shanti bloody shanti is one of those rip-roaring rollicking good time Boys’ Own Adventure kind of tales, told with a distinctly Aussie voice and a delightfully devious sense of humour.
Aaron Smith’s Indian odyssey is filled with imagery so vivid that, by the end of the third chapter, I began to feel like a seasoned visitor to Mother India, despite the fact that I’ve never set foot on her shores.
Of the Victoria Monument, Smith writes:
This was a marble palace from the height of the British Raj, fronted by a grumpy, pigeonshit-encrusted bronze Queen Victoria and surrounded by acres of English gardens wilting under the Indian sun. (12)
Mumbai from the back seat of a taxi:
…we passed through blocks of slums, destitute shantytowns built from pieces of plastic, scraps of metal and whatever refuse could be salvaged from the streets. Overhead, masses of tangled powerlines were illegally tapped from the city grid. (25)
To say there is an interesting array of characters on this journey is an understatement: from bargain-hunter Frankie who once scored ‘a classic vintage 70s hang glider’ (24) to the Japanese hippy chick who introduces herself as ‘Suz the Nip’ and just about every eccentric character of every hue imaginable in between.
However, a couple of warnings:-
Smith might have given us just a bit too much information when it comes to vomit and shit and nostril gunk. I’m not sure I needed to know that a case of food poisoning resulted in ‘what feels like liquefied internal organs’ falling out of his ass (17) or that staring into a bucket of his vomit he spies sweetcorn , despite not having eaten corn for months. I know, I know…this would definitely be a big part of any back-packing, hostel-haunting, Indian safari but I occasionally cringed. Boys being boys though, the guys will get a real hoot out of this kind of stuff.
The second warning relates to the substantial amount of drug use. I am assuming this must be de rigueur for the twenty to thirty-somethings that would be inclined to embark on such an odyssey and I suppose it is a reflection of some affluent young Westerners (but I don’t believe it necessarily represents the majority, even in that age category). Most people, at one time or another, have probably turned up to a party only to discover acquaintances shrouded in a Hiroshima-like haze or nasal deep in white powder but the acid tripping seemed more reminiscent of the seventies flower-power era than early twenty-first century. Smith even hints at the strangeness of it himself I think, when he and his friends are tripping while listening to The Doors as someone rolls a joint – ‘it’s all so trite.’ (180).
I recognize that, as a fifty-something female, I am not the targeted demographic for such a book and yet I enjoyed it. Despite not being a cricket fan, I had a good chuckle over the constant Ricky Ponting references and I enjoyed the Aussie colloquialisms (true blue, the sketchy bail and built like a brick shithouse), most of which were explained (with an eye on an international audience, I assume).
I can’t help but wonder how many young men, after reading of Smith’s odyssey, will be testing ‘handfuls of zinc tablets’ (28) as sex-marathon-assisters. Will readers trawl through the internet to clarify the official scientific line on déjà vu?
shanti bloody shanti is not all beer and skittles. The unfortunate incident of Dahlia and the ‘stairway to heaven’ signals impending doom and what follows is a series of strange events and eerie coincidences that seem to straddle the fence of reality.
I learnt much about Hindu spirituality, the mighty Ganges, Nepalese politics and even the animal spirits of the Yorta Yorta people back home. But Smith manages to impart with educational gems with the lightest of touches, eschewing any hint of the didactic. There is certainly nothing high-brow about shanti bloody shanti but Aaron Smith knows his audience and I suspect those readers will lap up this entertaining memoir.
Smith, Aaron. shanti bloody shanti, Transit Lounge, Yarraville, Aust., 2011.