees. They gel, and meet up if necessary, but nobody feels isolated anymore. And yet you don’t even need to, by definition, throw yourself into the dominant community outside your door.’
He sees this as being more selective and it appears he is now practicing what he preaches, as he describes himself ‘just taking different elements of what I want from the world and ignoring the rest, and basically living this almost hermit life in Westmeath where I have a huge lock on my gate and plant thousands of trees around me.’
But choosing to lock himself away from the outside world doesn’t mean he has to stop engaging it with it altogether. In fact he has a huge interest in Ireland and the latent promise of the Celtic Tiger years. ‘I’m really excited about our potential and how we might define ourselves in the future, rather than defining ourselves as a culture under hardship and repression.’
 He is pragmatic in regard to our consumer culture, particularly after seeing the effects of Western consumerism in India. ‘Every country that went through hardship and suffering is going to have to go through a period of conspicuous spending. And it looks garish, the nouveau riche thing, but we need to be able to buy as much Coca Cola and as much bling as we want to for a while. Again it’s probably rosy-eyed and optimistic but I hope that it’s a natural pure stage and that something evolves beyond that.’
He hasn’t been traveling for two years and now writes every day. The next book will be about his travels in Africa. He has no television, just his books, his music and the internet. He’s hoping to do a follow up to No Béarla, and redress the ‘car crash television’ nature of the first series with something much more constructive. The idea of having such a unique special language as Irish, and the idea of throwing it way with ‘absolute foolishness’ is something which breaks his heart. ‘If as a nation we want to throw it away then we should come and say it openly and just stop the hypocrisy.’
Although he doesn’t say it outright he seems happy and content in his little world of his own. All the travel has been about celebrating cultures and changing his perspective. He was particularly taken with Indian spirituality and its emphasis on oneness and unity, and the idea of it’s liberating quality, which he says ‘allows you to free yourself from this small box, the limited view, the frame of the body that you’re given, back to this oneness and realizing that it’s all an illusion.’
But for all his received wisdom he still can’t bring himself to preach. ‘the one thing I’ve realised is that I’ve no idea what anyone should do.’ He laughs, ‘I barely have an idea of what I should do from day to day.’